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Poetry: A Far Cry from Africa

26 December 2012 at 03:31 | 3554 views

A Far Cry From Africa

By Derek Walcott, Nobel Literature Laureate, Saint Lucia, West Indies.

A wind is ruffling the tawny pelt
Of Africa, Kikuyu, quick as flies,
Batten upon the bloodstreams of the veldt.
Corpses are scattered through a paradise.
Only the worm, colonel of carrion, cries:
’Waste no compassion on these separate dead!’
Statistics justify and scholars seize
The salients of colonial policy.
What is that to the white child hacked in bed?
To savages, expendable as Jews?
Threshed out by beaters, the long rushes break
In a white dust of ibises whose cries
Have wheeled since civilizations dawn
From the parched river or beast-teeming plain.
The violence of beast on beast is read
As natural law, but upright man
Seeks his divinity by inflicting pain.
Delirious as these worried beasts, his wars
Dance to the tightened carcass of a drum,
While he calls courage still that native dread
Of the white peace contracted by the dead.

Again brutish necessity wipes its hands
Upon the napkin of a dirty cause, again
A waste of our compassion, as with Spain,
The gorilla wrestles with the superman.
I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from Africa and live?

About Derek Walcott

Derek Alton Walcott, OBE OCC (born 23 January 1930) is a Saint Lucian poet and playwright. He received the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature. He is currently Professor of poetry at the University of Essex.

His works include the Homeric epic poem, Omeros (1990). Robert Graves wrote that Walcott "handles English with a closer understanding of its inner magic than most, if not any, of his contemporaries”.

In 2011, Walcott received the T. S. Eliot Prize for his book of poetry, White Egrets.

Walcott was born and raised in Castries, Saint Lucia, in the West Indies with a twin brother, the future playwright Roderick Walcott, and a sister, Pamela Walcott. His family was of mixed race and ethnicity; he had two white grandfathers and two black grandmothers. His family is of African and European descent, reflecting the complex colonial history of the island which he explores in his poetry. His mother, a teacher, loved the arts and often recited poetry around the house. His father, who painted and wrote poetry, died at age 31 from mastoiditis while his wife was pregnant with the twins Derek and Roderick, who were born after his death. Walcott’s family was part of a minority Methodist community, who felt overshadowed by the dominant Catholic culture of the island established during French colonial rule.

As a young man Walcott trained as a painter, mentored by Harold Simmons, whose life as a professional artist provided an inspiring example for him. Walcott greatly admired Cézanne and Giorgione and sought to learn from them.

Walcott studied as a writer, becoming “an elated, exuberant poet madly in love with English” and strongly influenced by modernist poets such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. He had an early sense of a vocation as a writer. In the poem "Midsummer" (1984), he wrote:

"Forty years gone, in my island childhood, I felt that
the gift of poetry had made me one of the chosen,
that all experience was kindling to the fire of the Muse."

At 14, Walcott published his first poem, a Miltonic, religious poem in the newspaper, The Voice of St Lucia. An English Catholic priest condemned the Methodist-inspired poem as blasphemous in a response printed in the newspaper. By 19, Walcott had self-published his two first collections with the aid of his mother, who paid for the printing: 25 Poems (1948) and Epitaph for the Young: XII Cantos (1949). He sold copies to his friends and covered the costs. He later commented,

"I went to my mother and said, ’I’d like to publish a book of poems, and I think it’s going to cost me two hundred dollars.’ She was just a seamstress and a schoolteacher, and I remember her being very upset because she wanted to do it. Somehow she got it—a lot of money for a woman to have found on her salary. She gave it to me, and I sent off to Trinidad and had the book printed. When the books came back I would sell them to friends. I made the money back."

The influential Barbadian poet Frank Collymore critically supported Walcott’s early work.

With a scholarship, he studied at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica. After graduation, Walcott moved to Trinidad in 1953, where he became a critic, teacher and journalist. Walcott founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop in 1959 and remains active with its Board of Directors.

Exploring the Caribbean and its history in a colonialist and post-colonialist context, his collection In a Green Night: Poems 1948-1960 (1962) attracted international attention. His play Dream on Monkey Mountain (1970) was produced on NBC-TV in the United States the year it was published. In 1971 it was produced by the Negro Ensemble Company off-Broadway in New York City; it won an Obie Award that year for "Best Foreign Play". The following year, Walcott won an OBE from the British government for his work.

He was hired as a teacher by Boston University in the United States, where he founded the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre in 1981. That year he also received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in the United States. Walcott taught literature and writing at Boston University for more than two decades, publishing new books of poetry and plays on a regular basis and retiring in 2007. He became friends with other poets, including the Russian Joseph Brodsky, who lived and worked in the US after being exiled in the 1970s, and the Irish Seamus Heaney, who also taught in Boston.

His book-length work, Omeros (1990), was modelled on the epics of Homer and sang the history of St. Lucia. Walcott was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992, the first Caribbean writer to receive the honor. The Nobel committee described his work as “a poetic oeuvre of great luminosity, sustained by a historical vision, the outcome of a multicultural commitment.”

His later poetry collections include Tiepolo’s Hound (2000), illustrated with copies of his watercolors;[11] The Prodigal (2004), and White Egrets (2010), which received the T.S. Eliot Prize.

In 2009, Walcott began a three-year distinguished scholar-in-residence position at the University of Alberta. In 2010, he became Professor of Poetry at the University of Essex.

Here is Derek Walcott in one of his many interviews:

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