Seamus Perry: Welcome to Close Readings, the latest in a series of conversations about modern poets who wrote in English, drawing on the rich collection of reviews, essays, and other pieces to be found in the immense back archive of the London Review of Books. My name is Seamus Perry and I teach at the University of Oxford, and I'm talking to Mark Ford, poet, critic and professor of English literature at University College, London. Our subject today is the eminent Caribbean poet, Derek Walcott. And Mark, being a Caribbean poet isn't just a description of Walcott, it's also his major theme, isn't it?
Mark Ford: Yes. He belongs to that generation of writers, including such as V.S.Naipaul or Edward Kamau Brathwaite, who are writers looking to find ways of writing that deal with a history that is incredibly complicated, in many ways painful, difficult, and they're doing so in the language of the English, and the English often are also the sources of the historical griefs which their works are exploring. So a poet such as Walcott is in a complex, extremely interesting position. And it's one which it takes him quite a long time to work out what kind of poet, or indeed painter, he was going to be – he started off wanting to be a painter – what kind of artist he was going to be. And that's one of the fascinations of his really enormous oeuvre, it's thousands of pages of poetry. And from a young age, he was writing a poem or two poems a day, from the ages of ten or 11. So he was convinced from a very young age that he was going to be an artist of some kind, and poetry was the eventual choice.
But certainly his particular historical situation is encoded in almost every poem he writes.
SP: So we should say something about his background, shouldn't we. He was born in 1930 in the Caribbean island of St Lucia, and the circumstances of his family are quite unusual in that St Lucia is broadly speaking French speaking and Catholic, but he grows up in a tiny English speaking Methodist community.
MF: Yes. And compounded by the fact that his father, who was called Warwick, named after Shakespeare's county, as he liked to jest on a number of occasions, died when he was only one. So he was brought up by his mother who was a teacher, but supplemented her income as a seamstress. And they were anomalous in that sense of being a minority on the island. But I think it's worth pointing out that, in the class structures, they were firmly middle-class, that he went to extremely good schools, and was well taught. And it was at these schools that he read English poetry and fell in love with it. So his enthusiasm for poets such as Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats, great modernist writers, as well as the canonical writers such as Shakespeare and Wordsworth, is extremely present in almost everything he wrote in the first ten years of his poetic career, throughout his twenties. His poetry is in many ways both a hommage to those poets and is making use of their rhetorical techniques, and he’s looking to find ways of using them in a way that is appropriate to his very different cultural situation to that of such as Eliot or Auden. So to an extent he's an interesting example of the reach of international modernism in the 1940s and the ways in which a poet, who is on the periphery of modernism which is happening in Europe and America, is absorbing those idioms and trying to adapt them and make use of them in ways that are meaningful to him and to his readership.
SP: And he often talks in interviews and in essays about Caribbean poetry or the Caribbean imagination almost being something that he has to invent from scratch, that there's nothing there, as it were, of an innate literary tradition to inherit. You have to invent or create or concoct a literary tradition of your own from the resources that are at hand. This is what he calls in one of his essays, the ‘prodigious ambition’ that characterises his own writing.
MF: Yes, so there are advantages to his situation, which – to flip the coin slightly – he identifies with poets such as Walt Whitman, Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejo and the new world writers. It's important to say that while Walcott is very sensitive to the ways in which European poetry can be seen as complicit with imperialism he's also interested in writers that he groups under the term ‘Adamic’, new world writers whose work is a rejection of the legacy of imperialism. I think Walt Whitman is probably the founding father, if I can use that term, in relation to this tradition, and in ‘Song of Myself’ he is creating an idiom that's defiantly different from that of mid-19th-century English poetry, and Walcott is following in that tradition, is identifying with that tradition. And the great advantage of feeling yourself an Adamic or new world poet is that you feel that you are naming things for the first time. That's why they use the term ‘Adamic’ for it. That kind of prodigious ambition derives from a sense that all is to play for, and what is there to lose? And Walcott is perhaps slightly different from such as Whitman or Neruda in being unashamed about making use of the various poets whose work he read and loved. Hopkins is another one. There’s something of the riot of Hopkins’s energies and descriptive exuberance in Walcott's oeuvre in general. And the fact that he is redeploying this material, or these idioms, and trying to express his own reality, the reality of growing up in St Lucia, makes for a really fascinating project, which he embarks on.
