Derek Walcott: El poeta que cantó el Caribe

by Horace OvÈ, giclÈe colour print, 2003

La obra de Derek Walcott, que murió ayer a los 87 años en su casa de la pequeña isla de Santa Lucía, recuperaba esa dimensión que tanto amaba Borges: la épica. Omeros (1992), su libro mayor, es un vastísimo poema que recrea en cierto modo el mito de Ulises y de la Odisea en otros mares, centralmente los de las Antillas. Dos años después de publicar esa épica, la Academia Sueca le concedió el Premio Nobel de Literatura «por su obra poética de gran luminosidad sustentada en una visión histórica nutrida de un compromiso multicultural».

Walcott había nacido en Santa Lucía, que obtuvo la independencia en 1979. Se graduó en la Universidad de las Indias occidentales, en Trinidad, y vivió la mayor parte de su vida en los Estados Unidos y en Trinidad, a dondese trasladó en 1953 y trabajó como crítico de teatro. A los 18 años, publicó 25 poemas.

Al margen de las consideraciones multiculturales, Walcott fue un verdadero virtuoso de la forma y unos de los mayores poetas en lengua inglesa. Otro poeta, Joseph Brodsky dijo de él: «Su tinte­ro es una cornucopia de esquemas métricos y estróficos; y aunque el metro en el que se encuentra más cómodo sea el yambo libre, sus versos están más basados en la rima que en el metro. Como el océano.

Publicado en La Nación

Derek Walcott: Caribbean colossus

First, he wrote about the Caribbean landscape in such as way as to magnify it. Not only did he give our landscape a certain epic status, he conferred on it deific significance as perhaps only the fallen Taino, Arahuacan ancestors, deified before.


Here is Walcott writing in Omeros:

… he same sunrise stirred the feathered lances of cane

down the archipelago’s highways.

This is not just cane. Cane you pass by when coming down the highway. He bequeaths stature, majesty, to ordinary cane. He confers on us our landscape — that which we have been taught, like Caliban, the Shakespearean slave, to despise — a majesty. The cane field is filled with feathered lances stirred by the sunrise!

Here he is writing about the Caroni Plains in The Spoiler’s Return (1981):

…the torn brown patches of the Central Plain,

Slowly restitched by needles of rain,

And the frayed earth, crisscrossed like old bagasse,

Spring to a cushiony quilt of emerald grass,

And who does sew and sow the patch of land?

The Indian. And whose villages turn to sand?

Here he uses an extended metaphor; all the words, images, relate to sewing. Just as a person sews, stitches a quilt, just so do the needles of rain sew the frayed clothes of earth into a cushiony emerald quilt of grass. The industrious rains are transforming the brown, old garb of the dry season into the wet season, a munificent quilt of green grass. “Crisscrossed like old bagasse” depicts the patchwork of the Caroni cane lands lying in fallow. This is what Spoiler sees as he watches out over the Caroni Plains from the Laventille hills.

Second, Walcott savagely attacks the post-colonial kingdoms of the Caribbean. The last two lines of the last excerpt, for example, critiques the way we have transformed our villages, agricultural lands, into “sand”, a metaphor of sterility. In The Spoiler’s Return, using a barrage of rhyming couplets, Walcott unleashes his best irony, sarcasm, puns, banter, vituperation to critique Trinidad in 1981.


The Spoiler’s Return, Walcott assumes the mask of Spoiler, the dead kaisonian known for his humour and irony. He uses the persona of Spoiler, his identity, voice. Spoiler is in hell with the other great satirists, spoilers of the age: “Lord Rochester, Quevedo, Juvenal, /Maestro, Martial, Pope, Dryden, Swift, Lord Byron, /The lords of irony, the Duke of Iron”; things have become so corrupt in Trinidad, he has no choice but to come back from hell to sing about it. He sits high on a bridge in Laventille, and witnesses the local scene.

What does he see?

People excuse their failure to act: “Is the same voices, that in the slave ship,/ Smile at their brothers, ‘Boy. Is just the whip!”

