Brilliance leaves sacrifice in its wake

Derek Walcott
August 24, 2001

On Chaussee Road, Castries, St Lucia, stands a narrow wooden house where Derek Walcott, Nobel prizewinning poet and dramatist, his twin brother, Roderick, and their sister, Pamela, grew up. It fits exactly the plot of land on which it stands. In 1930, when the twins were born, St Lucia was an impoverished and racially stratified colony, but theirs was a good house, with an inside toilet, in a respectable area, suitable for a proud and artistic widowed schoolteacher with aspirations for her children. By 18, Walcott was already an outstanding writer, but the arduous path from that remote, neglected island to the global readership of his work today has been difficult to comprehend until this, the first biography.

The task of the biographer is doubly complicated when his subject is alive and has written autobiographically. Readers of Walcott's poetry will already have a certain map of his life. Bruce King's book, published to mark Walcott's 70th birthday, draws a map of much greater magnification and fills in the blanks. Like its subject, it is flawed but fascinating. This is more a literary biography than biography as literature, which is probably wise since Walcott's autobiographical works already hold all the poetic cards. King uses a matter-of-fact style, shifting gear to the epigrammatic to drive a point home. His judgements can be sweeping, but they are often shrewd. Walcott's world, for instance, was "Arnoldian, not Third". Metaphor is used rarely: "The hurts are still there, as they must be for any artist, but like grains of sand encrusted with pearls - the pearls of art and of a vision of the New World." King divides his history into sensibly sized portions, but even so, they are kaleidoscopic, cutting from one field of activity to another, from one place to another, without apology. At one point he wishes he had a split screen to do the multiplicity of the story justice.

Those seeking elaborate psychology or the salacious will have to wait for subsequent biographies. The price of Walcott's cooperation in this project was that King back-pedalled on the personal. However, there is enough fresh material to make those familiar with what has been in the public realm read on, while for new students of Walcott, this biography, however plainly narrated and data-crammed at times, will become an indispensable accompaniment to his work, a must for the academic library.

King draws on a mass of unpublished documents and has interviewed a lot of contacts, but although a compelling portrait emerges of a difficult, mercurial individual, negotiating Oedipal, cultural and racial conflicts, the impetus is towards the man of letters. King talks about works never before heard of, reminds us how much is unpublished, what a fine journalist Walcott is (let us have a collection of his journalism, he says), what a fine lyricist (someone should do a volume of his lyrics) and what an interesting visual artist (he had seen the latest poem Tiepolo's Hound but not Walcott's paintings published with it). He often captures an elusive truth. Walcott, he says, "may be one of the few remaining religious poets". He shares with his friend Seamus Heaney the idea of poetry as meta-language "found in nature itself".

Illustrations show the family, the hopeful youth and some of his theatre designs, as well as the recent Walcott, robed for an honorary doctorate with the ease of a true man of the theatre. The biography - in some ways not complete without King's earlier book on Walcott's Trinidad Theatre Workshop - delivers a sense that he has lived his whole life as a performance, exhilarating but exhausting. The pages hum with Walcott's extraordinary energy, versatility and unfailing creativity. What transpires is a life of near-obsessive dedication to his art. Not surprisingly, three marriages foundered on its rocks. King writes sparingly about the private dimension but includes enough to show how it was not only Walcott himself, but his partners and children, who made sacrifices on art's altar. His priority was his work. After he began to get an international reputation, he was hardly at home.

Above all, King charts a cultural history of the artist in our time. As he says, it is a West Indian story, and, in a Walcottian aperçu , "therefore both universal and unlike others". He is good on the wider history, the mid-century social landscape, for example. Walcott was leaving an island where illegitimacy had been stigmatised in the only girls' secondary school by different uniforms, where he could not look forward to a permanent teaching post in the only boys' secondary school because he was a Methodist and the school was Catholic. King details the constant strain of being strapped for cash, the absurd taxation of minuscule royalties, the exhaustion of finding a room and chairs to sit on before the actors, tired from their day jobs, start on a night's rehearsal, the marginalisation in northern cities, the self-belief necessary to make art at all in such circumstances.

Walcott has come a long way, to a reputation as perhaps the most important poet in English in our time; yet in another sense the truth of the journey is that, like Achille in Omeros , he has not moved, but stuck to his aim to centre his work on the Caribbean and thereby portray it to the world. The Walcott who has built his own empire from art was already in place, taking his imperious gifts, his protestant work-ethic and his gnawing insecurities with him when he stepped on the plane to Jamaica in 1950, to study at the new University College of the West Indies.

Despite the hustling for a living and a reputation, and camping out of suitcases for at least half a lifetime, works of the brilliance of Another Life and Omeros were created. Paradoxically, King's plain narration delivers eloquent testimony. The book leaves us reflecting that we do not do our artists or ourselves any favours if we force them to live such lives in order to succeed. King shows Walcott as the troubled hero of his own meteoric story, but beyond that, he enables us to see that Walcott's triumphantly Caribbean life is also a cautionary tale.

Paula Burnett teaches at Brunel University and is the author of Derek Walcott: Politics and Poetics .

Derek Walcott: A Caribbean Life

Author - Bruce King
ISBN - 0 19 871131 X
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 714

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