Books: Whispers of immortality

The Books Interview; Derek Walcott, friend of Ted Hughes and fellow bard, tells Paula Burnett about myth and memory

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own