Presentation Speech by Professor Kjell Espmark, Member of the Swedish Academy
Translation from the Swedish text
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Trying to capture Derek Walcott’s oceanic work in a formula would be an absurd enterprise – had he not himself come to our assistance, shrewdly hiding a few key formulations in his texts. His friend Joseph Brodsky lifts out one of them in his analysis of the work:
I’m just a red nigger who love the sea,
I had a sound colonial education,
I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,
and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.
These lines in The Star-Apple Kingdom call to mind, in the first place, how Walcott unites white and black on his father’s as well as on his mother’s side but they also remind us of the fact that in his poetry he amalgamates material from different cultures, West Indian, African, and European.
It does not, however, stop at the mingled voices of heritage or the union of themes from different parts of the world. In his introduction to the first volume of plays, we find another Walcott word of great validity – “the mulatto of style”. Walcott’s art arises from the crossing of two greatly differing traditions, the first a tradition he allowed himself to be adopted by, the European lineage from Homer via Dante, the Elizabethans, and Milton to Auden and Dylan Thomas, an elaborate tradition discernible in lavish metaphor and luxurious sound and rhythm, the second a domestic ageless tradition, an elementary language where, like a new Adam, the poet gives things their names, perceiving how the speech sounds take shape – as in a passage in the autobiographical Another Life: “I watched the vowels curl from the tongue of the carpenter’s plane,/resinous, fragrant … “Derek Walcott’s extraordinary idiom is born in the meeting between European virtuosity and the sensuality of the Caribbean Adam.
But this very personal combination includes not only themes and language. It is also a question of historical outlook. And here we are helped by yet another formula – “the New Aegean”. The archipelago in focus is a reincarnation of the Aegean one: Greek antiquity finds a natural home in the Caribbean present. This can of course be most distinctly seen in Walcott’s latest work, Omeros, his mosaic epic about the fisherman Achille and his ex-colleague the taxi driver Hector fighting for the favour of the fair housemaid Helen. But the Homeric pattern in this poem is not unique. In fact, Omeros has been emerging all through Walcott’s production, appearing again and again in names and themes and continuously present in the Odyssean surging of the waves.
What carries the ancient murmur into today’s Caribbean, what makes history present is the sea. “The Sea is History” – in a magnificent poem with that name, the sea can allow “the plangent harps of the Babylonian bondage” to sound in the West Indies, where slavery is still manifest in the memories of the skin.
Walcott’s latest major poem abundantly exemplifies the combination of a vertiginous historical panorama and morning-fresh Caribbean now. But I should like to illustrate his art of capturing an enormous perspective of time in the tangible moment by means of a few lines in the previous volume, The Arkansas Testament. The associations of the poem’s self-contemptuous ego at his shabby motel run to Saul on his way to Damascus:
On the far side of the highway,
a breeze turned the leaves of an aspen
to the First Epistle of Paul’s
to the Corinthians.
This wind, which miraculously transforms the leaves of the tree into the pages with St. Paul’s commandment of love, is more than an ingenious allusion to a moment where revelation changed history. The breeze pulling an age long since past into the now of the senses, captures, at the same time, a theme that has been sounding for a few decades in Derek Walcott’s production – a Pauline empathy vigorous enough to cross centuries and continents.
Dear Derek Walcott,
In your last book, God allows one of your protagonists to be guided by a sea-swift across the ocean, back to his African origin. The quick divine movement of this pilot bird through space and time embodies the thrill given by your poetic art. As a great admirer of that art, I am happy to convey to you, on behalf of the Swedish Academy, the warmest congratulation on the Nobel Prize in Literature 1992 and to invite you to receive the Prize from the hands of His Majesty the King.