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 & Entertainment

Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'

Arts & Entertainment
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit