Sitting with him in St. Lucia, I once asked Derek Walcott if he missed New York City. He looked up and stared intently, and then, almost imperceptibly, he nodded. The truth is, my question was imprecise and badly formed. I should have asked him if he missed the New York of the Seventies, and his association with Joe Papp and the New York Shakespeare Festival? Or did he miss the New York of the early Eighties, when he was teaching at both NYU and Columbia University? Or did he miss the New York of the Nineties, when he lived in the West Village and found himself flying all over the world as a newly lauded Nobel laureate?
Derek Walcott had many New Yorks, and all of them played a part in his life and in his evolution as a writer. But perhaps the most important of all his New York sojourns was the one from the Fifties, a nine-month period between 1958 and 1959 when Walcott lived in the city as a young man.
Some years earlier, in 1949, a nineteen-year-old Walcott was hawking his first book, 25 Poems, around St. Lucia. In this slim, self-published volume Walcott fused imported hardware with local materials: the metrical hammer of Milton could help him nail down the beauty of a tropical sunrise, and the alliterative saw of Shakespeare might better enable him to fashion a line about the foaming beauty of a wave breaking against a sandy white beach. By the time Walcott was a teenager, he had carefully watched his schoolmasters, who imparted to him a British education that included Latin, unload the canonical freight from London. As the young prodigy surveyed St. Lucia with eyes wide open, he quickly pocketed those tools that might be of use to him.
Early Caribbean poetry often paid homage to English landscape. While staring at Jamaica’s Blue Mountains, or gazing upon a river in the lush tropical heartland of Dominica, one might evoke the Lake District or the lazy meandering of the River Avon. Walcott wanted to do things differently and move beyond mere imitation. His task was fundamental: he would have to first name, and then describe, the uniqueness of the flora and fauna of the Caribbean. Furthermore, in the atmosphere of rising nationalism that was blowing through the region, he would have to be careful not to allow his awareness of social and racial injustice to disrupt his vision and cause his work to be sullied by either anger or ideology. The youthful Walcott knew he had much to learn, but he was determined to stay focused on what he later referred to, in the poem “A Letter from Brooklyn,” as “my sacred duty to the word.”