All the ethnic groups seem compromised — by greed. All the pillars of society — the artist, journalist, justices of the high bench, politicians, the ordinary folk — have become mercenary, anti-revolutionary. And, “Corbeaux like cardinals line the La Basse.”

Graft, curry favour and corruption reigns. All is bobohl, pappy show, mimic:

Is carnival, straight Carnival that’s all

The beat is base, the melody bohbohl,

All Port of Spain is a twelve-thirty show,

Some playing Kojak, some Fidel Castro,

Some Rastamen, but, with or without locks,

To Spoiler is the same old khaki socks,

We dance to a base beat, to the music of bohbohl. We are all actors in a Carnival drama. There are no revolutionaries, just men mimicking the American television detective, Kojak; or imitating the real revolutionary, Castro; or are Rastas with locks, not philosophy. To Spoiler, “is the same old khaki socks”. Khaki was the wear of the colonial master, commando, field foreman.

Walcott develops this theme of colonial re-entrapment in the following lines:

Is crab climbing crab-back, in a crab-quarrel,

And going round and round in the same barrel,

Is sharks with shirt-jacs, sharks with well-pressed fins,

Ripping we small-fry off with razor grins;

Nothing ain’t change but colour and attire.

Around and around we go in the same barrel. No one has a solution of how to get out of the barrel. Instead of finding a solution, we are climbing on each other’s backs. The new elite, in his official wear, his shirt jac, his lapels pressed fine and neat, like the fins of sharks pressed to its sides, now attacks the small fries, the sardines in the social ecology, with razor grins. Walcott concludes that nothing has changed but colour and attire: from jackets, ties and khakis, to sharks in shirt jacs.

Walcott’s third monumental feat has been to win acclaim. He produced a plethora of plays, paintings, films, books of poems. He won the Nobel Prize in 1992. He was the man who cut his studies short at The University of the West Indies (UWI) in the 1960s and stood in a market square in St Lucia peddling his poems. He believed in his craft. He persisted in a workmanlike way. His craft, fidelity to his work, brought the Caribbean into the light of metropolitan review and scholarship.

Two of his keenest admirers have also passed on: Dr Patricia Ismond, a St Lucian, a UWI lecturer, who fought to finish her book on Walcott during her illness; and Irma Rambaran, who devoted ages trying to elucidate his filmic vision. They are now, all three, gathered as one.

Publicado en Jamaica Observer

Decolonizing Culture and Politics with Derek Walcott

There was once a time in the Caribbean where children were religiously raised on reading Shakespeare. Today, we read Walcott.

“I know these islands from Monos to Nassau,   

a rusty head sailor with sea-green eyes   

that they nickname Shabine, the patois for   

any red nigger, and I, Shabine, saw   

when these slums of empire was paradise.   

I’m just a red nigger who love the sea,   

I had a sound colonial education,

I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,   

and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation,”

– Derek Walcott, The Schooner Flight

Derek Alton Walcott was a St. Lucian poet, playwright and painter. In his lifetime, Walcott’s work was widely received in the West. He was one of the leading Third World poets describing the scope and scars of European colonialism and the challenges underpinning the project of postcolonial development. Walcott established a pan-Caribbean consciousness, what may have been referred to as a “West Indian Identity” early on in his development. As a youth, he attended The University of the West Indies, Mona Campus in Jamaica. Later, his playwriting was widely staged in Trinidad and Tobago. He was a founding director of the Trinidad Theatre Workshop with his brother Roderick. Unlike many artists, especially Caribbean-born writers based in the Global North who deploy “strategic” connections between their «Caribbean home» and metropolitan locations (abundant in career opportunities, invitations for keynote addresses and publishing houses), Walcott was not an isolated poet separate from his native St. Lucia and wider Caribbean. In a 2009 interview, he shared, “The society I come from demands meaning, demands understanding, and that’s pass for some cultures…Whatever is fashionable in New York is supposed to be fashionable all over the world, and that’s the arrogance that irritates me. But I don’t have to go by that New York thinking. In fact, I have to go by a culture that demands understanding of what it’s looking at or reading.” Walcott’s death on March 17, 2017, leaves not just a space but also an emptiness of a Caribbean presence in the world.