SP: So his ‘prodigious ambition’ expresses itself in a couple of privately printed volumes of poetry. He has a distinguished career as a student at university. He settles in Trinidad for a time and founds a theatre workshop. We're not going to say anything much about his plays today, but it's important to keep in mind that he was a playwright all his life as well. And certain aspects of that dramatic or self-dramatising quality sometimes get into his verse, perhaps. But then I suppose the first publication that we need to notice is in 1962, when he publishes a collection of his earlier works under the title In a Green Knight, which is published by Cape in the UK and Farrar Straus and Giroux in the States. So this is actually a real moment of arrival on the publishing scene, isn't it.
MF: Yes. He's 32 by this stage. And his mum very gamely put up the money for his first volumes, so they were underwritten by her. And he did in fact break even on them – he sold them all to his friends – but it's not until the publication of In a Green Knight in ‘62 that he gets going. And the first poem from that, ‘A Far Cry from Africa’, the first one that we're going to consider, is interesting in the way in which it raises the dilemmas that I've been talking about for the post-colonial poet, as who should he identify with? And in this case, the poem, he's talking about the Mau Mau insurrection in Kenya in the late 1950s. And he's on the one hand excited by that, on the other quite appalled by the violence in it. And he is pondering his own responses to what was one of the many independence movements spreading around the world. So yes, in terms of situating Walcott's early poetry, it's taking place in the context of the twilight of the British Empire. And he's always keen to explore the ways in which empire projects itself and then how the legacy of empire is experienced by post-independence societies. In this one he thinks about where he should place himself. And he comes up with a classic Walcottian way of exploring it, by a kind of ambivalence. He writes in this poem of how he has
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
So it's got that very eloquent balance, and that punning on what ‘giving back’ means. Is ‘giving back’ somehow violent, or is ‘giving back’ taking the English tongue and converting it to post-colonial purposes and then giving it back, the empire writing back, so to speak, to use Salman Rushdie's phrase. So I think that Walcott realised in the poems collected in this volume that that was his subject. But what is so interesting is that for him it didn't involve wholesale rejection of the poetries that he'd loved, but a re-angling of them so that he could express what he wanted to express, a kind of unashamed use in poems, particularly one also included in the Green Knight called ‘Ruins of a Great House’, a very Yeatsian topic. And it's a rather Yeatsian poem, isn't it.
SP: It is a Yeatsian poem, especially perhaps in that sense of rhetorical swagger that you get in many of Yeats’s greatest poems, invocation of great names, although invoked in Walcott's poem in a much more shady and shadowy way than often in Yeats.
I thought next
Of men like Hawkins, Walter Raleigh, Drake,
Ancestral murderers and poets, more perplexed
In memory now by every ulcerous crime.
That conjunction of murderers and poets is very telling, and again very characteristic, isn't it.
MF: Yes. Yeats can be seen as the first post-colonial poet, or as a post-colonial poet, in lots of quite interesting ways, and his example was very important to Walcott. But he never attacked Edmund Spenser, for instance, who advocated the destruction of the Irish by starvation, our listeners may know, as ‘ancestral murderers and poets’. And yet he goes on:
In memory now by every ulcerous crime
The world's green age then was rotting lime.
So the idea of the new world – even back then, there's no mythical golden age as we used to be taught at school, and the Elizabethan explorers, as they were known, gallantly discovering new worlds, these are pirates. And he's also very conscious, always, of the middle passage, of how the Atlantic is not only the site of exploration, but is of the slave trade.
Whose stench became the charnel galleon's text.
The rot remains with us, the men are gone.
But, as dead ash is lifted in a wind
That fans the blackening ember of the mind,
My eyes burned from the ashen prose of Donne.
He's talking about John Donne there.
So I suppose what we want to get over is how very literary Walcott is. That he was working within the literary tradition, however much he's re-angling it or turning it upside down to denounce people such as Walter Raleigh, who is still taught on English courses and is present in the national imagination, and exposing them as murderers, as well as poets.
SP: And that immersion in an English literary tradition, an Elizabethan tradition, creates a very surprising turn in this poem, doesn't it. The great house that's ruined is presumably the house of empire that is falling to pieces, and Albion is condemned for much of the poem. But then there's this very interesting move towards the end of the poem where Walcott recognises that Albion once was also colonised, that this historical process of colonisation and subjection is a perennial, recurrent historical phenomenon. And the poem ends in a very striking way, not on a note of outrage, although the poem certainly does contain justified outrage, but on a note of compassion. He says
All in compassion ends
So differently from what the heart arranged
and then quotes from Donne's famous sermon, 'No man is an island entire of itself.' So it's a very striking moment in Walcott's imagination, I think, to begin by recognising terrible distance and gulfs between peoples and between persons, but then in the end to recognise something more like a common predicament.
