Islands in Majesty: Nobel Prizewinner Derek Walcott

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ONE summer evening in 1962, in Castries, the capital of St. Lucia, I went to see a play, The Malfinis. After the performance, I made a point of going up to the author, Roderick Walcott, and telling him how much I had enjoyed his work. Roderick thanked me for my compliments, but confided to me with a smile that his talent stood no comparison to that of his twin brother Derek.

My curiosity was aroused and I knew that I would not rest until I had met Derek Walcott, who was then living not in St. Lucia but in Trinidad. In the meantime I bought a copy of the only book of his that I could get hold of. Entitled In a Green Night (1962), it was a collection of poems of rare quality. To read it was to enter the presence of a shaper of words fit for a teller of islands: his own, as one of many other islands in the Caribbean, but more than this, as partaking of the universal--although none of its quiddities was denied, neglected or ignored. Here was a profound voice, in its utterances and in its silences. A voice which I was later to encounter in other collections of Derek Walcott's work: The Castaway and Other Poems (1965), Sea Grapes (1976), The Fortunate Traveller (1982), The Arkansas Testament (1987)--one of my particular favourites--but this is only a partial list.

When I eventually did meet Derek Walcott--in Berlin in 1964 at a get-together of Black and Western writers and poets--it was as if we had always known each other. No ceremony, no pedantic talk: just a warm, simple handshake, a dinner with beer, and a long walk through the streets of Berlin during which we made no attempt to pick at the wounds of a past heavy with night and fog. All that mattered was our own inner Suns, which we want to shine out to the world from our poetry. We spoke English, a bit of French, and a lot of Creole. Strangely enough, the patois of St. Lucia is very similar to that spoken in Mauritius. We were on common ground.

Now that he has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, I am happy for him and for poetry, but also for the islands. By honouring Derek Walcott, without in any way belittling the genius of this immense poet, the jury salutes him for sailing to his own compass, of braving winds and tides, and bringing his native St. Lucia--and with her the islands of all the seas in the world--safely to port.

It goes without saying that when a poet's work is hoisted to such pinnacles of international recognition, it is bound to attract widespread public interest. And a good thing too. But what a pity that we have to wait for an event of this kind before a poet's voice is heard and listened to. I don't know how widely or how well Derek Walcott has been translated, but I do know that in France, for example, no collection of his work was published until last October, when Editions Circe of Strasbourg brought out a translation by Claire Malroux of The Star-Apple Kingdom (1979).(1) And yet much had been done over the years--I am thinking of translations published in the magazine Presence Africaine--to draw attention to the existence and range of a major body of work, one which had, incidentally, won considerable recognition in England, a stone's throw away from Paris. …