The Corner

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Derek Walcott, R.I.P.

Lost amid last weekend’s headlines about guitarist Chuck Berry and reporter Jimmy Breslin was the death, also, of poet Derek Walcott.

The recipient of the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature, Walcott was a native of the island of Saint Lucia, and his was a self-conscious poetry of the sea. “The sea is always present. It’s always visible,” he told The Economist once. “All the roads lead to it. I consider the sound of the sea to be part of my body. And if you say in patois, ‘The boats are coming back,’ the beat of that line, its metrical space, has to do with the sound and rhythm of the sea itself.” Sometimes, he gloried in tropical sunshine; often, though, he was acutely aware of the sea’s fearsome power. His most ambitious work, the 300-page poem Omeros, recast Homer’s Odyssey in the Caribbean. Here, the sea’s power is as much social as natural; the sea is the medium for the great movements of history that have shaped the region, such as colonialism and the African slave trade.

Walcott is often considered a “political” poet, and in certain respects he was. But he was more than that. He was, finally, writing about love — for place and people and the sacred. “The fate of poetry,” he wrote, “is to fall in love with the world.” That is reflected in the simple lines of “To Norline,” from his 1987 collection, The Arkansas Testament:

This beach will remain empty

for more slate-colored dawns

of lines the surf continually

erases with its sponge,

and someone else will come

from the still-sleeping house,

a coffee mug warming his palm

as my body once cupped yours,

to memorize this passage

of a salt-sipping tern,

like when some line on a page

is loved, and it’s hard to turn.

Joseph Brodsky said of Derek Walcott, “He is the man by whom the English language lives.”

Dead at 87. R.I.P.

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