MF: Yes, it's an interesting manoeuvre, perhaps borrowed from the opening of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness in which Marlow says ‘this, too, is one of the dark places on the earth’, and recalls the Roman legions arriving there. And Walcott says ‘that Albion too was once a colony like ours.’ So in a way you could see it as a way of excusing England, that it was ‘primitive’ and ‘barbaric’ before the Romans got there. And something of that analogy is one that modernism plays out on the back of Conrad's opening of Heart of Darkness,
That Albion too was once
A colony like ours, ‘part of the continent, piece of the main’,
quoting from John Donne. ‘Nook shotten’. He can't leave it alone. ‘Nook shotten’ from Henry V, so that the Shakespearian language is present even at this moment. And he's creating a comparison between England before the Romans and Caribbean colonies as they were then, and looking for a way of negotiating some kind of relationship which is meaningful, and that works. I think that what strikes me as one of the most interesting aspects of Walcott's verse career is his pragmatism. He's always looking for something that will work. And that's why Robinson Crusoe becomes one of his heroes, or Robinson Crusoe and Friday along with Prospero and Caliban become the dominant inherited templates for post-colonial writers looking to renegotiate their relationship to the imperial centre. He writes a number of poems, ‘Crusoe's Journal’, ‘Crusoe's Island’, and there's a whole mass of poems about Robinson Crusoe. I'm thinking of Elizabeth Bishop's ‘Crusoe in England’ as well. But Crusoe has a particular resonance for Walcott because he is the first creation of the Adamic figure in the 18th-century novel who is adjusting to a new world, and is coming up with ways of creating an umbrella, and so on, so as to keep the sun off. And to an extent Walcott sees himself as following in his footsteps.
SP: That sort of resourcefulness, you mean, that kind of can-do spirit that seeks to make the best of the situation or the circumstances in which it finds itself.
MF: Totally. Absolutely, totally. And in ‘Crusoe's Journal’ he makes explicit the connection. He talks about how Defoe (via Crusoe) writes how
the intellect appraises
objects surely, even the bare necessities
of style are turned to use,
like those plain iron tools he salvages
from shipwreck, hewing a prose
as odorous as raw wood to the adze;
out of such timbers
came our first book, our profane Genesis
whose Adam speaks that prose
which, blessing some sea-rock, startles itself
with poetry's surprise
and so on. So Crusoe has suggested a way in which you can appreciate or respond to the new world landscape in a way which is pragmatic, and can convert style to something which serves the purpose and is commensurate with Caribbean reality as Walcott experienced it.
SP: The Crusoe figure in the poems comes across as being very isolated. Obviously Crusoe is isolated for the first part, at least, of Defoe’s novel. And that idea of the lonely soul inhabiting a universe with God and Adam and Canaan and these vast mythological presences in it, that's something that features in a lot of Walcott's poetry in a way which might tempt you to think of him in some sense as a religious poet. Would you agree?
MF: He grew up a Methodist, and I don't think he ever denounced or renounced his beliefs. And I think that ties in with his notion of the epic as well. Obviously the great Christian epic, Paradise Lost – Milton is also a writer name-checked by Walcott on a number of occasions. But he is also looking at it through the lens, actually, in this poem of Wallace Stevens, somewhat surprisingly. He talks of the poetry as relating to ‘a green world, one without metaphors’. So I think he's going to school on the ways in which American modernism such as that of Stevens, in particular, rejected certain aspects of its European inheritance, and it moved away from the metaphors inherited. And that gives you this Adamic vision of the green world – it's a very Stevensian world, one without metaphors – that part of the process for the post-colonial poet or the post-imperial or the anti-imperial poet is to undo or call into question the metaphors which have worked for the imperial forces, undo those or reconfigure them in such a way that they serve your purpose rather than their purpose.
SP: Yes. And it's interesting, isn't it, the way that Walcott ends this poem on a slightly surprising note as well, in that he as it were weaves into the poem scepticism about the claim that Crusoe's Adamic world is a pure and green one, ending
all of us
yearn for those fantasies
of innocence, for our faith's arrested phase
when the clear voice
startled itself saying "water, heaven, Christ,"
hoarding such heresies as
God's loneliness moves in His smallest creatures.
It's a wonderful ending to the poem, but it's also very striking for the moral vision of the poem, conceding at this late stage that these states of innocence the poem has been imagining are actually just fantasies. They may be necessary fantasies, as Stevens might call them ‘necessary fictions’, but they remain fictive, they're not historical realities.
