Why Derek Walcott - Born 1/23/1930 - Would Be Worth Knowing Even if He Never Won the Nobel Prize for Literature
On January 23, 1943, when Derek Walcott turned 13, Duke Ellington took his orchestra to Carnegie Hall where they performed his long symphonic suite, "Black, Brown and Beige." It's a poetically inspired work, which seeks to express the complicated history of African-Americans in the United States. The first movement, which Ellington called "Black," involves a "West Indian Influence."
That influence is not about the small island of St. Lucia where Walcott was born thirteen years to the day of Ellington's concert. But it might have been. Like Haiti (the West Indian influence in Ellington's piece), tiny St. Lucia had been "owned" (on and off) by France during the hey-day of European imperialism. The tensions and contradictions that come with having both European and African ancestry are as true for the people of St. Lucia as they are for Haiti.
Ellington brought some of this to the "Black, Brown and Beige" his orchestra performed at Carnegie Hall in 1943. But it would take that thirteen year old boy from St. Lucia to explore these themes more fully in poetry and plays that would eventually earn him a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992.
Although the Nobel prize committee praised Walcott for creating poetic work of "great luminosity sustained by historical vision, the outcome of a multicultural commitment," it was probably Omeros that clinched the prize for him that year. The book is basically a retelling of the Iliad in terms of characters who live in 20th-century St. Lucia.
Think of the George Clooney film, O Brother, Where Art Thou, from a few years back, and you will get the hang of this. That film was a modern retelling of the Odyssey, with wonderful parallels to Homer's epic poem. Clooney was Odysseus, John Goodman was an eventual cyclops, and Holly Hunter was Penelope (Penny), the wife Odysseus leaves behind when he goes off to fight the Trojan War. All of these Homeric elements are in the Clooney (Coen Brothers) film as in a dream. It's not a slavish restatement but cleverly references Homer as it spins its own tale set in the Deep South of chain gangs and the Ku Klux Klan.
Omeros does more or less the same thing in seven "books" of poetry within a single volume. Perhaps this is why the New Yorker magazine praised the work as the "perfect marriage of Walcott's classicism and his nativism." It's an astonishing achievement.
Here's the book's description from Apple iBooks: "A poem in five books of circular narrative design, with the Greek name for Homer, which simultaneously charts two currents of history: the visible history charted in events -- the tribal losses of the American Indian, the tragedy of African enslavement -- and the interior, unwritten epic fashioned from the suffering of the individual in exile."
One more beautiful thing about this book: At first glance, the cover looks like a painting by that other Homer, Winslow, who often painted island scenes. But it's actually a watercolor by the author, Derek Walcott himself. So what we have in this masterpiece is Homer the poet and Winslow Homer, the painter, channeled through a luminous poetry that is not only a joy but an illumination.
Those who still care about poetry are no strangers to Walcott's work, especially his beautiful "Love after Love." I have included several readings of that poem in the Storify slide-show presentation below. Because sometimes you have to read (or hear) a poem two or three times before you "get it." Walcott's own readings and interviews are there too. So is Ellington's "Black, Brown and Beige" Symphonic Suite, which you'll find in separate movements in the last three slides.
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