Derek Walcott: Inspired by rhymes and a faith in paradise

Derek Walcott has distilled a lifetime into ever more elegant affirmations of poetry’s power. The key is the Caribbean, he tells Tom Payne of London’s Telegraph.

Derek Walcott sounds as though he’s had an all-right day so far. It’s mid-afternoon when we talk and the poet is looking out at the beach on his native St Lucia. This morning he’s “made a mess of a job” on a painting he has been working on; but then, he tells me, “I’ve had a terrific time talking with some people on the beach. That intimacy you don’t get from a city.”

The Nobel prize-winning poet elegantly fends off any opportunities I give him to brag. When I ask if he feels like he’s become a part of the landscape, he says no, but with good grace. After all, plenty around him feel that he is the island. “No. It’s amusing – it’s very touching that there should be a bust in the square.” He omits that it’s called Walcott Square. “It’s a way of telling me thanks.” Nor does he mention the dish named after him, the Walcott Acra, which is a salt-fish cake that comes with chips and a Creole sauce.

But this is a time for celebrating Walcott. It is his 81st birthday tomorrow; and then, in St Lucia, there is an annual Nobel day, in honour of his prize in 1992 as well as that of his compatriot, the late Sir Arthur Lewis, who won the award for economics in 1979.

Now he has a strong chance of winning the 2010 T S Eliot Prize, announced on Monday. The award for the past year’s best collection of poetry is worth £15,000, and Andrew Motion has called it “the prize most poets want to win”. This year, it seems to be between Walcott and Seamus Heaney, with Walcott looking a little more likely. Both poets have managed to distill a lifetime of craft and meditation into ever simpler, more elegant affirmations of poetry’s power.

Derek Walcott made his name in the early Sixties as a poet who could take on the often bitter legacy of colonial rule, and articulate his responses with formal cadences inherited from Yeats and earlier, more English poets. “When you’re young,” he says, “influences count”; but as you develop, he says, “you want to hear your own voice at an honest pitch”. His latest collection, White Egrets, does just that: the poet of St Lucia has gone global. His responses to islands, the past and the sea have a more international echo, and while the anger of his early work is still evident, the music is calmer.

But even if White Egrets beats Heaney’s Human Chain, Walcott is cool-headed about such honours. Now that he’s passed 80, he is wry about an earlier poem of his, “Nearing Forty”, in which he expressed a dread that his work might be “fireless and average”. “I think it’s the usual cliché of the middle-age crisis,” he reflects with hindsight. “It’s menopausal almost.” He adds that a lot has happened since then, including the Nobel Prize. So, even if the Nobel hasn’t made much difference, at least it’s proof that the fire didn’t die.

He does allow himself to say: “I’m read in the Caribbean with justice, with fairness. What I expect it to do is to encourage articulacy in the young.” The qualification of “the Caribbean” is crucial to him. St Lucia is a deep and consistent inspiration for him, and although he is a powerful voice on the problems it still faces, the island still allows him a haven from the modishness that lies beyond its shores. “I can talk my stupidness out here,” he says. “I don’t have to be part of a school, or a chronological movement. A city would confine me to a description.” In any case, one of the things he’s learnt, he says, is “to have less regard for criticism”.

The inspiration is in that landscape. There is a faith in paradise running through his work, which he refuses to renounce, and which comes from his surroundings. Yes, there’s a lot wrong with the Caribbean and he is frank about the problems he sees. His recent poem, “The Acacia Trees”, has a young hotel worker using patois to warn a tourist about crime. The crime is bad, as Walcott says: “The brutality of the crime, and the increase in it, is infernal.” But he is troubled by the hotels, too.

“There’s a difficult drama between tourism and poor people,” he explains. “There are plans to sell beach property and land owned by the Queen to hotels. If they can do that, then the whole Caribbean is threatened with hotels covering the beaches. That’s the future and their excuse is that tourism is a necessary evil.”

So is there really a hope for paradise? His answer is at once rhetorical and calm. “I have experienced paradise in the landscape and the surrendering that takes you in. To repay with gratitude the joys I’ve experienced – I’ve found that paradisiacal.”

The trick, then, is to evoke that paradise through poetry. I heard him talk about rhyme on Desert Island Discs 20 years ago and I really want to hear him do it again. He obliges. “Rhyme is an attempt to reassemble and reaffirm the possibility of paradise. There is a wholeness, a serenity in sounds coupling to form a memory.”

And yet it’s that rhyme, that learned, honed elegance, that has made his poetry controversial. In the Seventies, poets who identified themselves with the Black Power movement dismissed his work for being too influenced by writers of the colonial past. His poetic response was mordant and colloquial: “After the white man, the niggers didn’t want me/when the power swing to their side./The first chain my hands and apologise, ‘History’; /the next said I wasn’t black enough for their pride.”

In that Desert Island Discs, he spoke of rhyme as a way towards redemption. In White Egrets, the birds that have haunted previous poems here rhyme with “regrets”. He spares us the details of his regrets, but does concede, “I know what I’ve done, I cannot look beyond./I treated all of them badly, my three wives.”

This kind of thing recently made him famous for something other than his writing, when Ruth Padel and he were the final two candidates to become Oxford’s Professor of Poetry. The whiff of scandal caused him to withdraw from the race and Padel to resign the post she won. But, on an island where his birthdays are a national event, admiration for his poetry protects him from the harsher aspects of fame. Does he mind being a celebrity? “I don’t feel like a celebrity.” But he adds: “Poetry justifies celebrity. It’s good to have respect for a poet. I hope that what I write is superior to whatever bullshit it is that I do.”

When I ask Walcott if he is working on anything new, he says: “There’s something in the back of my head.” It’s a relief to hear; in White Egrets, the fears that his gift might abandon him resurface 40 years after “Nearing Forty”. Not only does poetry continue to come at his greater age but it provides one last comfort in facing what Larkin called “the only end of age”. He considers this indirectly, especially when he remembers his friend, the late Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, whose immediate presence he feels when re-reading his work. “If there is immortality,” he says, “it lives in art.”

His faith in poetry is as reassuring as his faith in the beaches and trees around him. The link between the two seems to lie behind everything he says. If poetry can help a writer find redemption, then an island can find the same hope, even as it faces the ravages of tourism and the rise of crime: “The landscape is so emphatic and undeniable that it’s stronger than the error.”

Nine of the poets shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize will read from their work at London’s Southbank Centre today. The readings will be online at from Monday

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