Nobel Laureate, DEREK WALCOTT; TRINIDADIAN?
By Llewellyn Mac Intosh
In the year 1977, a calypsonian from Trinidad & Tobago named the Mighty Unknown caused patrons to the calypso tent to be falling off their seats when he performed a calypso called, “Ah Vex”. Unknown, in his cleverly constructed offering, threw four stanzas of piccong at the St Lucian poet whom the calypsonian alleged had had the temerity to be critical of the place which had been good enough to extend to him, its generosity;
“Derek you must be fou bé dangé or mad
Sit down on river stone and talk river bad
You wouldn’t talk about we pitch lake, oil and sugar
That you have enjoyed, through we ancestor;
What about we multi-racial society
Who are so friendly and full of courtesy,
Carnival is we festival and commerce
And sex is ah must; through the universe
You see why ah vex, ah more than vex
Derek Walcott say Trinidad is Carnival and Sex
Ah vex! Ah s-s-s-stammering vex
Derek suffering from one big, big, big complex
Derek go back to St Lucia and you would see
All kinda vice and sexology
Man marrieding man and is tee-la-lee-lah
And Derek wouldn’t say ah thing about St Lucia.”
Unknown was selected for the National Calypso Semi-Finals that year and his composition, beyond its triggering of the nerve of sensibility in a population fiercely protective of its new-found nationalism in that post black power era, would have made the average Trini, sadly, just barely aware of the genius that literally walked and worked amongst them.
Walcott had lived and wed and wrote and worked in Trinidad & Tobago. The Mighty Unknown must have been on hand to over-hear one of the programmes, like “Cultural Miscellany,” that were state sponsored and frequently aired on one of the two radio stations that operated then. Walcott would, at the time have been a regular contributor, in the same way that he had regularly contributed to one of the daily newspapers with his regular features. There was therefore an awareness of his presence here; an awareness that prompted Unknown’s indignation at the poet’s need to bite the hands that were feeding him;
“Derek you must be fou bé dangé or mad
Sit down on river stone and talk river bad…”
Perhaps the 1977 episode though, was an aberration in the defining of the relationship betwixt the Nobel Laureate and the Trinidadian, for everything that this writer grew to learn and to know about the man Derek Walcott during the next forty-odd years signaled attitudes and emotions that were extremely contrary to those provoked by Julian Pierre’s singing in the mid-nineteen seventies.
There was respect, admiration, love and hero-worship, in some cases notwithstanding the brusqueness of attitude that Walcott displayed periodically, when he felt that his colleagues fell short of his expectations. But, much of this came later.
Our first official “meeting” came when as a first year, part-time student of West Indian Literature at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, the vacation assignment was – over Christmas – writing a book report of the Walcott anthology, “In A Green Night” (1962).
The crispness in his presentation of successive lines of soul-touching poetry was fascinating. The subsequent satisfactory grade for the Yuletide exercise further encouraged and heightened the interest in the man and in his work and by the culmination of the semester, there was another student admirer of the craftiness of the magnificence of the poet’s use of the idiom.
In my teenage years, I had met VS Naipaul and had enjoyed the images presented in the mirror. Titus Hoyt, Man Man, Hat and Laura—characters from a collection set in wartime Trinidad–were real. I knew them. They lived in the yard in which I grew up in Boissierre Village No. 1. I had not, however, analyzed and joked at their frailties until the writings of Vidiadhar Surajprasad had skinned and presented them for further examination…..like the pathologist would do to a patient etherized upon a table. Within a few years I was also to meet Ganesh Ramsay Muir and Mohun Biswas—the principal characters in two novels by VS Naipaul. Their narratives were engaging and even enjoyable in the comic sense, and the tragedy was spiced with dashes of comedy.
Walcott, when I met him, triggered no laughter. The seizure was different. The language of the poetry was compelling. One marveled at the range and the depth of the imagery. And, the messages resonated right off the galvanize fence in my backyard. They were localized and they teased and awakened my curiosity. I did not need encouragement, therefore, nor prompting, nor another Home Work exercise to find the SPCK Bookshop on Abercromby Street, Port of Spain and begin to peruse my next two anthologies; first “The Castaway” (1965) and then, “The Gulf” (2004).
The growth of a quiet admiration was sustained, even as I read some more. Walcott seemed to understand – and if he did not understand, appeared to be giving voice to a common struggle.
My other colleagues – almost all of them – in that primary year at St Augustine had given up. Walcott was too abstract, they said….inaccessible! I found their disenchantment and rejection of the poetry painfully disappointing, but could not blame them entirely when they opted for Second Year Sociology or Second Year Government. I begged to differ and lost a few friends, for regular paths became separated by the dictates of the time tables. Their rejection of Literature then, was absolute….as absolute as my resolve to continue. Sure, not everything was grasped at the first or even the second reading sometimes; but, in the lines and in the language there was so much joy – not laughter, nor ridicule; but joy in the pure aesthetics of what the lines contained. I have had no regrets…
“An old lady writes me in a spidery style
Each character trembling, and I see a veined hand
Pellucid as paper, travelling on a skein
Of such frail thoughts its thread is often broken;
Or else the filament from which a phrase is hung
Dims to my sense, but caught, it shines like steel,
As touch a line and the whole web will feel.”
