Caryl Phillips: “Walcott in New York”

Derek Walcott
Portrait of author Derek Walcott, 1978. (Photo by Anthony Barboza/Getty Images)

Novelist Caryl Phillips recounts Derek Walcott’s “many New Yorks” and the role these experiences had in his magnificent trajectory as a writer. Here are excerpts; read the full review in the New York Review of Books. [Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.]

Sitting with him in St. Lucia, I once asked Derek Walcott if he missed New York City. He looked up and stared intently, and then, almost imperceptibly, he nodded. The truth is, my question was imprecise and badly formed. I should have asked him if he missed the New York of the Seventies, and his association with Joe Papp and the New York Shakespeare Festival? Or did he miss the New York of the early Eighties, when he was teaching at both NYU and Columbia University? Or did he miss the New York of the Nineties, when he lived in the West Village and found himself flying all over the world as a newly lauded Nobel laureate?

Derek Walcott had many New Yorks, and all of them played a part in his life and in his evolution as a writer. But perhaps the most important of all his New York sojourns was the one from the Fifties, a nine-month period between 1958 and 1959 when Walcott lived in the city as a young man.

Some years earlier, in 1949, a nineteen-year-old Walcott was hawking his first book, 25 Poems, around St. Lucia. In this slim, self-published volume Walcott fused imported hardware with local materials: the metrical hammer of Milton could help him nail down the beauty of a tropical sunrise, and the alliterative saw of Shakespeare might better enable him to fashion a line about the foaming beauty of a wave breaking against a sandy white beach. [. . .]

In October 1958, Derek Walcott began a twelve-month Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship which would pay $250 a month and allow him to study drama in New York. He was particularly keen to immerse himself in the practical elements of theater such as set and lighting design, and theories of acting and directing, all of which he might employ once he returned to the Caribbean. Once again, he was seeking to become familiar with the “hardware” of another tradition, this time the world of the American stage, and take it back to the Caribbean. [. . .]

In the New York of the Fifties, there was, as yet, no discernible “black scene” in the arts, although Walcott’s own identity as a hybrid, creolized West Indian and his determination not to stoop to reductive notions of race would have quickly placed him outside the cultural nationalism that did develop. In New York, by learning what he wasn’t, Walcott quickly absorbed the lesson of what he was: a West Indian.

Furthermore, by mixing in the circles to which the fellowship and his charisma gave him access, he was also able to confirm to himself that he was indeed an artist, albeit a semi-invisible one. Walcott was a West Indian artist, and if those around him during his Greenwich Village stopover couldn’t yet recognize what this was, they were simply taking their lead from a United States of America that had no real notion of the Caribbean beyond the “Daylight Come” refrain of Harry Belafonte’s 1956 hit “Day-O.”

In the years to come, New York and the United States would eventually recognize and embrace Derek Walcott. The disappointment of this early encounter with New York would be replaced by a fuller and more satisfactory relationship with the city. As his career unfolded, he would come to be regarded as a member of three distinct groups of writers. First, and most importantly, he was viewed as leading exponent of twentieth-century Caribbean literature (whether written in English, French, Dutch, or Spanish). This Antillean literature of Jean Rhys, Aimé Césaire, Sam Selvon, Édouard Glissant, Saint-John Perse, Gabriel García Márquez, and others has written back to the classical world of Europe, frequently thumbing its nose at the post-Columbian vulgarities of caste and color.

[. . .] On June 12, 1959, Walcott asked the Rockefeller Foundation to end his fellowship three months before its natural term. In July, Derek’s brother, Roderick, would take six one-act plays by them both to Trinidad, under the auspices of the St. Lucia Arts Guild. Already, much was expected of Derek Walcott: his plays were being performed, his writing was being published, and his future was discussed with great interest. For his part, he was convinced that it was possible in the Caribbean to be released from the punishing straitjacket of both the British and, to an extent, the American traditions. He would continue to acknowledge and make use of work that had influenced him, but he knew that he must thenceforth fix his gaze on the creative forces around him unleashed by the Caribbean confluence of so many races, religions, and cultures.

Melded into his vision was a deep respect for the shadowy penumbra of illegitimacy, and he maintained a profound distrust of any notion of purity. He cherished the recurring cycle of unexpected Caribbean fusions—the Indian with the African, the Chinese with the Jew, the Hindu with the Christian—and the dignity of this mongrel reality distinguished his world. The Rockefeller Foundation could keep the remaining three months of their money. On June 20, 1959, Walcott left a steamy, hot New York City and returned to St. Lucia. It was over. He was going home.

For full review, go to https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2020/07/29/walcott-in-new-york

[Image above: “Derek Walcott, 1978” by Anthony Barboza/Getty Images.]

 

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