Boyd Tonkin: Poet who combines high art with common life
Tuesday 25 January 2011
A couple of years ago, I heard Derek Walcott speak at the St Lucia high commission in London to an audience largely made up of his fellow-islanders. As always, he insisted that pride in a place and a home should always combine with a keen embrace of the best the wide world of culture has to offer. "Art is as necessary as sewage," he said.
The necessity of great, demanding art has always driven his poetry, along with the urge to speak with force and splendour for the poor and marginal.
Three grand old men of English-language verse still outperform their juniors: Seamus Heaney from Co Derry, Les Murray from New South Wales – and Derek Walcott from St Lucia. Walcott's TS Eliot Prize victory for White Egrets, hard on the heels of Heaney's Forward Prize win with Human Chain, gives another gong to these golden oldies from the far edges of empire.
Full of the sounds of the sea, of the bracing sunlight of Europe and the lush plenty of the tropics, White Egrets bears out the review by poet Sean O'Brien in The Independent: "Walcott is to a remarkable degree a landscape artist."
Yet beyond the glittering scenery, captured in his seductive manner, the volume shows a poet in his 80th year taking the shade of Dante with him to confront the faults and follies of his past.
Walcott wrestles tirelessly with the tension between the everyday language of his people and the classical tradition that, via travel and education, he has come to absorb. Village chat and mighty rhetoric merge, nowhere more powerfully than in his Caribbean answer to The Odyssey, Omeros (1990). High art and common life converge.
TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
The best underrated Christmas movies from Love, Actually to While You Were Sleeping
Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, review: Jason Watkins is brilliant, but real victim Joanna Yeates is reduced to a footnote
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Shock poll shows voters believe Ukip is to the left of the Tories
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Ukip candidate jokes about 'shooting peasants' in racist and homophobic rant
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre