Thursday 22 February 2018

the magic and miracle of walcott's Poetry

Derek Walcott's TS Eliot Award this week is richly deserved

Caribbean poet Derek Walcott has been chosen as this year's winner of the £15,000 TS Eliot Award for his 2010 collection White Egrets.

Walcott, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992, turned 81 two nights before the award was made in London this week.

Fellow Nobelist and long-time friend Seamus Heaney, a previous winner, was also a nominee.

"It took us not very long to decide that this collection was the yardstick by which all the others were to be measured," said poet Anne Stevenson, chair of this year's award jury.

Derek Walcott was born on the island of St Lucia in 1930. He began publishing at 18, had his first 'proper' book in 1962 and has gone on to publish 15 collections of poems, eight volumes of plays.

His poems and plays reflect and interrogate the mixed heritage of a writer who is both true to his home place and yet a master of the coloniser's language. His epic poem 'Omeros' is unlike anything published in English since, perhaps, Milton; his lyrics are always precise, possessed of the "inner magic" of words, according to Robert Graves.

A big man in every sense, genial and combative, Walcott has always felt very much at home in Ireland, and with Irish poetry. Like Patrick Kavanagh, or Robert Frost, like so many of his contemporaries, Walcott understood from a very young age that the road to universal truths begins and ends in the local.

White Egrets, for which he was given the Eliot Award, is one of the best books of poetry to be published in the past hundred years. It is a book of thanksgiving, of clear-eyed thankfulness for the gift of life, written by a man who knows the end is near -- and is not afraid. There are poems of forgiveness, forgiving himself and others for human follies, there are poems that celebrate his native island in all its beauty, but the predominant note is gratitude -- gratitude for love given and lost, gratitude for the great and small miracles of the natural world, gratitude and amazement for the simple gift of life.

Walcott's health has been failing for some years now, and he knows it. To have written a book like White Egrets, his towering achievement it seems to me, while staring death calmly in the face, is some kind of miracle. This latest award is richly deserved.

Time on the Ocean, A Voyage from Cape Horn to Cape Town, by Theo Dorgan, is published by New Island.

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