These days when we most need his voice we don’t hear much from Derek Walcott. Blame age, failing health and overseas commitments that leave this genius son of the soil little time for anything else. And that’s a pity. Some might say we have his books that speak with stunning clarity for him but then so many of our ostensible best brains have been heard to say, in effect, without the smallest hint of embarrassment, that Derek Walcott writes for fellow geniuses and not for the average reader, by which they refer to the average reader on the Rock of Sages.
I will admit the allegation may be true—but only half so. The world’s most respected literary giants have never been reluctant to say how highly they rate the works of Derek Walcott, some having declared him the best living writer in English. Only in this land that gave him birth, if nothing else, are his books largely ignored—as indeed is their author himself. Mindlessly without shame, we’ve actually attempted to justify our lack of appreciation for Walcott and his oeuvre, in the process saying a whole lot more about ourselves than about the Nobel Laureate.
Ask the loudest mouth at your favorite watering hole why he has never read Walcott and predictably he’ll tell you: “Gassa dah man too deep.” Why is Walcott treated in his own country as a pariah? “Gassa dah man too aloof and unfriendly!”
Of course the politically inclined have always been quick to suggest Walcott supports a particular party—as if that were a crime deserving of banishment—when in fact what Walcott cares most about is art, Saint Lucians and the protection of our heritage. Consequently, and regardless of their stripe, the enemies of art are Walcott’s natural enemies. This was his reaction to news that John Compton had in the mid-eighties granted a group of Iranian businessmen permission to build a tourist resort on what the poet has always considered consecrated ground: “The sale of land between the Pitons for a hotel development could have been negotiated only by minds incapable of metaphor.”
On the occasion he wrote for publication exclusively in the STAR, a poem entitled “Litany to the Pitons” (reproduced in its entirety in my book Lapses & Infelicities), from which is taken the following: These would sell their own sons/They sold me, they sold you when they sold the Pitons/May the next generation curse a government so blind/It handed over a nation sealed, delivered and signed.
With elections in the air, there was seldom a Labour Party rally that did not make convenient use of “Litany to the Pitons.” The poem may well have inspired the formation of the Saint Lucia Environment and Development Action Council (SLEDAC), with Kenny Anthony, renowned artist Llewellyn Zavier and Dr. Len Ishmael, then a lecturer at the Cave Hill campus of the University of the West Indies. It is worth mentioning that at the time of the Jalousie controversy the prime minister was a close friend of Walcott. But that hardly mattered. Certainly it did not hold back the poet from writing as the opening lines of “Litany to the Pitons”: Horns of Compton Pay for us/Tenants of Tennant Pay for us/M for our Mother Pay for us . . .
That a Labour administration first profited from the UWP-Iranian arrangements was never as important to Walcott as was the deal in the first place. Not that he abhors tourism, as some have desperately claimed. It is what the poet sees as “whoring” and “the rape of fair Helen” in the name of tourism that causes him pain. Visit his book, “What the Twilight Says” for validation.
At 82 he is as wary as he is weary, and ever so careful not to be misconstrued, especially by politicians and their hacks. So, no surprise that last week he started his answer to a reporter’s question this way: “I don’t want to make a judgment that is going to incriminate any one party or any government. Saint Lucia is going through a tough economic crisis and naturally the arts suffer. What we have to do is to keep thinking that no matter what the crisis the arts are a necessity. But we have to have the money to sustain them. So, yes, more should be done but we need to look for subsidies
. . . we still do not have a museum or a theater, and that’s criminal. And no party should excuse itself for not doing that for the people. These are things not for the artistes; they are for the people of Saint Lucia.”
Ah, but the old fire of the late 80s still burned in his 82-year-old belly. In response to another question about the “relaunched” Freedom Bay project, Walcott asked: “Who is allowing this to happen? This government? I didn’t know that. That’s very bad news to me. That’s terrible news—and the messenger should be shot!”
Additionally: “How can they find room to build a hotel at the foot of the Pitons and can’t find a spot to build a museum? That’s the rage that I have. That’s the anger I have. My brother died working for the arts in Saint Lucia . . . I suppose I, too, will die and not see it happen. This is shameful.”
Finally it was his turn to ask the important questions: “And exactly where is this place? Will you see it in any projection of Petit Piton? And nobody has objected? So the deal was approved by the Saint Lucian government?”
You could almost see the fire dying in his belly as he groaned: “I am ashamed of my country, because that’s whoring, and you can quote me on that. If you are telling me right, that there is going to be a hotel built at the base of Petit Piton, visible as a hotel, then that is whoring . . . There can still be time for protest but what can you say when a country approves of its own disfigurement?”
You could call it a country gone mad. What you cannot say is that Derek Walcott ever gave a hoot about anything other than art and the people of Saint Lucia whose heritage, he truly believes, should never be sold by their elected representatives in the name of mindless and unplanned tourism. Or in retaliation to what the prime minister of Saint Lucia recently described as crises “of our own making!”