Sir Derek Walcott, Nobel Prize-winning poet, playwright and essayist, died last week, aged 87. Walcott died in the West Indies, the cornerstone of his work, for he was the poet of the post-colonial, exploring location — and dislocation — thence.
Born posthumously in 1930, growing up with his mixed-race seamstress mother, Methodists in a Catholic colony, Walcott lived on the edges of deprivation, but deep within the beauty of poetry. Having trained as a painter, Walcott’s verse about the West Indies drew its luminous sunshine, its coal-dark thunderstorms, porcelain Madonnas down whose cheeks rolled tears of salty sea. For Walcott, location was joy; he thus impacted post-colonial writing, which overcame the hesitation of using the former ruler’s language, to write about one’s own, formerly enslaved, place.
Walcott credited his colonial education as having created “Afro-Greeks”, as charmed by the smell of fried sea fish as by the snowdrops they read about — the snowdrops were even more powerful, he once wrote, as they lived in the land of the imagination. Walcott’s Omeros, his imagining of Homer’s Iliad, was between West Indian fishermen, a housemaid and the sea. His blending of classicism with nativism won him the Nobel in 1992.
He also had a prominent detractor, V.S. Naipaul, another West Indian legend, who found Walcott’s later work too derivative. In response, Walcott launched a terse verse attack; with a twirl of his famous puns, he castigated “VS Nightfall”, writing The Mongoose — an animal the British brought from India to the West Indies — calling Naipaul’s later work “dead”.
The two tussled over location — after colonisation, which tore freedom off maps, could there be a “home”, a “foreign”, again? For Naipaul, the answer was brilliant, bitter prose, revelling in what Walcott called “the insomniac night” of the past. But for Walcott, it was the sweetness of realising, “the fate of poetry is to fall in love with the world, in spite of history.”