MF: Yes, there was always that hard-headed aspect in Walcott. He writes a great prose piece called ‘What the Twilight Says’ in which he talks about how he walks through the slums of St Lucia at twilight, and they look very picturesque and how beautiful they are. And he thinks, yes, at twilight, everything looks beautiful, but he's also aware that they contain real suffering. So he's often modulating between the dispiriting reality and poverty of St Lucia or other Caribbean countries that he lived in during his twenties and this grand ambition, which somehow wants to convert that, to use that poverty, and to transfigure that poverty into an opportunity, this ‘prodigious ambition’. And he calls poem collections The Bounty, The Prodigal, and so on – that prodigious ambition which can convert these things into opportunities rather than be depressed by them. And that buoyancy, which drives his language, I think, throughout his career … there's a kind of irrepressible, metaphorical exuberance which has drawn criticism from a range of critics, as diverse as Eavan Boland and I think Helen Vendler possibly, or she criticises him for being too much an imitator of other poets. But I think that imitatio strand in his work can be made sense of in a post-colonial context as relating to Homi Bhaba's notion of imitation being central for the post-colonial writer as a tool to be deployed against the empire.
SP: And Crusoe as a figure, just to say one last thing about him, Crusoe as a figure works with Walcott brilliantly well, because he embodies a sort of ambivalence, is that right? On the one hand he has got this freshness of perception because he's seeing things that he has never seen before and is trying to make a new language for the circumstances he finds himself in. But on the other hand, because of the history with Friday, he is also the paradigmactic of colonialism, isn't he. That's the other great use that Crusoe has within the English literary imagination, he's a coloniser. So he's at once exactly what Walcott is deploring while at the same time, paradoxically, representing an imaginative virtue that Walcott celebrates.
MF: Yes. It's the balance between curse and profit, isn't it, as in the Caliban quote, “you taught me language and my profit on it / Is I know how to curse.” So to what extent – and that goes back to the first point that we were looking at that the betraying and the giving back – how much should the poet be offering profit in the language and how much should he be offering curse, or how to fuse the two? And I think that's what Walcott's mature work goes on to do. But central to that was an understanding of his own life. And that leads on to his grand projet of the late 1960s. From 1965 to 1972, he was writing this enormously long autobiographical verse poem called Another Life, which you can relate to something like The Prelude quite straightforwardly. It is Walcott attempting to understand his own situation, what kind of poet he is, in the same way in which Wordsworth is doing in The Prelude. And it generates very good writing. I would say it is the breakthrough volume, though it's perhaps somewhat overlooked in his oeuvre. But I think Ian Sansom is right to see that as the moment in which Walcott really hits his stride and is able to present himself and all the fellow St Lucians somewhat in the manner of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood. He loved Dylan Thomas, and Dylan Thomas was kind of drunk on words, but in both there was this tremendous curiosity about what the other people in the town Gros Islet or Castries in St Lucia are like and a determination to capture them, represent them, to give an account of their lives, which is similar, I think, to what Joyce is doing in Dubliners or Ulysses as well. That part of the post-colonial epic project is to describe what has not been described from that particular perspective before in the language which has been imposed on the peoples living in those lands.
SP: Yes, in a very particular way, it's a sort of celebration of the provincial, isn't it, or a transformation of the provincial into the central. As he says himself, at one point in the poem, “provincialism loves the pseudo-epic,” which is presumably what he's writing.
Provincialism loves the pseudo-epic,
so if these heroes have been given a stature
disproportionate to their cramped lives,
remember that I beheld them at knee-height,
and that their thunderous exchanges
rumbled like gods about another life . . .
wonderful lines, which wander in mock heroic and then wander out into something more like genuine heroic, and that interest in the provincial scale of life as having a kind of unexpected epic potential, that's the great discovery really of Another Life.
MF: Yes. And not to be ashamed of these switches of register from a kind of high flown mode to a more pathetic or less high flown mode. And that's all part of the rich tapestry of the Walcottian pageant. And in that one, he goes on to say, 'I saw, as through the glass of some provincial gallery / the hieratic objects which my father loved: / The stuffed dark nightingale of Keats'. It’s a really telling moment, isn't it, to think of Warwick Walcott having a nightingale because he loves Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ so much. And he talks about ‘romantic taxidermy’, and so on. So it's an acceptance of that provinciality and an unembarrassedness about it. I think that is one of the crucial ways in which the traffic between the provinces and the centre is made possible in Walcott, who then, we should say, goes on to become one of the most central poets of his generation in the super elite premier league band, up there with Seamus Heaney, another poet who's negotiating a post-colonial legacy, Les Murray, who can also be construed in those terms, Joseph Brodsky, who was obviously escaping from the Soviet Union. They were the big four when I was reading poetry in the seventies and eighties and nineties, they dominated the poetry circuit as the superstars. So it is interesting that they all come from positions that can be construed as in opposition to centres of power, and that their poetry can all be read in the post-colonial contexts that we are outlining for Walcott. So there was a great appetite in the poetry world in general for this kind of exploration of the legacy of empire.
