Because civilizations are finite, in the life of each of them there comes a moment when the center ceases to hold. What keeps them at such times from disintegration is not legions but language. Such was the case of Rome, and before that, of Hellenic Greece. The job of holding the center at such times is often done by the men from the provinces, from the outskirts. Contrary to popular belief, the outskirts are not where the world ends—they are precisely where it begins to unfurl. That affects language no less than the eye.
Derek Walcott was born on the island of Saint Lucia, in the parts where “the sun, tired of empire, declines.” As it does so, however, it heats up a far greater crucible of races and cultures than any other melting pot north of the equator. The realm this poet comes from is a genetic Babel; English, however, is its tongue. If at times Walcott writes in Creole patois, it’s not to flex his stylistic muscle or to enlarge his audience but as an act of homage to what he spoke as a child—before he spiraled up the tower.
The real biographies of poets are like those of birds, almost identical—their data are in the way they sound. A poet’s biography lies in his twists of language, in his meters, rhymes, and metaphors. Attesting to the miracle of existence, the body of his work is always in a sense a gospel whose lines convert their writer more radically than his public. With poets, the choice of words is invariably more telling than the story line; that’s why the best of them dread the thought of their biographies being written. If Walcott’s origins are to be learned, his poems themselves are the best guide. What one of his characters tells about himself may well pass for the author’s self-portrait:
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….
This jaunty four-liner informs us about its writer as surely as a song does—saving us a look out the window—that there is a bird outside. The dialectal “love” tells us that he means it when he calls himself “a red nigger.” “A sound colonial education” may very well stand for the University of the West Indies from which Walcott graduated in 1953, although there is a lot more to this line, which we’ll deal with later. To say the least, we hear in it both scorn for the very locution typical of the master race and the pride of the native in receiving that education. “Dutch” is here because by blood Walcott is indeed part Dutch and part English. But given the nature of the realm, one thinks not so much about blood as about languages. Instead of, or along with, “Dutch” there could …