XXII from Issue 14
Rest, Christ! from tireless war. See, it’s midsummer,
but what roars in the throat of the oaks is martial man,
the marching hosannas darken the wheat of Russia,
the coiled ram hides in the rocks of Afghanistan.
Crowned hydrants gush, baptizing the street urchins,
the water cannons blot their screams in mist,
but snow does not melt from the furnace brow of Mahomet,
or napkins hemorrhage from the brow of Christ.
Along the island the almonds seethe with anger,
the wind that churns these orchards of white surf
and whistles dervishes up from the hot sand
revolves this globe, this painted O that spins,
reciting as it moves, tribes, frontiers,
dots that are sounds, cities that love their names,
while weather vanes still scrape the sky for omens.
Though they have different sounds for “God” or “hunger,”
the opposing alphabets in city squares
shout with one voice, nation takes on nation,
and, from their fury of pronunciation,
children be torn like rubble for a noun.
French Colonial: Vers de Société from Issue 22
I cannot look a soldier in the eye,
or a philosopher. I am afraid of prose.
Of speeches, biographies, theorems, history.
Anything for which the intellect prepares.
Maurois, or Mauriac, but not Malraux,
not the French Marxist, the prophet of Man’s Fate.
Something I read somewhere years ago
that stuck, without an accurate memory of the date,
compared the symmetry of any work of art
to an hourglass. The French are very good at this
sort of pronouncement; every frog is a Descartes:
Cogito ergo sum, and that stupidness.
I remember the atmosphere in Martinique
as comfortable colonial — tobacco, awnings, Peugeots, gendarmes
their pride in a language that I dared not speak,
lunches white wine, the sibilants of crisp palms
even during Algeria and Dien Bien Phu,
the nauseous sense of heritage and order
revolving around Josephine’s or Schoelcher’s statue,
and that it was a culture that abhorred water,
that coloured everything with the right taste–
the wine, the punches, the Cinzano on the ashtrays.
Our town was named after the Marquis de Castres,
like the general who lost France to the Vietnamese.
Not only Art can make an empire great—
a diva, an hourglass; it’s why
the most symmetrical digit is an 8—
spectacles put down a round winged butterfly.
Interview in 1982, excerpted from Issue 22
James T. Livingston: Do you think of yourself as a Third World writer?
Derek Walcott: The trouble with that is when you look at a map of the world when the British Empire was at its height, the extent of its power was phenomenal. It would have included Egypt, LIbya, Australia, India, Canada, the West Indies, etc. When all that faded away and was drained, what was left was called the Third World. So what you have is an attitude that says, “I’m sorry I took your money, but why don’t you go do something else?” Colonialism is a state of mind. It’s how you condition the mind that makes people accept that they are colonial, that makes people accept a definition of themselves. The other day I was in Castries, in St. Lucia, my home town, and I saw two very old men who were obviously derelicts. They looked like hell, covered with coal dust and so on. They had been town rummies from way back. They were known. And I thought what is the quality of my compassion, my feeling sorry for these men and I thought that even my being concerned about them was in a way stained by the historical way of looking at them. If I see a bag lady on Eighth Avenue in New York, I would much more easily accept her than the two derelicts; the quality of my compassion for her would be very different, just because she isn’t black and Third World. Once you have experienced colonialism, it never leaves your mind and it colors everything you do. And even when you struggle free from all that self-contempt, you continually have to fight the idea of how people look at other people. What I resist is that historical way of seeing people. I was nine years old when the Second World War began, and there were posters all over my school that had four people on them, Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, and Chiang Kai-shek. These were our allies, I was told; and I as a colonial boy was to go out and fight for Uncle and Joe and the others. Well, five years later I was furious to discover that German soldiers, whom I thought I was supposed to hate, were now being trained in Wales in order to help the British occupying army in Germany defend itself against the new enemy which was the army of Uncle Joe. Now that may have been OK for the British, but they had created one very confused colonial boy. History, basically, is laughable, at least the ethics of history. And those decisions that are made outside of one’s own participation have made me totally cynical about what is called history as it is defined by those centers of decision.
LIVINGSTON: And of course it gave you a mastery of “the English tongue I love.”
WALCOTT: Yes and one of the things I really resent is when I am sometimes written off by a critic as some kind of freak. It’s sort of like having a suit and a tie called the English language, and I look good in it, but I really should be in some kind of other outfit that is my native language. The idea that I can speak both is a little horrific to some people, or the idea that both can be vehicles for poetry.
LIVINGSTON: For a long time critics told you that you were too derivative, too imitative of earlier poets, that you weren’t yourself, as they thought you should be. How do you feel about that?
WALCOTT: There’s a book by E.M. Forster, which I haven’t read, but it’s a nice title, Two Cheers for Democracy. In relation to writing, the idea of democracy emphasizes that you should be yourself. Buy you cannot be that as a young artist. It is conceited to be yourself because you aren’t any good. To say that the more you try to be yourself, the better you will get, is not true. It’s obvious, right? You can’t say, “I’m going to be an original architect and draw a building and people will see my genius.” I know nothing about physics and steel, but people will see my genius and do the building. That’s ridiculous. But writing is an area where some believe you should be allowed to express yourself. Under the ideal and best conditions of a culture it is the last thing that the young should be allowed to do, to express themselves. The young are so great and so rapid at absorption that you cannot destroy their identities. There’s nothing as individualistic as a child growing up. Even though they are constantly mimicking others, which is how they learn, their individuality is still strong. It’s the same thing with the artist. The more you imitate the more original you become. When I was younger, I wanted to write like everybody, not because I didn’t have my own personality. I just felt the excitement was to copy. People forget how true this is of a lot of poets. Even if it’s Dylan Thomas, they say, “What an original poet,” forgetting that Thomas was totally surrendering to the excitement of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Ted Hughes is a powerful, original poet, but you realize that when Ted was a young writer he was certainly imitating dylan Thomas. And you look at Seamus Heaney and the influence of Ted Hughes, and so on. The more a young mind absorbs, masters, the deeper the humility of the apprentice and the greater he will become.
LIVINGSTON: The humility of the artist as apprentice is an important idea for you, isn’t it?
WALCOTT: Last fall Chinua Achebe, the African novelist, came to Trinidad and very quietly gave a talk that was brilliant. What he pointed out was that in Ibo culture it was considered horrific and blasphemous for an artist of the tribe to sign his work and consider that it was he who did it. The real creator was God; the artist was the servant of God; and it was blasphemous for him to think himself the equal of God. It’s the same thing–the surrender to the master who has embodied the power of creation. If you surrender to that, that’s the votive, humble apprenticeship thing.
LIVINGSTON: So your advice to young poets is?
WALCOTT: Too many writers in this country allow themselves to just write out what they feel. Too many poets at a young age do not practice what painters practice, what scientists practice, what piano players practice. And a lot of writers move directly into writing free verse which as all the associations of being democratic and of being free to create. You ask them why they do that, and they say, “that’s how I feel.” And that’s no good; it turns out to be nothing. So if I am going to give any advice I would say: Do not struggle with the idea of not being original and certainly have no plan at your young age to be different from anybody else. And if someday someone tells you that what you have written sounds like Faulkner, you don’t say who, what? You say, “Gee Thanks;” that’s the finest kind of praise. In my case, what I kept hearing as a young poet was, “You write like T.S. Eliot.” And then it was somebody else, everybody, influences. Until finally now the whole situation is turned around. I find myself imitating more and more, and the critics are so tired they are saying, “Oh, what an original poet.” I’m imitating like hell as I go along, day after day after day.