Books: Whispers of immortality

The Books Interview; Derek Walcott, friend of Ted Hughes and fellow bard, tells Paula Burnett about myth and memory
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The Independent Culture
Derek Walcott is sitting in the corner of a small dark- panelled hotel bar, just north of Oxford Street, nursing a cold as the half-light of a dull November afternoon fades. In as many days, he has been in Heidelberg, with Volkswagen ("It's good. They're developing a kind of relationship to the arts that's international now"), in Nice, in Granada and now London. In four days' time, he will be in Bermuda for a performance of his play Remembrance. Tiny tables topped with beaten copper take a shine to the coal fire nestling improbably in a Victorian range. It is not hard to imagine TS Eliot's London, where "A lonely cab- horse steams and stamps". But now it is not so much Eliot as Ted Hughes who bulks the shadows. Walcott was in Spain for the Lorca centenary when he heard of his friend's death.

He is here for the British launch of his essays, What the Twilight Says (Faber, pounds 9.99): three important statements of his ideas, including the beautiful Nobel Prize lecture "The Antilles", some short studies of diverse writers, and a story. Walcott is a kingfisher critic, with flashing insights, an original who writes a profound, poetic prose. Mine is his fourth appointment of the day, but he is courteous as ever. He speaks as he thinks, twisting and turning, allowing one idea to spark another, changing sentences in mid-stream to capture precisely what he is after, reminding me of Hughes's much-loved poem "The Thought-Fox". The familiar recording of it in Hughes's rich voice had begun the hastily-scheduled tribute that packed the Purcell Room the day before, to which Walcott contributed.

At 68 (and so born in the same year as Hughes), Walcott is far from retired. Now based in New York, he commutes for one night a week to Boston University to teach. Otherwise, he spends as much time as possible in his native St Lucia, where the "bounty of Sweden" has enabled him to build a house with a studio that's "very nice, nicer than the work I do".

Between writing poems, plays and screenplays, painting, and doing storyboards - not to mention directing plays, and reading internationally - he is always busy. He rises early, though not quite as early as he used to, and works at the typewriter, liking the noise that "makes you feel you're working", but aware of the "stupid age- prejudice" that he has against the computer. He rejoices that he has now given up not only alcohol but tobacco (laughing, he says "If I've done it, anybody can do anything") and has learned how to have that first coffee without a cigarette.

He is brim-full of projects. He has filmed some scenes from his play The Odyssey, is bringing out a volume of his watercolours with an introduction that has turned into a longish poem, and is working on screenplays, including adaptations of Omeros, his epic transposition of the Odyssey to St Lucia, and Ti-Jean. So many Caribbean novels would make "terrific films", he says. "I would love to do a [Sam] Selvon, setting it in London".

At home, he has plans for his Rat Island arts centre, with "a band-shell, studios, etcetera, but that is going to take a lot of money to raise". The dream is still in its infancy, but last summer he gathered a score of international theatre artists in St Lucia, including some of his old colleagues from the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, as well as some new young actors. His face lights up as he talks of their brilliance.

A question about The Capeman - the musical he wrote with Paul Simon, which closed after a few weeks on Broadway and many years' work - summons a more sombre mood. For the last month, he stopped going to rehearsals, feeling betrayed by Broadway's "very high banality". "It's not a Broadway play," he insists, and talks about the "disastrous" absence of anything like the National Theatre or the RSC in the US. But he is careful not to carp. "Perhaps it was bad," he says, "but at least it should have gone down as its own thing". Could it be revived? There was some good work in it, he replies, which "should be somehow preserved and re-attempted ultimately" - but not yet.

I ask him about myth, discussed in "The Muse of History", one of the essays in the book. He begins by calling myth history's alternative, the opposite of reason and hierarchy, and then cites Ted Hughes's view that myth "is much more powerful than reality". He warms to his point.

"What happens now? Ted Hughes is dead. That's a fact, OK. Then there's something called the poetry of Ted Hughes. The poetry of Ted Hughes is more real, very soon, than the myth that Ted Hughes existed - because that can't be proven. You follow what I'm saying? Since this is a domain of myth, anyway - a kind of tribal-memory thing - what happens? Ted Hughes enters the tribal memory of England. So Hughes's poetry is a part of the myth of England and is part of the myth of English poetry...". He pauses. I think of Hughes, who said that, as Poet Laureate, he served the tribe.

He turns to education: "When a child's mind develops and is heading in a certain direction, we murder that mentality, we murder that imagination, by saying `Now, that is all well and good, but now sit down and start to study'". What is lost in this process, he adds, is Traherne's and Blake's idea of the "innocence of soul".

So is writing, for him, a devotional practice? "Yes, completely. I mean, I am grateful, you know. I have to be grateful in the sense that I feel that what I have is a gift. That's another pompous expression that is out of fashion, to say that poetry is a gift. It sounds pompous because you say, who gave you the gift, and what is this gift?

"And the gift is where I am, the gift is what I have come out of, the people around me who, I think, are beautiful people. They are, because they have gone through so much, and their fortitude is tremendous, and their beauty is part of that fortitude, and the landscape they inhabit..."

He leans forward. "Just recently, a guy was playing a shac-shac [a kind of maraca made from a gourd with seeds] in a band in St Lucia and I was looking at that guy's face, and I was saying, that's why I'm here, that's what I want to do. I want to have that guy's face - a black guy, with beautiful creases in his face, you know, and wearing a hat, and a kind of serenity on his face, playing the shac-shac, and the creases on his face. Not to paint it, not just to say, `to paint it would be good', but to feel it. That's why I'm here. I'm here for this man's face."

The older you get, Walcott says, the stronger you know what your roots are. "That happened to Ted. Ted just developed a deeper and deeper love of England. It just got deeper as he got older. And that's what's great in him." I think of Eliot's poem to the Commonwealth war dead, which opens with the line "A man's destination is his own village". Destination, it says, is not the same as destiny.

When I leave, the street is dark and awash with a tropical-strength downpour, but cold. Walcott has to miss Hughes's funeral, but Seamus Heaney is coming to London for it and they have a night at the same hotel, sharing memories. Those who heard Hughes, Heaney and Walcott read together a few years ago at Stratford's Swan Theatre are unlikely to forget it.

The next day a car will whisk Walcott to receive an honorary degree at Warwick University. He will sleep as a sodden England wheels by. But once there, refreshed, he greets old friends like Odysseus in the underworld. He addresses 700 young people with the wit and gravity of the gifted teacher that he is, and reads them "Spoiler's Return", with its sparky fusion of calypso and classical satire, as well as the heart-rending poem "Sea Canes".

It begins "Half my friends are dead", and begs "give me them back, as they were... with faults and all", but then moves on to the wisdom that "out of what is lost grows something stronger". Out of what is lost, and what is held, Derek Walcott's words still go from strength to strength.

Derek Walcott, a biography

Born in St Lucia in 1930, Derek Walcott and his twin brother Roderick were brought up by their mother, a schoolteacher. Their father, an amateur poet and painter, died when they were a year old. He has published 18 volumes of poetry, including two epics, Another Life (1973) and Omeros (1990). He graduated in Jamaica and studied theatre in New York, then returned to the Caribbean to found and direct the Trinidad Theatre Workshop from 1959. He has written some 40 plays, and several screenplays. In 1992, the RSC staged The Odyssey, and this year his collaboration with Paul Simon, The Capeman, opened in New York. He is now Professor of Poetry at Boston University. His honours include the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry in 1988 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992. He has three children and three grandchildren.