The sunday poem 5. Derek Walcott

Every week Ruth Padel discusses a contemporary poet through an example of their work

Caribbean Nobel-winner from St Lucia, teaching in America. Many collections, but Omeros, recalling Homer's Odyssey ("Omeros" is Greek for "Homer"), was the stunner: a book-length epic, teeming with Caribbean light and colour, exploring modern alienation through St Lucian lives (fishermen, lovers, expatriates), and drawing on ancient ideas of the poet's alienation: Homer, traditionally blind, "sees" human lives and makes art from them, only by ear.

from Omeros, Chapter Two, section 2

Seven Seas rose in the half-dark to make coffee.

Sunrise was heating the ring of the horizon

and clouds were rising like loaves. By the heat of the

glowing iron he slid the saucepan's base on-

to the ring and anchored it there. The saucepan shook

from the weight of water in it, then it settled.

His kettle leaked. He groped for the tin chair and took

his place near the saucepan to hear when it bubbled.

It would boil but not scream like a bosun's whistle

to let him know it was ready. He heard the dog's

morning whine under the boards of the house, its tail

thudding to be let in, but he envied the pirogues

already miles out at sea. Then he heard the first breeze

washing the sea-almond's wares; last night there had

been

a full moon white as his plate. He saw with his ears.

Metaphorically eliding kitchen and sea, these stanzas contrast inner dark with outer light. The man's name embraces all Seas: if you lower-cased the second S, this first line would be absurd. "Rose" is the first of many words describing simultaneous activity indoors and out. Sea too "rises": like breezes, clouds, and "loaves" - which belong with ovens (like "heating a ring"). But "anchored", "leaked" "weight of water", "bosun", "boards", recall boats, preparing for emotion when boats actually appear ("envied the pirogues / already miles out at sea"): emotion underlined by rhythm. Most lines are perfect Alexandrines, a classic French 12-syllable line (French is big on St Lucia). But the pirogues-and-breeze lines have 13 syllables, declaring extension, a lunge out (from one stanza to another) away from human limitations.

Walcott reveals this limitation slowly. "Groping", locating things by "heat" not light, might suggest pre-dawn dark. But "hear when", "let him know when"? The poet, developing (like the growing light) towards the brightness of blossom and moon, uses vision-words ("glowing"). The man uses other senses ("Heat", "hear when", "heard"). Moon and plate are the climax: a whiteness which, inside or out, he cannot see.

The form is rough terza rima, rhymingly linked three-liners. Some are classic a-b-a ("coffee"/"the", "dog's"/"pirogues") but cross-stanza rhymes are random ("horizon"/"on", "shook"/"took", "whistle"/"tail"). The last stanza, spelling out the blindness, ends with a slant-rhyme to its own inside ("wares"/"ears"), as the outer world mirrored the inner kitchen. Terza rima, unit of Dante's Commedia, has powerful forward momentum but reassuringly continuous structure. Claiming new momentum, and continuity with European tradition, for poetically virgin territory, Walcott turns Western tradition - medieval-Renaissance metre and form, Homeric title (and other characters' names like Philoctete, Achille) - on to the non- European world it colonised.

c Ruth Padel

'Omeros' is published by Faber

The Sunday Poem returns in the New Year

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