Last week I had the immense pleasure of being a guest on Dave Samuels’ Agenda. During the call-in section of the show someone brought up the fact that despite my repeated public acknowledgements of Derek Walcott’s genius I had never attended the events that annually mark Nobel Laureate Week.
I thanked the caller for his declared interest in my comings and goings and acknowledged that I had never shown particular interest in the 15-year-old ritual. Two or three days later, at the cocktail that preceded last Saturday’s Business Awards Ceremony at the Sandals Grande, I bumped into the retired Justice Suzie d’Auvergne and Margo Thomas, our premier protector of Saint Lucian history, two ladies for whom I have the utmost respect. We were discussing the futility in the on-going effort to force our younger citizens to toe the line we had inherited from our once-upon-a-time Mother Country, from France and other passing strangers.
“We the exiting older folk must realize we are of a relatively primitive time,” I said, “and recognize that the future belongs to our younger citizens. We should as best we can be helping them toward their dreams, not forcing them to embrace irrelevancies, not to say our repeated failures.”
Somewhere along the way Derek Walcott’s name came up and Mrs Thomas said: “I heard you on the Agenda and I must correct something you said about Nobel Laureate Week being a ritual. It isn’t. At any rate, not this year.” She then proceeded to inform me of lectures by no doubt erudite non-resident sons of Saint Lucia who had been imported on the occasion for the particular purpose of analyzing and critiquing some of Walcott’s oeuvre. I assumed that had never happened before, even though a little voice in my head tells me the contrary.
In all events, the message I sought to convey to Dave’s earlier cited caller was that by now we should be offering government scholarships in the names of our two Nobel Laureates, our students should at least be as familiar with their works as they are with that of Shakespeare and Chalkdust and Sparrow, not to say Herb Black and Vybz Kartel. It is my considered opinion that while the once-a-year observances afford off-island writers and poets unknown to us all-expenses-paid opportunities to revisit our shared homeland, they are likely to have as much effect on the nation’s collective appreciation of Walcott’s contributions to world literature and Sir Arthur’s to economics as, say, annual observances of Women’s Week and Human Rights Week have had on our treatment of women and others whose sexual preferences differ from the alleged norm.
Walcott was in the news on Tuesday when more than one lunch-hour genius predictably called Timothy Poleon’s Newsspin to dismiss our two Nobel winners as unpatriotic, aloof and too self-absorbed to contribute to the development of the land that gave them birth—a preposterous line that is as much part of the Nobel Laureate Week ritual as, say, Robert Lee idiosyncratically reading from Walcott’s White Egrets.
When will we understand what it means to have walking among us this man Walcott, who is to literature what Muhammad Ali is to the world of boxing and Dr Martin Luther King Jr to the Civil Rights Movement? Derek Walcott was never a politician, never a seeker of fame, never a pontificating poobah on the cocktail-party circuit. Already Saint Lucia is afflicted with too many of the species.
Indisputably, Derek Walcott is a literary giant, not necessarily a Gulliver in Lilliput, but huge all the same in matters of literature, painting and play-writing. He should not be expected to perform as if he were instead a variety of local politician ready to pander to the lowest of the low-foreheads, perchance to steal from them a blind vote at election time.
Which is not to say Derek Walcott has never put himself on the line in the best interests of “Fair Helen.” Alas, a nation that does not read unless under duress is unlikely to know of Walcott’s singular fight with the day’s all-powerful authorities when some among us would’ve have permitted the unconscionable decapitation of one of the Pitons on the altar of tourism. We should also remember that when Derek Walcott speaks—on any subject!—far more listen and react than would if it were just one of our sanctimonious no-name, cap-in-hand politicians.
It is high time we developed a taste for Walcott, even if we understand Omeros no better than we understand Midsummer Night’s Dream or Hamlet. If we accept that a million Frenchmen can’t be wrong, why not take to heart the universal acknowledgement of the genius of Walcott—who was recently awarded the T.S. Eliot prize “for moving and technically flawless work!” Why are we evidently incapable of basking in the warmth of such accolades bestowed on a native son?
Derek Walcott is one of us, and in the process of obviously inspired writing has put us and our country on the world map in ways few of us ever dared to imagine was possible. Too bad that so many of us remain incapable of recognizing his value to the nation. Let us quit blaming Walcott for our eyes that will not see or for our souls rendered numb by materialism, envy and naked greed. Amazingly, we have developed insatiable appetites for imported junk, whether for our bloated bellies or for our twisted minds, even as we suicidally dismiss our own home-grown hero as “too aloof, too deep, too profound.” Like some of his fellow clergymen who were too cowardly to stand up and be counted with the Rev DR Martin Luther King Jr when his enemies sought to destroy him, so we are reluctant to speak out when the ignorant with no sense of metaphor seek to bring him down to their swampy level by expecting him to behave like the politicians and their hacks who’ve made careers of pandering to our basest instincts. We owe it to ourselves—and future generations—to develop an appreciation of Derek Walcott and Arthur Lewis and cold-turkey quit attempting to remake them in our own depressing image and likeness!