SP: And I suppose before moving on, we should also say that if Walcott was criticised for what Stephen Brook in his piece in the LRB calls ‘lushness’ in his earlier work, by the time we get to Another Life the verse has become much more chaste and controlled and driven by a narrative interest, and even in some ways drawing upon some rhythms that aren't unlike prose. And also his subject matter is not only these characters, but also an interest in objects, isn't it, in the paraphernalia of ordinary life, which make you remember that he had toyed with the idea of being a painter at one stage. I'm thinking of lines describing the objects of his childhood, like
This radiance of sharing extends to the simplest objects,
to a favorite hammer, a paintbrush, a toothless,
gum-sunken old shoe,
and the list goes on after that. And then he turns and says in a very beautiful moment, addressing his mother,
Your house sang softly of balance,
of the rightness of placed things.
and this new interest in things is a great step forward in his poetry, don't you think?
MF: Yes, I think America has a crucial role in the formation of Walcott as a poet. And particularly the work of Robert Lowell was extremely influential on his work of the 1960s and Lowell’s Life Studies, which has exactly that kind of attention to detail, and that ability to make the domestic property that has been remembered by the poet or that has value for the poet somehow part of the domestic scenario that the poet is turning into life studies. I think that becomes very much the way that Walcott finds out of the imitation of Thomas and Yeats and Auden and co, that Lowell … the confessional poets, particularly Lowell though, who he knew and they met each other a number of times in the sixties. And there are ways in which you can compare a poem like ‘The Castaway’ with Sylvia Plath's ‘Ariel’. And you can think, well, both of these poems are very inflected by Lowellian cadences, in completely different ways. And it makes you understand how useful the Lowellian template was for poets as different from each other as Walcott and Sylvia Plath.
SP: And indeed Heaney in the 1970s is also learning a lot from Lowell, isn't he. So in the early 1980s, he has, what I suppose is his most life-changing appointment, which is to a chair, I guess it was a chair in creative writing, was it, at Boston University. So he's in the same neck of the woods as Heaney, who has picked up a professorship at Harvard. And as you were saying, Brodsky is the other member of the group who was also in New England around this time. And he starts writing lots of poems about his travels. He has one of his books called The Fortunate Traveller. And these are almost like postcard poems from an itinerant poetic superstar on his travels.
MF: They are. A lot of them express a delight in finally seeing these things which he’s only heard about, going to Venice for the first time, going to Normandy, and so on, London in particular, going to these places for the first time, seeing them, and somehow then being able to come to terms with them. So the travelogue mode is different for such as Walcott in that it is him somehow seeing in the flesh all the great monuments or paintings which he'd seen only in reproduction. Much of Another Life is taken up with how important to him the work of such as Cimabue was, or Giotto, that these Italian primitive religious painters were exactly the kind of painters who he wanted to imitate. And he sees them in books and he shares these with a friend of his, and they make paintings out of these European paintings, which they've only seen in books. And lo and behold, from the eighties onwards Walcott is in the position to see the real thing. So there is a tremendous delight and exuberance and just aesthetic pleasure for him in responding to these places and then being able to include them in his poetic texture. They can be somewhat overwhelming at times. I think that Walcott's idioms are very various, but they're sometimes not as tightly bound together or interrelated with each other in a meaningful way as they are in the long poems. My own favourite poems of Walcott's are the really long ones, Another Life and Omeros, which came out in 1990 and was cited by the Nobel prize committee in 1992 as central to Walcott’s oeuvre, and it's his great achievement. And I would probably agree with that, that Omeros, which is an enormously long poem, over three hundred pages, does include much really terrifically vivid and interesting writing as well as being his fullest working out of the ‘Atlantic dilemma’, how the Caribbean poet deals with the Atlantic inheritance from Europe, as well as his Atlantic contemporaries in America. I think contemporary American poets had much more influence on Walcott than any contemporary British poets such as Larkin or Hughes had on him. It was such as Lowell in particular who offered him a new way of writing.
SP: Now we should try and convey something of the nature of Omeros. It's a very difficult poem to characterise, isn't it. In one way, it's a rewriting of Homeric narrative within the context of the Caribbean. So in a way it's doing what Joyce does in Ulysses, taking Homeric narrative shapes and re-imagining them within a new historically contemporary context. But it also has other things going on in it too, doesn't it. And the whole narrative shape of the poem is much less clear than that summary that I've just stumbled through might imply.
