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HomeFull text issues28.2Derek Walcott and E.A. Markham Re...

Derek Walcott and E.A. Markham Read and Talk1

Edward Archibald Markham
p. 95-107

Full text

  • 1 Transcribed from audio and video tapes and edited by Kerry-Jane Wallart, this writerly session in w (...)
  • 2 Marta Dvorak had previously explained to the audience that the old hall was a historical one in whi (...)

E.A. MARKHAM: Now, Derek, I think that part of the success of the conference so far is to recognize in a way the difference between then and now. Then, I am told they used to dissect bodies in this wonderful hall2. Today, we have had the most forensic and expert dissection of your texts and the good thing about it is that the body is still alive and kicking. So thank you for participating in this and thank you, Derek, for surviving it. I suppose I ought to be outrageous and welcome Derek to Paris, because I now live in Paris! […] Could I just come back to this business of having your work laid out in front of you in this way. I had a friend, a poet, called Gavin Ewart, in England, and when people started to write about him and talk about him, Gavin had this mad fantasy that he wanted to end up as a thesis. (laughter) I am so impressed by what I personally have learnt from the academics here — it was good to hear everyone, I’m thinking of Paula Burnett, I’m thinking of Marta, I’m thinking of Maria Fumagalli, all of these people whom over the years I have actually learnt a lot about Derek Walcott from —, and I asked someone: “Well, why have they actually asked me to come up and talk to Derek?”, and she said — and she is an academic so she is right — (laughter): “Because you are the only person here who isn’t a Derek Walcott expert”. And I said “No, there are two of us: Derek is the second person here who isn’t a Derek Walcott expert”. (laughter) So, the question I want to ask is, how do you feel, really, to be — I don’t want to say taken over —, but to be explored in this way, in this archeological, literally archeological way; how do you feel to be, if you like, taken over by the scholars, by the academy?

DEREK WALCOTT: First of all, let me start by saying you are all wrong. (laughter) And I won’t go into detail. (laughter) Secondly you feel dead. (hilarity) By the way, shouldn’t this really be bilingual? [Do] you people really understand English? No, because this is a very difficult hall. This is one of the greatest universities in the world, but you cain’t hear! It is disgusting how bad the acoustics are. But then, that’s history. It is ninety-five hundred years old, so it’s OK to be deaf. I had a hard time back there. In reality, it is perhaps not good not to hear too well because it is so flattering — flattering is the wrong word —, but it is such an honour to be taken so seriously about your work when you yourself have such contempt for it. A joke? (laughs) No, it is very, very touching for this to happen.

I think everybody, especially a poet, writes for one reader. And that reader is Baudelaire’s “hypocrite lecteur”. I thought — in the john, where it is always good to think, it is the best place to think — “hypocrite lecteur”, but he didn’t say anything about the writer. And then I said “you idiot, the rest of the line is: ‘my double, my brother’”. That is the greatness in Baudelaire, he could have stopped at “hypocrite lecteur”, and then he says in the second part of it: “I know who I am cursing, I am cursing me, because I know who I am, and I have not written the truth, and when you read me the way you do, then it is hypocritical because I have not told you the truth”. It’s staggering, frightening. A number of readers read so intently, and treat your work with such almost reverential examination, then you, in a way, have died. And you have gone to academic hell, but you have died. (laughter) I didn’t attend everything, but I was here this afternoon. I think [that the part which] might be interesting [to me], is any question you yourselves, you bunch of “hypocrites lecteurs” have to ask me. And in these things, why are the readers so hypocritical? People never ask you real questions, important things like: “did you ever have a gonorrhea”? Another joke! (laughs)

  • 3 The banter took place with Fred D’Aguiar good-naturedly sitting in the audience.

I think I say all this nonsense because of the danger to any writer of solemnity, of becoming solemn, or becoming pompous. And what one strives for all of one’s life is what Blake defined, and that is innocence to recapture, to look for, to preserve: innocence. The person you have been talking about, if I flash back to more than fifty, sixty years ago, is somebody writing in Saint Lucia without any thought of fame. It is a good subject to look at: the ambition of a young poet. The ambition of a young poet is immense. Huge. And the hugeness of it, is that it takes on challenges from anyone, Flaubert, Chaucer, Shakespeare, — “send him, I am ready”. That is the ambition, the admirable ambition of a young writer. But that is not vanity. That is courage, that is strength, that is daring. All the time, it depends on what encouragement you get. I had phenomenal people encouraging me, from a very young age. I don’t know if Archie, as another West Indian, had that example, but I tried to write for these people. And I tried to write, not as if I were in England or were an Englishman, but I tried to write because at a very, very early age, mainly, I guess, because of my mother, I believed in poetry, I believed there was such a thing. It moved me tremendously, it was my life, it was my being. But people encouraged this tremendously, so I wrote in the hope of astonishing people, and the people I was trying to astonish were very simple and very close to me. It’s a privilege to be here, with Archie. I call him Archie because, you know, I know a lot of famous people. (laughter) So that is something to look forward to. I was going to be up here with Fred D’Aguiar but I asked them to drop him. Another joke, oh God! (laughs) Fred D’Aguiar is a very brilliant Guyanese writer, who does not talk to Archie, I don’t know what the row was about. But I am glad to have either of them3. So I am going to turn over to Mr. Markham.

