Just as the sea surges relentlessly against the shores of his native St. Lucia, so Derek Walcott has forged an oceanic career as a poet.
From the sands of the Caribbean to the halls of Harvard, he has refined an ecstatic, musical, epic voice that moves effortlessly amid the losses of aging, the enigma of identity and the long-standing ills of colonialism.
His is an associative, rich and elemental view of the world; with each new book, he stakes an ever-wider claim to authority. He remains a literary joy to savor, one of our true global treasures.
Now, in his 84th year, comes “The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948-2013,” an exemplary compilation of a lifetime’s best poems – excluding the book-length “Omeros,” which recasts the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” in Caribbean cadences.
Altogether, Walcott’s body of work stands as a seasoned sentinel of the 20th century. In love with the bounty of language, his poetry soars beyond the blandness of blank verse. He excels at rhetorical flourishes, from expansive, epic stanzas to taut, rhymed quatrains.
As on many of his books, one of Walcott’s watercolors graces the cover of this indispensable volume. His avocation as a painter keeps him keenly attuned to the beauty of light, its evanescent warmth, its buoyant surprise.
Like a 19th-century Impressionist, he sees his surroundings – refashioned in arresting metaphors – with fresh eyes. For him, all things connect in the benediction of light.
Despite the wealth of his worldwide acclaim – winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992 – Walcott thrives as the perennial outsider, not fully at home in any man’s land.
This tension between the Old World and the New lends his verse its moral energy. He decries the poverty of his West Indies kinsmen – brusquely abandoned by their British overlords – yet stands firmly apart from their suffering because of his immense artistic gifts.
What makes Walcott such a powerful presence on the page is his hard-earned realism: He knows his failings well, the largesse of a long life spent contemplating his diminutive place in the cosmos.
Like Blake before him, he casts a mystic spell over his verse, forever in pursuit of astonishment, “the perpetual ideal.”
To fellow poet Joseph Brodsky, Walcott’s poetry gives us “a sense of infinity embodied in language.” But the poet is finite. And in his last book, “White Egrets,” Walcott hinted that perhaps his prime had passed.
It is hard to imagine this giant of letters not writing again. The world would be a much poorer place. A light would go out in our collective soul.