MF: Yes, there are overarching narratives, which one can make sense of. There's a terrific piece on it in the LRB by Nick Everett from 1991, a really incisive review, which explores it in terms of allegory. And I think that really makes a lot of sense, if you think of it as an epic, which Ezra Pound defined as a poem including history. Well, yes, the poem includes a lot of history, but it's all happening through this shifting allegorical set of metaphors which structure the poem. There’s things like the sea swift, this bird which has a cruciform shape – which I think perhaps again alludes to a religious element in Walcott’s imagination – and this sea swift is a supernatural being who transports Achille, who is based obviously on the Greek hero Achilles, transports him back through time to Africa at the time when slaves were being gathered on the coast of Africa. So you get this horrifying section at the beginning of book three in which 15 slaves are captured and chained and then sent off to the Caribbean. This is Achille finding his ancestors, and he's meeting his father, and it's a version of the descent into the underworld, the meeting with ancestors and the underworld that you get in the Aeneid and the Odyssey. He makes use of anything that comes to hand from the Homeric world, as much as he wants to, without any botheredness about what it means in a larger sense just to create this series of analogies. Because on one level, what the poem is about is exorcising this habit of creating analogies between Caribbean life or Antillean life and Aegean life, between the life of Omeros and that of Homer. So on one level he is taking it as far as possible, like a kind of medical treatment in which you do as much Homeric stuff as possible to get the Homeric stuff out of your system. I think the poem is, as Nick Everett points out, a therapeutic epic, in the way in which ‘Song of Myself’ is a therapeutic epic, in that it allows Walcott to step free of this European inheritance and to feel comfortable with his St Lucian inheritance. So the stakes are very high and it is extremely expansive, and he takes his time about expanding each aspect of the narrative as it catches his attention.
SP: Yes, the Everett piece is terrific, you're absolutely right. And I agree with you that he's very sharp on the way that the poem at once recognises the bad things that are the inheritance of a colonised people, but then also works in a way which isn't at all starry-eyed or falsely optimistic, but works to find ways in which those hurts, those bits of damage might be cured or at least accommodated. And I think that's a very fine perception, which captures a lot of the feeling of especially the later chapters of the poem. There's an interesting character in it called Major Plunkett, who is a retired soldier and ex-pat, a wounded veteran of World War II, who's become a pig farmer. And a lot of the poem is imagining Plunkett as it were trying to understand the history of the island in whose colonial history he's played a minor but nevertheless representative part as a figure of British imperialism.
MF: Yes. And he gets very interested in the actual history of the war that was fought between the English and the French over the island of St Lucia. And it was called Helen. Because it was fought over so much by the English and the French it was called Helen, and that ties in with the thematic interests of the poem. In the first two books, you've got these characters Achille and Hector who are both in love with a woman called Helen. And that is refracted through this battle between the English and French for the Helen that is St Lucia. And that is a kind of Ilead bit. The first two books are the Ilead book bit of the poem. And then you get the wanderings of Achille to Africa in this dream vision sequence in which he meets his father, and which is related to the Odyssey. And also you get the narrator who is obviously Walcott himself, wandering around the world and also figuring himself as heartbroken. The poem was written on the back of the end of his third marriage to Norline Metivier. And there's a sense in which his own psychological state is also being reflected in the poem. So it's a lyric poem about a lost love, as well as an epic poem about Achilles and Hector, so to speak, as well as about the post-colonial situation and how the colonial wars were fought. So it really is multi-angled, a real kaleidoscope of a poem. And you can feel a bit lost in it. But I found that Nick Everett piece gave me a really good understanding of the actual narrative arc. And in the last two books you have Walcott returning to St Lucia, or the narrator returning to St Lucia. You have Hector dying in a car crash, Achille actually marrying Helen or getting together with Helen who is carrying Hector's child, you get a character called Philoctete, who's based on Homeric Philoctetes, who was wounded by a snake bite. He's suffering from a gash on his shin. And that is cured by a seed which has been brought by this sea swift from Africa and dropped into the vegetation of St Lucia and grows into a plant. And there’s a woman called Ma Kilman, who is a kind of Sybil figure, again, it’s a typical transposition of a Homeric character into Walcott’s world, and she is able to heal Philoctete with this plant. So it's about healing as well as it is about a diagnosis of all the problems that bedevilled the history of a Caribbean island. And by the end of it what we're confronted with is the evils of tourism. So tourism is the great threat by the end. And this, I suppose, is a dilemma that Walcott can't solve. He misses the poverty, the picturesque poverty, which he felt was good for his poetry of the old days. On the other hand, there's the tourist dollar, which raises the living standards, but also introduces unpleasant, trashy hotels, and American tourists who are crass and know nothing about the culture of where they're spending their holidays.