(A Letter from Brooklyn, 1962)
Additionally, works like; “A Far Cry from Africa”, “The Hurricane”, “Hic Jacet”, “Codicil”, “The Castaway”, “Almond Trees” and “The Gulf” addressed troubling, personal and universal issues – seemingly within a microcosmic universe that, for a young student of the language, was Trinidadian. Walcott appeared to be grounded within the country and to have a predilection for the things that concerned us here.
Black consciousness in the era immediately after 1970, negritude, colonialism, patriotism, the crisis of identity – his and ours, the brain-drain, the impact and the effects of/on the natural environment, the sea, the exodus to North America, theism, death, the weather……even my fear of flying! – All his themes seemed to reflect my own concerns. Walcott became personal. I did not – could not perhaps, go as far; but many, many times we journeyed along the road together. Line after line of his images were “home-grown”-
Lavantille: “To go downhill from here was to ascend.”
“How can I turn from Africa and live?”(“A Far Cry from Africa”
“At Cedros, thudding the dead sand
in spasms…” (Tarpan”)
“Bethel and Canaan’s heart
Lies open like a psalm…” (“Crusoe’s Island)
“Above the beached, rotting pirouges,
They were venomous beaked clouds at Charlotteville.” (“Codicil”)
“Dusk. The Flight, Passing Blanchisseuse.
Gulls wheel like from a gun again,” (“The Flight”)
And, how could I not but personalize his (or is it my) “Laventille”?
Lavantille: “To go downhill from here was to ascend.”
“It huddled there
steel tinkling its blue painted metal air,
tempered in violence, like Rio’s favelas,
with snaking, perilous streets whose edges fell as
its Episcopal turkey-buzzards fall
from its miraculous hilltop
down the impossible drop
to Belmont, Woodbrook, Maraval, St Clair
like peddlers’’ tin trinkets in the sun.”
The description is impeccable. The imagery is unique. The style is mind-boggling in its accuracy. Even the presentation of the lines on the page is reflective of the ‘unharmonius’ nature of the terrain.
“…where the inheritors of the middle passage stewed,
five to a room, still clamped below their hatch,
breeding like felonies,
whose lives revolve round prison, graveyard, church.
Below bent breadfruit trees
In the flat, coloured city, class
Escalated into structures still,
Merchant, middleman, magistrate, knight. To go downhill
From here was to ascend.
The middle passage never guessed its end.”
He writes this for VS Naipaul, Trinidadian novelist. And for the university professor, another Trinidadian, Kenneth Ramchand, Walcott writes, “The Saddhu of Couva”–
“And to that gong
sometimes bald clouds in saffron robes assemble
sacred to the evening,
sacred even to Ramlochan
singing Indian hits from his jute hammock
while evening strokes the flanks
and silver horns of his maroon taxi,
as the mosquitoes whine their evening mantras,
my friend Anopheles, on the sitar,
and the fireflies making every dusk Divali.”
The imagery is precise; and like the painter with a skillful hand and accurate eye, the language captures and presents the detail of the scene with amazing flawlessness.
The next magical piece that is selected to make the point, evokes that Trinidadian calypsonian who above all others fascinated listeners with amazing tales from his boundless imagination. The singer and his genre are both Trinidadian and as if to complete his trilogy of references and assist in emphasizing this writer’s argument; Walcott selects for its dedication, Earl Lovelace – the Trinidadian novelist…
“I have a room where I keep a crown,
And Satan send me to checkout this town.
…I beg him two weeks’ leave and he send me
back up, not as no bedbug or no flea,
but in this limeskin hat and floccy suit,
To sing what I did always sing: the truth.
Tell Desperadoes when you reach the hill,
I decompose, but I composing still:”
The style is rhythmic. The language is ‘calypsonic’ and almost pedantic. The message is savagely brutal, ay, akin to political rhetoric…..”lyrics to make a politician cringe” (“Calypso Music”, David Michael Rudder—1987).
“The time could come, it can’t be very long
when they will jail calypso for piccong,
for first comes television, then the press,
all in the name of Civic Righteousness;
it has been done before…”
“…rumour can twist
Into a style the local journalist –
As bland as a green coconut, his manner
Routinely tart, his sources the Savannah
And all pretensions to a native art
Reduced to giggles at a coconut cart,
Where heads with reputations, in one slice,
Are brought to earth, when they ain’t eating nice;
and as for local Art, so it does go
The audience have more talent than the show.”
