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Celebrating Walcott’s many facets

Monday, March 20 2017

The poet Laureate Derek Walcott died on 17th March 2017 (St Patrick’s Day). In many ways the date of his death is significant given his longstanding relationship with Ireland and with the late Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney.

Derek was a man for whom friendship was sacred. Many of his poems speak of such friendships: with Heaney, and with Joseph Brodsky another poet laureate, for example. But he commemorated so many. His penultimate collection, White Egrets, remembers the departed dead such as Wilbert Holder and Aimé Cėsaire but with typical generosity pays tribute to the living including Lorna Goodison.

White Egrets is a book of loss and of fading light, of memory and of the closeness of death. But it is also a celebration of the many facets of his life. The egret becomes the pen through which he chronicles a life lived to the full and the Antilles, despite his many departures to different places such as Italy, which often became an echo of his beloved islands. Walcott was from St Lucia, but Trinidad became his other island home in the fifties and figured throughout his works in particular in The Prodigal, which is in many ways a love song to both St Lucia and Santa Cruz where his daughters live.

Walcott taught at Boston University after leaving Trinidad and later went on to become Professor of Poetry at the University of Essex where he spent several months every year. There he worked with the Lakeside Theatre on the production of O Starry Starry Night —I have the rare honour of attending all three world premieres, in Essex, St Lucia and Trinidad. O Starry Starry Night pays homage to another St Lucian artist, Dunstan St Omer, who died just two years ago and reminds us that Derek was a fine painter and at one point had to choose between poetry and painting.

Walcott revelled in the use of words both in their “English” meaning and the many double meanings that words have accumulated through their use in creole.

His famous “Spoiler’s Return” demonstrates his wit and his skill and indeed admiration for the calypsonian.

Like the traditional calypsonian he was given to political criticism and had an acerbic wit.

He ranted at both the governments of TT and of St Lucia for failing to recognise the need to finance the Arts. He spoke often of the tribulations endured by the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, though he cut off ties with this group in recent years. Yet he remained deeply loyal to those actors with whom he had worked over the years. Walcott’s loyalty was and is phenomenal.

He loved people and at the celebration of his work which we held at the University of the West Indies in 2010 he was most deeply affected by the very fact of seeing so many of his friends and colleagues.

This, from a man who had by then received every honour and acclaim for his poetry, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992.

Derek never tolerated fools gladly, as those who worked with him knew well. He was demanding. But yet when he saw talent or dedication he was quick to lend his hand and his support. As I sit writing this, it is not the poetry or the plays that I know so intimately that come to mind, but his kindness and the fact that his spirit towered over everything.

He was ably helped by his partner Sigrid Nama whose own spirit of kindness was demonstrated in her hospitality and the way she acted as a liaison between the poet and others. Sigrid was always willing to smooth the way. She cared for him with impeccable devotion and love during his last years and I still recall the day on which Derek had his most debilitating collapse and the sheer panic that assailed her.

Many of his plays did not receive the same recognition as his poetry, though it might be argued that the stage was his true love. But no one could deny the beauty and the success of The Joker of Seville, which has a musical score by Galt MacDermot ---who also put Derek’s two Barack Obama poems to music. The Joker exemplified that unique combination of witty social commentary, sexual innuendo, characterisation and beautiful poetic language all united by music and movement. It is equalled only by Ti Jean which has seen so many incarnations, finally emerging as Moon-Child in 2011.

Walcott also wrote film scripts.

Many of these are stored in the University of the West Indies and University of Toronto archives and only two have been produced: The Rig and Haytian Earth.

But the long poem, Omeros, for me remains his masterpiece, not least because it is a conversation between the major writers of the Caribbean including Kamau Brathwaite and VS Naipaul and some of the Irish writers to whom Walcott paid homage. Its multifaceted and polyphonic structure makes it an epic beyond compare.

Derek Walcott’s loss leaves a huge gap that cannot be filled. But his legacy as a man and as an artist remains indelible. Dr Jean Antoine- Dunne is a Walcott specialist and her book Derek Walcott’s Love Affair with Film, published by Peepal Tree Press, is due out in October.



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