SP: That movement towards something more hopeful or something more reconciliatory within the world of the poem is important, isn't it. Because otherwise the organising idea of the poem, which is that history repeats itself, which is a view that Walcott expresses in quite a few poems of the 1990s can lead to a kind of V.S. Naipaul-type political pessimism, something that Blake Morrison writes about in his LRB piece on Walcott, that you often in Walcott have a sense of things going round and round in the same barrel. And I think that one of the great things about Omeros is this entirely unsentimental way it glimpses a way out of that trap, of that sense in which history becomes a kind of imprisonment.
MF: Yes. I think, though, it exudes a confidence in his own poetic equipment, which I think is probably the new aspect of it. It's written very roughly in terza rima, so it's got this Dantescan feel to it. And you also have ghosts, like there’s a very moving passage when he meets his father Warwick towards the end of book one. Warwick, who died when Derek was only one, died of an ear infection, and this gives rise to a nice joke over their shared love of Shakespeare. This is Warwick speaking:
I was raised in this obscure Caribbean port
where my bastard father christened me for his shire,
Warwick, the Bard’s county, but never felt part
of the foreign machinery known as literature.
I preferred verse to fame, but I wrote
with the heart of an amateur.It's that will you inherit.
I died on his birthday one April, your mother
sewed her own costume as Portia.
Then that disease like Hamlet’s old man's spread from an infected ear.
I believe the parallel has brought you some peace
death, imitating art. A.
And that's obviously one way it looks like a Dante pastiche, and it’s something that, again, Heaney does a great deal of it in Station Island. But no, not pastiche. It's just making use of Dante for this particular rather moving interaction between the ghost of his father and his son. And that section ends:
What was Warwick doing transplanting Warwickshire?
I saw him patterned in shade, the leaves in his hair,
the vines of the lucent body, the swift’s blown seed
and that sea swift does crop up again and again, as a structuring, well, an allegorical element, as in a medieval painting, you might say, denoting a particular theme. And so the huge patterning of the poem can be mapped as this vast allegorical patterning with moments which are very moving and affecting, particularly when he's dealing with his own inheritance and his father.
SP: So as we've been conveying, I'm sure, a poem of extraordinary sophistication, and yet a poem that also has within it a great attraction, a great reverence for what it calls at one point ‘green simplicities’.
Once you have seen everything and gone everywhere,
cherish our Island for its green simplicities.
And I suppose it's the green simplicities that are under threat by the tourist industry. And that sense of a saving simplicity that is away from all the sophistications that European tradition has come to represent is what he turns to at the end, when he asks in a wonderful rhetorical question,
why not see Helen as the sun saw her
with no Homeric shadow
swinging her plastic sandals on that beach alone,
as fresh as the sea wind
why make the smoke a door?
so this attempt to imagine an entirely fresh perception that isn't laden with any of the baggage of an imposed Western consciousness is something that haunts the poem quite a lot.
MF: Yes. When Philoctete is cured he makes explicit use of the Adam imagery.
So she threw Adam a towel
and the yard was Eden
and its light the first days.
So that fantasy of the return to innocence. But of course you can only gesture towards the post-Homeric world through the Homeric language. So in a sense it's a sleight of hand that Walcott never does give up writing a very literary European-inflected prose that makes use of all the rhythms of such as Wordsworth and 19th-century poetry that never strays that far from the traditions in which he was brought up, but it's able to articulate what it will be like to move beyond those. And in that sense, it is a bit like Stevens. Stevens says we should live without these metaphors, but we can't actually do that! All we can say is, yes, wouldn't that be great and agree with the ideal of living in this fresh green world, where the yard was Eden, and so on, but its literary effectiveness nevertheless becomes particularly powerful. I find the opening scene actually when he imagines all the crucial moments when they chopped down the trees to create their canoes. And that's the original, real moment of epic, it’s a brilliant transposition of the epic moment in which the nation is founded, and it's founded by creating boats that go to sea. So the sea-ness, which is encoded in the name Omeros, and he actually talks about that in the ‘mer’ bit, as the sea bit, and the sea is as strong an image as the sea swift, as the dominant scenario or tapestry in which the whole thing takes place.
SP: Yes. And we should have said that of all his subjects, the one that I think he finds most compelling is the sea. The importance of being an island dweller is absolutely at the top of his mind, isn't it. We saw him being won by Donne talking about 'no man is an island.' Well, you are an island in Walcott, and it's good because you're surrounded by this sense of oceanic consciousness, which flows in and out and around in this endless and infinite way, and shapes a lot of his most extraordinary extended similes.
