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
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?