A tribute by Hilton Als for the New Yorker.
Derek Walcott was a complicated person and a great poet, and often those things are not divisible. The time I spent with him and his beautiful German-born partner, Sigrid Nama, in Derek’s native St. Lucia changed my life in ways that extended past the New Yorker Profile I wrote in 2004. I felt as though I had always known him—not known him, exactly, but seen him, been in his aura, his history, because, like my father, Derek was the product of a profound world, a distinctly Caribbean world with its history of colonialism and its imperceptible change, and home to so much more, including mothers who spared no amount of love to make you understand that you were their bright boy. Derek’s mother, Alix Maarlin, a schoolteacher, helped him publish his first poems, and it was the light of that first love that Derek always stood under; it made him shy about intimacy, while closeness was something he always sought. The first Mrs. Walcott believed in him with a pride that eclipsed the great honor of his 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature because she was the first to say, if only in her mind: “Why not be Shakespeare?” Anything was possible, and where you were from was just part of the story.
In the late nineteen-seventies, the professor and writer Owen Dodson hosted gatherings at his apartment on West Fifty-first Street, an incandescent, candle-lit world filled with artists of color who drank and quarrelled with one another and then made up, often in the same starry night. It was at Owen’s that I first read Derek, but before that I saw him: his skin was the color of mink. He had light-colored eyes and he was wearing a black turtleneck that only made his fascinating head appear that much more totemic and real. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. After the party was over, I asked Owen who he was. He handed me Derek’s “The Star-Apple Kingdom” (1980)—it was just about to come out—and I never stopped reading after that.
A year or two after I met him, Derek published his gorgeous lyric “Jean Rhys” in The New Yorker, and it really bowled me over. I had never read anything like it before—a powerful writer not only writing about a fantastically singular one but imagining that life fictionally. Somehow the fiction felt more real than any biography. And by imagining the life of a white woman, something especially amazing for that time, the poem taught me that writing could be anything as long as it was emotionally and intellectually true. In writing, one could be whatever the work demanded—black, white, man, woman. “Jean Rhys” appeared in Derek’s collection “The Fortunate Traveller” (1981), which not only explored the notion and reality of home and exile but introduced young readers like me to other poets, such as Robert Lowell, who had been one of Derek’s great early champions. Like Lowell, Derek also wrote plays; in 1959 he founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, where he met his wife, Margaret, the mother of his two daughters—Anna and Elizabeth, who was named after Elizabeth Hardwick, Lowell’s second wife.
Brilliant poets find one another: their world is very small even though their influence is wide and deep. Being a self-described “country boy” didn’t mean that Derek was cut off from so-called literary society. Derek’s closest poet friends, the Russian-born Joseph Brodsky and Irish poet Seamus Heaney, wrote about the pain and fascinating distance and longing that comes with being in exile. I think Brodsky and Walcott’s shared interest in women and in drink (though Derek would stop drinking in his fifties) were just two of the ways these brothers could be brothers. But they shared the lives of their respective minds, too, and one book worth reading is “Homage to Robert Frost,” where Walcott, Brodsky, and Heaney try to describe a distinctly American voice from their unique vantage point—as outsiders, strangers in America’s strange land.
For his whole life, Derek championed the work of other writers who understood exile, too; he supported Jamaica Kincaid’s writing from the time her first book, “At the Bottom of the River,” came out, in 1983. Indeed, I first read Walcott’s extraordinary book-length autobiographical poem “Another Life” (1973) in Jamaica’s home in Vermont. Outside, there was the New England landscape—it was summer and the ground seemed to hum. In that book, Derek’s mind hums with ideas about landscape, about the body, and how each is not divisible from the other. Derek’s genius was clear from the first. In a late memoir, Derek’s former friend and nemesis, the Trinidad-born V. S. Naipaul—whom Derek, in one poem, called “V. S. Nightfall”—criticized the landscape and culture that Derek described with such alacrity, in poem after poem of increasing length and density. When Naipaul’s name came up during my trip to St. Lucia, Derek’s throat would grow dry, then he’d spit out his disgust and impatience with Naipaul’s racism and cultural condescension.
Visiting Derek in St. Lucia was enlightening and uncomfortable, I think, because while he was “home” he was, like most writers, essentially a loner. Still, one could not imagine his artistry without the loves and passions that marked so many of his great lyrics to his various wives and children. They were the loves of his life, just as poetry and painting were the loves of his life. (Derek begins “Easter,” from “The Fortunate Traveller,” with the reassuring words of a loving Papa: “Anna, my daughter, / you have a black dog / that noses your heel, / selfless as a shadow; / here is a fable / about a black dog.”) With Sigrid I went to Walcott Square (she paid a man to keep it up) and met Derek’s son, Peter, himself an artist. Because Sigrid is white, she was treated with a little disdain by some of the market women I met when we went shopping together, and I wondered what her own exile felt like. Or did she feel it at all? She was in love with Derek, and he with her, and sometimes that’s all the home one needs.
Before my New Yorker Profile came out, I also spent some time with Derek and Sigrid in New York. We had dinner with the playwright Arthur Miller, Derek’s old friend, at El Quijote, the restaurant in the ground floor of the Chelsea Hotel, where Derek and Miller had lived at different times during their writing lives. (Sigrid described spending time with Derek there during the early days of their relationship, and how she got him to move out pronto because the carpets and floors were filthy.) Miller talked about his wife, Inge, who had just died. “I thought I would go first,” Miller said. “I can’t imagine it,” Derek said, mournfully, while Sigrid, a born memorialist, took photographs of the old friends with someone who could not hope to be their friend: they were looking for ways to feed lives they had already lived, and wanted to continue to live; they were light years from where I stood, we had seen different things.
I heard about Derek’s death from a friend of his and mine—the artist Peter Doig. Their collaboration in “Morning, Paramin” was Derek’s last book. The poet who loved theatre loved and sparred with Peter’s paintings in that book, and in certain poems you can feel the great arc of energy that defines so much of Derek’s early work. Looking at what Peter was able to achieve made Derek want to think about what he had achieved, and how his work looked different in the light of the life he’d lived, the years he’d spent looking and thinking while never venturing far from the odd, loved boy he must have been, clutching his copy of Ovid under a palm tree, making Shakespeare in his own image on that islet: confident and awkward, cherished and alone, all at once.
Like most poets since Plato, like Homer, Derek was something of a clairvoyant, and knew love was nothing without humility, or the way it clarifies truth. Part of the power of “Morning, Paramin” comes from its brutal truths, the growling elder in love with, and critical of, his younger compatriot:
Peter, I’m glad you asked me along,
but here is the question everyone will ask:
Will your brush puck up an accent, and singsong
Infect your melody concealed in a canvas,
picking the place where you really belong
in Trinidad and all the bullshit that goes with it?
What bullshit? Everywhere is wrong
as all forms miss perfection, hence the mask
in which the whole society is based
Indeed, Derek’s greatness as a writer was not divisible from his ability to tell the truth about himself first. Once, when Sigrid and I went to see a show of Derek’s, in midtown, the house was sparse but the audience dedicated. Leaving the theatre, we found Derek outside, sitting on a bench. “I must be very vain to continue doing this kind of work,” he said. But “vain” didn’t sit right with me. Brave? Mighty? Those were the words I thought of when I heard that Derek had died, and at once I wanted to reread everything he had ever done. Because what better way is there to memorialize a writer than to read what he has written, and remember who they were in all those worlds of words they were brave and confident enough to imagine in the first place?