MF: Yes, I think he's brilliant at lyrical evocations of the sea, and the impact of the waves on the shore, but those are always, or not always, the historical awareness of the sea as part of the Atlantic triangle, which sent slaves to the Caribbean and then sugar up to New England and then back to Liverpool and then down to the West coast of Africa again. So the sea is historically conjugated as well as lyrically celebrated over and over in Walcott.
SP: Now we've been saying that his home ground really is long poems. The idea of length, of extendedness, and possibly extending forever and ever. The last line of that poem: 'when he left the beach, the sea was still going on.' You feel that the poem actually could go on a bit more if it wanted to. But we should just mention perhaps that he was occasionally, not often, but occasionally capable of really beautiful short poems. And the one that I know you like is the poem ‘To Norline’, which also picks up on the biographical circumstances that you are talking about that lie behind Omeros too, with the failure of that marriage. I wondered if you could read us that little poem.
This beach will remain empty
for more slate-coloured dawns
of lines the surf continually
erases with its sponge,
and someone else will come
from the still-sleeping house,
a coffee mug warming his palm
as my body once cupped yours,
to memorize this passage
of a salt-sipping tern,
like when some line on a page
is loved, and it's hard to turn.
I should say that the tern in the third line from the end is the bird tern, and it's the verb to turn. So he's rhyming turn and tern, and it again makes use of the sea. And it again makes use of what is Walcott's favourite trope that occurs again and again in his poetry, in which metaphors from writing are applied to the landscape. And he is completely addicted to this particular trope. And for a time you think, well, why is he doing that again? And after considering it a bit, I thought, well, it's part of that prodigious bounty that writing has liberated him to experience the landscape. So writing is part of the landscape in some fundamental way for his imagination. So in this rather after-the-event poem in which he is accepting that he has lost this relationship and he's imagining Norline with a new partner, he creates something rather lyrical out of it. And yes, I think that's one moment when his lyricism doesn't expand beyond the framework as it so often does, and restrains itself to create a particularly unforgettable moment.
SP: So in 1992, he's awarded the Nobel prize, something that you've already alluded to, and from the mid-1990s onwards he is an international traveller. He lives for a bit of the time in Greenwich Village, but is basically based again in St Lucia. He continues to write, all the themes that we've been talking about continue to shape the volumes of poems that he produces. There are some very good things in the later collections, on these recurrent themes of identity and the ambivalence of inheritance and cultural inheritance. But I think we would agree that Omeros remains the high watermark of his writing life, and the most fully satisfying exploration of those recurrent themes.
MF: Yes. We should say also that Omeros, like his other long poems wanders a lot. You get a large section in which he gets interested in the trail of tears of the Sioux and Dakota native American peoples. And you think, well, what's that doing in a poem about St Lucia? There's a kind of compendiousness, a capaciousness, about Walcott that the more the merrier, which has not always appealed to all critics, and a couple of the pieces in the LRB make note of that. But I think he does get back on form with his last – not back on form, but his last volume White Egrets, which was awarded the T.S. Eliot prize and was a belated attempt to honour Walcott in a country that perhaps hadn't honoured him as much as America had, certainly. And he does offer some brilliant descriptions of London in particular in Omeros when, Major Plunkett goes there and complains how expensive it is! And you also get a vision of London as the centre of empire. He talks of the barges on the Thames, ‘chained’ to the Thames as ‘our islands are’. So the notion that he's expanding from the centre to think of all the ways in which the colonial properties of the empire are chained to the centre of power. So there’s some really interesting writing about London itself. But White Egrets is mainly sonnets or versions of sonnets set around the world, but a lot in St Lucia. And some of them are really terrific. Others don't quite hit the mark in my opinion, but some of them are wonderful.
SP: Yes. And it’s worth pointing out that it's 13 lines long, so in a sense is his own take, the Walcottian take on the sonnet. It's missing its last line. But the sonnet was obviously fundamental to the ways in which he experienced poetry. So here it's paying one last homage to the traditions in which he grew up with a particular twist. And it again makes use of metaphors drawn from writing to describe landscape.
This page is a cloud between whose fraying edges
a headland with mountains appears brokenly
then is hidden again until what emerges
from the now cloudless blue is the grooved sea
and the whole self-naming island, its ochre verges,
its shadow-plunged valleys and a coiled road
threading the fishing villages, the white, silent surges
of combers along the coast, where a line of gulls has arrowed
into the widening harbour of a town with no noise,
its streets growing closer like print you can now read,
two cruise ships, schooners, a tug, ancestral canoes,
as a cloud slowly covers the page and it goes
white again and the book comes to a close.