The Day I Read... Derek Walcott

Robert Minhinnick on how Derek Walcott inspired him to reassess the classics


That little sail in light
which tires of islands,
a schooner beating up the Caribbean

for home, could be Odysseus{.}

‘Sea Grapes’

Ironically, perhaps, I like the whole Sea Grapes collection more today because I can see the faults invisible to me when I first encountered it in my early twenties. It’s flawed. Thank goodness.

For instance, there is too much travelogue, and those once thrilling referrals to Blake, Whitman, Joyce, Neruda, Frank O’Hara, etc. are now redundant scaffolding. Reading it afresh it seems today ‘The Chelsea’ merely borrowed from the already oversold reputation of the New York hotel.

“The classics can console”, Walcott told me in the title poem, “but not enough”. Yes, that struck home to a young man who thought in time he would read everything. But who could not imagine that life might overshadow books?

So Sea Grapes shows a genius has off-days too, when learning is unassimilated and strivings are strident. Not all the essentials have yet been internalised. ‘Winding Up’ with its tone of withdrawal from the fray now seems false. The reader didn’t need to be told that life was “awash with mediocrity and trash”. And if I still feel a comradeship with the younger Walcott, who could describe his “nerves steeled against the power of London”, I simply cannot recognise the English people’s “centuries of reticence”. Anything but.

What remains for this reader is the ambition, the politics, the imagery. What were sea grapes anyway to my 25 year-old self? Laverbread? Maybe, but far sexier than say, Betjeman’s bladderwrack. Immediately for me they became rivals to Dylan Thomas’s multifarious seaweeds.

Yet perhaps what appealed above all was the confidence that helped to create a historical vision. Even now those lines from ‘To Return to the Trees’ restore the roughed-up romantic in me:

Or, am I lying
like this felled almond
when I write I look forward to age

a gnarled poet
bearded with the whirlwind
his metres like thunder.

Not that Walcott on the Sea Grapes cover looked grizzled. Instead, he was powerfully satyric, a dark Homer smiling with sight restored, listening to “the great hexameters come / to finish up as Caribbean surf”.

The first time I encountered it I thought, yes, that is the truest line I have ever read. After that, anything was possible. Because if Homer could feel the Sainte Lucie sand between his toes, if Homer felt himself liberated to do that, perhaps he might not entirely deride or discount the bwlch and gwter of my own scrap of coast. (“Come back to me / my language”, as Walcott himself mourned).

There were no sea grapes in Swansea Bay but Dylan’s nourishing laver aplenty. And an island, too. In fact, a quite mysterious island that disappeared at high tide and was where the fairies grazed their cattle. For who would now dare break the news that Tusker Rock off Porthcawl could not be Ithaca. Not Walcott, the enabler. Not Walcott, for all his slightly desperate cultural reference, the outsider. Not Walcott who seemed to be telling us that because the classics were not enough they must be remade.

For squabs like myself, Walcott became a champion to challenge the self-absorption of the English and the unvanquishable smugness of their enormous history.

He found he could mythologise his own experience. Or, what he discovered in his homeland supported, even welcomed, mythologising.

Walcott created an iconography of home that suggested how a past and a future might exist together. Here was an inexhaustible resource. In comparison, modish subjects such as the Chelsea Hotel and name-dropping poems about the writer travelling in America have dated quickly. (And I still have trouble with “the death of Mandelstam / among the yellowing coconuts.”)
But looking at those ordinary sea grapes the poet learned how to go beyond himself.

Of course, sea grapes, thus used, are not merely sea grapes. Those sea grapes are political, and more so than any reference to Mandelstam. For me it’s the Walcott who uses “my small islander’s simplicities” which include “the goose-skin of water” and “this old sea-almond / unwincing in spray”, who will remain for me a political poet.

And crucially, of course, he has

...the noon’s
stunned, amethystine sea,
something always being missed
between the floating shadow and the pelican
in the smoke from over the next bay…

That “something always being missed” is another world again. Whether it comprises language itself or simply “the shaft light / on a yellow ackee” it’s a metaphysics of loss we all must share.

Robert Minhinnick discusses Derek Walcott’s poetry on 22 May in Under the Influence at the Arts Theatre, London.

Poetry News, Spring 2008