Boyd Tonkin: Poet who combines high art with common life

Tuesday 25 January 2011 01:00
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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.

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