“Is Carnival, straight Carnival that’s all
the beat is base, the melody bohbohl,
all Port of Spain is a twelve-thirty show,
some playing Kojak, some Fidel Castro,
some Rastamen, but, with or without locks,
to Spoiler is the same old khaki socks,
all Frederick street stinking like a closed drain,
Hell is a city much like Port of Spain…
and Lord, the sunlit streets break Spoiler’s heart,
to have natural gas and not to give a fart,
to see them lineup, pitch-oil tin in hand:
each independent, oil-forsaken island,
…but from Jamaica to poor Dominica
we make them know they begging, every loan
we send them is like blood squeezed out of stone,…
and, more we give, more we congratulate
we-self on our own self-sufficient state.
In all them project, all them Five-year Plan,
what happen to the Brotherhood of Man?”
(The Spoiler’s Return”, 1981)
The poetry was not all.
I met and read the plays and in a sense; the poetry again. There were lines of drama that were poetic in their expressions!
“Well I was coming through the forest now
And I passed by the white spring, and I saw
Some poor souls going to work for the white planter.
He’ll work you like the devil, but that’s what you want,
You and your impatience and arm cast in iron,
So turn to the right, go through the bamboo forest,
Over the black rocks then the forest will open,
And you will see the sky, below that a valley,
And smoke, and a white house that is empty,
The old fellow is hiring harvesters today” (Ti Jean and his Brothers, 1985)
And all of this…all of my encounter with Walcott, so far, has been within the twin island republic of Trinidad & Tobago. Walcott stood, for me at least, like a Colossus;
“I’ll be what I am, so to hell with you. I’ll be what I am. I drink, and I drink and I feel nothing. Oh, I lack heart to enjoy the brevity of the world [The FIREFLY passes dancing] Get out of my way you burning backside. I’m the prince of obscurity and I won’t brook interruption! Trying to mislead me because been drinking. Behave, behave. That youngster is having a terrible effect on me. Since he came to the estate, I’ve felt like a fool. First time in me life too. Look just a while ago I nearly got angry at an insect that’s just a half-arsed imitation of a star. It’s wonderful! An insect brushes my dragonish hand, and my scales tighten with fear” (Ti Jean and his Brothers, 1985)
I was fortunate, as a young man to see “Dream on Monkey Mountain”, “Ti Jean and His Brothers”, “Beef No Chicken” and, of course, “The Joker of Seville”.
The latter drew me to Woodbrook; three or maybe four times, in 1974 when Walcott’s poetry and his prose; emerging from its Spanish antecedents and harmonizing itself with the music of Galt Mac Dermott was to fill the cramped interior of The Little Carib Theatre night, after night, after night as the patrons’ insatiable desire for the jousts of bodies and language awakened in Trinidad & Tobago an universal desire for the theatre.
The front sign of the Trinidad Theatre Workshop. May 7th, 2015.
Notwithstanding an understanding of the many components that must interface to have the drama going, one must acknowledge the genius of Walcott – conductor on the bandstand – in his ability to draw citizens from all parts of the country for the exciting and exhilarating performances. It was undoubtedly the single occasion when Walcott’s poetry, unlike the commentary I had heard so many times before, was accessible to all.
The drumming of Andrew Beddeau, the crooning of Syd Skipper, the harmonies of Mac Dermott, the sobriety of Hamilton Parris and the chicanery of Nigel Scott; within their various roles have etched for all time notes of pleasure that regularly surface on the landscape of memory.
Whilst it is true that Galt Mac Dermott and Syd Skipper and Helen Camps and Wilbert Holder might not have been the Trinidadians in the team, Walcott’s direction then, like with other presentations before and after the Joker, brought to the fore some of the best that the country has had to offer in the realm of theatre performance.
The magnificence of the troupe that one saw was a reflection, not only the writing; but the vision, the direction and the passion of the father of the Trinidad Theatre Workshop….and perhaps, in a real way – the Father of Trinidad & Tobago Theatre!
The front sign of the Trinidad Theatre Workshop. May 7th, 2015.
Walcott’s labour of love had culminated, in the Joker of Seville into an amazing gestation and the offsprings were; Hamilton Parris and Nigel Scott and Norline Metivier and Pat Flores and Errol Jones and June Nathaniel and Andrew Beddeau; and like the others before and after, they had morphed their craft and their talent – where it did exist – into perhaps the finest dramatic scenes that the country has known.
Walcott’s raison d’etre, is perhaps best explained in “Hic Jacet”;
They’ll keep on asking why did you remain?
Not for the applauding rain
of hoarse and hungry thousands at whose centre
the politician opens like a poisonous flower
not for the homecoming lecturer
gripping his lectern like a witness, ready to explain
the root’s fixation with earth
nor for that new race of dung beetles, frock-coated, iridescent
crawling over people.
Before the people became popular
he loved them” (“The Gulf and Other Poems”, 1969)
Derek Walcott founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop and remained here, maybe because he loved us…or maybe, he felt that he was one of us.
Llewellyn Mac Intosh, a free-lance radio broadcaster and a calypsonian (Short Pants) who practices his craft in Trinidad & Tobago, is a retired secondary school principal who currently spends his time supporting the provision of educational opportunities for socially disadvantaged young men in the twin island republic.