It may be argued that his international peak was in 1990 with the publication of the Homeric epic in Omeros. By 1992, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for his poetry. Walcott would eventually become a distinguished artist in residence and beneficiary of a number of fellowships to teach in universities, namely in the United States of America. In 2009, in an ugly turn of events during his consideration for the prestigious post of Oxford Poetry Professor, allegations of sexual harassment claims resurfaced as the race heated on between Walcott and Ruth Padel. Yet no amount of accolades or years of travel and residencies abroad challenged Walcott’s love for life in St. Lucia.

While Walcott was one of European colonialism’s greatest critics; he was also one of its greatest admirers as he valued the English language and thought of European civilization as his inheritance. While I do not share a similar sense or sensibility to his, many poets and radical thinkers of his time, beneficiaries of a “sound colonial education” and trained to master knowledge of empire were intellectually and emotionally invested in such a worldview. Walcott’s politics was less centered with breaking down colonial structures materially, he was much more committed to building a philosophy that challenged the subjugation of colonial rule with the use of the creative imagination. He was an important Caribbean thinker and liberator of the mind who made an effort to show that humanity was central to the project of Caribbean freedom. Also, being Caribbean was enough to be human.

Walcott frequently weighed in on political matters of the day in his writing. He was weary of the disgraceful nature and corruption of colonialism but equally concerned with post-colonial nationalisms that sought to replace the monolith of colonial knowledge and symbols for another hegemonic ‘black’ monolith of knowledge and symbols. He refused to configure the Caribbean in purely racial terms, as locked between the choices of a Eurocentric pride in colonial civilization or an Afrocentric pride in an African civilization. Walcott felt that forging a Caribbean identity required an originality which emerged from drawing on multiple sources of culture and practices to make our society our own and relevant to our history. Decolonization for him required a level of “coherence.”

Independent nations and even revolutionary governments had to come to terms with challenges fraught in nation-building the hard way. Statist overreaches in individual expression, patronizing and political funding of folk culture and unimaginative economic planning and their bureaucracies have stifled the prospect of development in the Caribbean. The artist, poet, storyteller and visionaries are central to Caribbean development because they draw on the mood and feelings of the people, shaped by deeper historical and social forces, that five-year election cycles do not create room for. These creative tensions need to be looked at more closely in our Caribbean societies that are still defining themselves, not always on their own terms. Movements need institutions to reflect their ideals; and, institutions need movements to give them an imperative to determine the direction of their work. Márquez’s political activism matched his political messaging in his novels; Walcott was no Márquez in that regard but his poetry violently overthrew colonial constructions of Caribbeanness in a battle of metaphors. For Walcott, “You cannot separate culture from politics and therefore decolonization of the culture must also mean a decolonization of the politics.”

Derek Walcott’s work is seen as the highest form of poetry in the Caribbean canon. In bourgeois literary circles, his work continues to be a site of debate and interrogations. Young radicals who live for a radical Caribbean imagination need to reclaim Walcott. We need to read Walcott’s poetry, criticize his politics and prescriptions and teach a new generation of the story about Walcott the institution builder and committed artist to his homeland. George Lamming, the Barbadian novelist and poet,  explained to us the role of the artist when he wrote, “…it is the function of the writer to return a society to itself; and in this respect, your writers have been the major historians of the feeling of your people.” Walcott returned Caribbean society to itself.

There was once a time in the Caribbean where children were religiously raised on reading Shakespeare as the highest form of literary achievement. Today, we read Walcott in primary schools and universities to begin our journey in cultural criticism, poetry and the arts.

Travel well, shabine, sir, Derek Walcott.

Publicado en Telesur
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