Derrick Walcott: A Maker and Changer of West Indian Literature – Pt 2 | Entertainment
(Part 2 of an article based on an interview with Dr Edward Baugh, author of a recent biography of Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott. Part 1 was published last Friday.)
BAUGH’s “FIRST meeting” with Walcott turned him on, he told me, but it was truly a virtual meeting. While in sixth grade at Titchfield High School in Portland, he learned that he was then attending University College of the West Indies (UCWI) and one morning was reading in The gleaner a rave review of a play by Walcott, then a student at UCWI.
The game, Henri Christophe, had been produced by the University Dramatic Arts Society, which Walcott had helped establish, and Baugh was impressed that a college student could have written such a beloved play. “The exam just set me on fire,” Baugh said. “I was curious to know him.
He continued: “It turns out that he left Mona in June 1954 and I arrived in Mona in October 1954. But he was still in Jamaica, teaching, and he was going up to college every now and then. I got involved in society and performed in a few plays at the Old Dramatic Theater. And there at the back of the theater, leaning against the wall, was Walcott, watching what was going on. I got to know him a bit then.
For a while Walcott – whom Baugh, now a recognized authority on Walcott, called “one of the creators and changers of West Indian literature” – did not know whether he wanted to be a poet or a painter first and foremost. But Baugh notes in the biography, Derek walcott, this “His poetic gift had started to make his mark in his childhood”.
A poem he wrote at the age of 10 so impressed his teacher and the principal of his elementary school that they had him read in assembly. And a poem he published in the local newspaper when he was 14 – “… Miltonic virgin verse, expressing a pantheistic belief in the presence and power of God as taught by Nature…. “ – earned him both criticism and published praise.
Her love for painting and poetry has remained throughout her life, and a recurring theme in her work is the relationship between the two. Other favorite themes that Baugh lists are “the North-South dialogue, the tensions and parallels between the country and the foreigner, the Caribbean artist / poet and his relationship to Europe, the legacy of colonialism and its ethnic and racial factors ”. Added to this is Walcott’s quest for identity.
Explaining Walcott’s literary heritage, Baugh said that early West Indian poetry was “a kind of imitation of English and European poetry,” and Walcott was able to draw on the literature he was taught and give him ” a base and a concentration ”in the Caribbean.
“Some people accused him of being too Eurocentric,” Baugh continued. “Other writers, like [Kamau] Brathwaite made a point of logging out, so to speak, but Walcott never wanted to log out. He took Caribbean multiculturalism and did something quintessentially Caribbean with English literature.
Regarding Walcott’s social relations, Baugh reports that Walcott’s personality and temperament exhibit “mutually opposing tendencies.” On the one hand, he could be “thoughtful, generous, not self-promoting”, while, on the other hand, he could be “unexpectedly short, sarcastic, contemptuous …” Guardian of the Trinity, his third wife, Norline, said: “Under the cascade of arrogance and strength he is really kind, gentle and gentle.”
Asked about a comparison of Walcott’s relative importance as a poet and playwright, Baugh said it depends on where in the world one is. “Walcott the poet is the best known and most talked about in the outside world. Walcott the playwright is the most famous in the Caribbean…. It’s kind of an uneven look.
Continuing, he said, “Of course, for a good understanding of Walcott, you should be able to relate the plays to the poetry and the poetry to the plays. But if he was only a playwright, he would be a great playwright and a great Caribbean playwright; if he were only a poet, he would be a great poet and a great Caribbean poet. The “Caribbean” of her work is more evident in her plays than in her poetry, but it is there. “
About my observation that the Lesser Antilles produced three Nobel Laureates in Literature (VS Naipaul of Walcott, Trinidad and Tobago and Alexis Saint-Léger Leger of Guadeloupe, who wrote under the name of Saint-John Perse) , Baugh said there was no reason that a small territory couldn’t produce three talented people.
But, he admitted, the region’s multiculturalism could be a factor. “Wilson Harris wrote about our multiculturalism as a germinating force in the creativity of the region… and the multicultural aspect of the region is actually an informational force for many Caribbean writers, including Walcott.”
I asked him if he had seen another West Indian writer nearby who might get a Nobel Prize.
Baugh’s response was: “The three best Caribbean poets of our time are, for me, Walcott, Brathwaite and now Lorna Goodison. She has a huge international reputation. It was only recently that she was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. It is a huge honor and distinction.