- A Voice at the Edge of the SeaAn Interview With Derek Walcott
“I am going down to the shallow edge to begin again, Joseph, with a first line, with an old net, the same expedition. I will study the opening horizon, the scansion’s strokes of the rain, to dissolve in a greater fiction than our lives, the sea, the sun.”—Derek Walcott, from “Italian Eclogues, iv”
Joseph Brodsky—the Joseph addressed in the epigraph—once said that when you hear Derek Walcott’s voice, “the world unravels.” It is a voice concomitant with the sea, and by connection, history. As I listen to its garrulous rise and fall from the veranda of his home by the sea in Saint Lucia, the sphinx-head bluff of Pigeon Island keeping watch in the distance, an opposite understanding of Brodsky’s statement takes hold: This is the voice that knots worlds together, or more accurately, “re-knots” worlds into the singular experience called the Caribbean.
After six decades of making the language that has elevated his Antillean world into the permanence of poetry, Walcott, at eighty-four years old, a Nobel laureate, maintains there is “so much to do still.” Such a statement is impressively humbling—a mark of the vigor of a poet whose love of his island and the poetic craft has never diminished, for whom these two things have congealed into one great echo. Though moments of silence gather during our talk—moments when he looks out to the humming sea—his voice returns with the fulgent light “that reads like Dante” of his poetry, each time with greater magnificence. There were often, too, glittering moments of irreverence and laughter, including his fondness for puns, such as those by James Joyce, one of which he recited from memory.
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Walcott’s poetry, from its very early beginning, possesses a chromatic fluency that accelerates the sensual pulse of the moment, converting ordinary images beyond their actual reality, into the colloquial magnitude of fable. His landscape, named, vivifies “every neglected, self-pitying inlet / muttering in brackish dialect, the ropes of mangroves / . . . / losing itself in an unfinished phrase.” The “unfinished,” fragmentary by nature, is a vital feature of Walcott’s poetics, which resemble his life and belief that “poetry is an island that breaks away from the main.”
In 1964, Robert Graves praised Walcott’s international debut, In a Green Night, for handling “English with a closer understanding of its inner magic than most (if not any) of [End Page 172] his English-born contemporaries.” The true aspect of that inner magic is its outer votive life not at the core of English, a life that is the multitudinous heritage of the Caribbean, finding sublime utterance in Walcott. Shabine, the poet-persona of the brilliant poem “The Schooner Flight,” declares what the phantasmagoria of that self is:
I’m just a red nigger who love the sea I had a sound colonial education, I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.
“English,” Walcott once remarked, “is nobody’s special property. It is the property of the imagination,” and from this private sensibility evolves an oeuvre—seventeen poetry collections, nine volumes of drama, and a book of essays—of a pelagic imagination, inexorably striving against the stream, with unparalleled strength and beauty.
Recognized for a lyric torque of elemental potency in such poems as “Love After Love,” “Coral,” “Star,” “A Sea-Chantey,” among many others, it is the lush, anticipatory cadence of his serial style, beginning with the book-length poem Another Life (1973), in which the full force of dramatic poetry coheres into the tremendous music that has secured his lasting reputation. That music reaches its oceanic magnanimity in the epic poem Omeros (1990); in it Walcott’s genius for breaching the membrane between metaphor and metonymy reads, in the words of one of its stunning moments, like “doors dissolve into tenderness.” The collections following Omeros, The Bounty, Tiepolo’s Hound, The Prodigal...