On this day in 1930 Derek Walcott was born on St. Lucia. Walcott’s two dozen collections of poems and plays — one recent work, Tiepolo’s Hound, widens the range by including his paintings — earned the 1992 Nobel Prize. The Nobel committee cited the “multicultural commitment” in Walcott’s work, and so many followed suit (often adding “postcolonial”) that interviewers now get a forewarning: “If anybody uses the word ‘multiculturalism’ I’m walking out of the room.” There is a similar island breeze in Walcott’s other interviews: Describe a typical day? “I work very early until noon, then look at nonsense on the TV in my pajamas.” Why does he rise at dawn? “To smoke.”
Walcott is deeply committed to the Caribbean and its diversity; his quarrel with “multiculturalism” is that it is too often just policy talk, a hopeless contrivance by politicians and the tourist industry. And it is a word that those living in the Islands, having happily enjoyed the real thing for so long, do not need:
I was entitled to the feast of Husein, to the mirrors and crepe-paper temples of the Muslim epic, to the Chinese Dragon Dance, to the rites of that Sephardic Jewish synagogue that was once on Something Street. I am only one-eighth the writer I might have been had I contained all the fragmented languages of Trinidad.
That is from Walcott’s Nobel speech, which he used as an opportunity to give thanks for his “mulatto of styles” and to scorn those who look upon Caribbean culture “as grammarians look at a dialect, as cities look on provinces and empires on their colonies…illegitimate, rootless, mongrelized.” Omeros, his 1992 epic poem, repositions The Odyssey in St. Lucia; his most recent collection, White Egrets (winner of the 2011 T. S. Eliot Prize), ranges the world while always going forth from and returning to the islands:
…at night, the stars
are far fishermen’s fires, not glittering cities,
Genoa, Milan, London, Madrid, Paris,
but crab-hunters’ torches. This small place produces
nothing but beauty, the wind-warped trees, the breakers
on the Dennery cliffs, and the wild light that loosens
a galloping mare on the plain of Vieuxfort make us
merely receiving vessels of each day’s grace,
light simplifies us whatever our race or gifts.
I’m content as Kavanagh with his few acres;
for my heart to be torn to shreds like the sea’s lace,
to see how its wings catch colour when a gull lifts.
(from “The Lost Empire”)
[Editor’s Note: Read Adam Kirsch’s review of White Egrets here.]
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.