AM: I want to pose just one more question, so that we can get the measure of the voice and all of those things. Now, knowing that I’d be doing this, I reread The Prodigal a couple of days ago and two things struck me this time round. One is the obvious thing, I suppose, of the continued formality of the verse, which created and maintained that wonderful tension between that sort of formal artistry and the very passionate and turbulent sort of subject matter. And I was particularly struck by those sections in the middle, [those concerning themselves with] the death of your brother and your response to that. But I actually thought they were straight. Someone [talked] earlier today about the aesthetic driving the ethic. And here, it seems to me, was an example of that happening.

But that is not really my question. The question is: I was again struck at your use of this wonderful word, this wonderful noun, “benediction”, which comes through more strongly even than I had remembered. And, to remind us, I just jotted down, a sort of dictionary definition: “an act of blessing, as at the close of worship, an invocation of divine favour, upon a person, &c, &c”, including “the state of blessedness, giving thanks, grace”. Now, I thought, well this, perhaps, in spite of everything, is a sort of acceptance of the world. But at the same time, in the same book, I come across the portrait, the image of the prodigal. [It does not] fit in, it does not fit, really, in the landscape even, and the most cruel aspect of it all, it seems to me, is something someone mentioned earlier today: this business of being still unknown, a still unknown text, awaiting translation. Now, the question I want to ask is: is there a sort of tension between that notion of benediction, which to me seems to be acceptance, accepting — that sort of order —, and the portrait of the prodigal, who is still out there, deracinated, disconnected in some way? And that, as I say, disturbed me enough to [make me] want to ask you this question.

DW: Somebody who is seventy-six years old should not say, “the older I get”, because there is not much time probably. However, […] the ambiguity is to ask yourself: “Are you speaking like this because you are safe, because you have achieved a reputation, which is of no consequence, because you are so well respected?” There are very few writers who can stand up next to a bust of themselves and you can find me in Saint Lucia standing up next to my bust any time you come. I go down at nine and I get off at twelve and I go back at one, (laughter) and I don’t know who the idiot is that I am standing next to.

But what I do feel, because I work in the theater too, is the fact that there are certain things that you write about but don’t tell an audience, something very intimate, really, but I will say it anyway. When I get up in Saint Lucia in the morning, and I walk outside, every — you see, I shouldn’t do this — every morning is a benediction. This is not to say, “Well, I made it, I didn’t die last night”, it is not that kind of relief. If you weren’t there, it would still be a benediction. I am talking about the first, obvious self-defining benediction, and that is the beauty of the Caribbean. The positive, physical beauty. Staggering. If you have any sensitivity. Even if you don’t. I tend to judge Caribbean writers now this way. How would he or she look in a bath-suit? (laughter) Because really this is what the Caribbean is about: swimming. It is not about great poems by Fred D’Aguiar, it is about swimming. (laughs) And when I look out of my window, or out of my verandah, the variety and power of the landscape is something that I feel grateful for, daily. And I try to say that in every book I’ve written. There are people who will say, “Look at the poverty”, “Look at the stupidity”, even “Look at the crime”. That is of no consequence to nature. What we do is of no consequence to nature. Ask Katrina, or any force of nature, and you’ll know.

I also feel gratitude in the privilege of writing about a people who have not been thoroughly or sufficiently defined. I don’t know if any of us, whether it is Fred, or Archie or me, are capable of undertaking — of undertaking yes — but of achieving what we would like to do, especially for that part of the world, not because it is Black or Indian or mixed or whatever, but because the landscape, the seascape, the people, the reality of the people, — this is a corny thing but I have to answer cornily because it’s a corny question, — everything is good. I am writing a long prose thing now, in which part of the description that I have is of the head of a violinist, a folk musician, who has, as a head — I am saying that as a painter as well, since I paint — a head of great male aged beauty, a powerful head. Can I do that in paint? Yeah, maybe. Can I do it in words? I don’t know. So daily I have that challenge. But I think the ambiguous position that is there in the book is what somebody might jeer at, which is to say, “Yeah, it is easy for you to say that, because you fly business class, and you have a nice house, and people respect you, &c, &c”. All of this is very justified, and very understandable. What I have to continually understand is: am I giving utterance to these people, without the I, without the ego coming between me and them? Without some declaration of “I am writing about you, and I am a good writer, and you are my subject”? That is to me a blasphemous situation. And I think it is for the best West Indian writer, or writers. But we are not going to talk about certain people now — there are people who go about insuits but don’t know how to swim. What I mean is that you can’t avoid that physical pull of the Caribbean, and I think it is not just landscape, it is an aesthetic, it is a faith, that the landscape itself is a faith and the seascape is a faith, and all the writers who don’t have that, are not disciples of that. Consequently, they are not blasphemous, but there is something profoundly missing. And what is missing is a word that Blake keeps using and that we have to understand. I once asked Adam Zagajewski, the Polish poet, I don’t know how it came up — I mean I don’t go around asking people that question, but somehow it came up — and I asked him, “Do you believe in happiness?” He said “No, I believe in joy”. There is a very big difference. There can be joy with pain. You can’t have happiness with pain. And the joy one is talking about is the joy that I feel in being given the gift to articulate that violinist’s head. And to hear the language that is spoken.

  • 4 The first line of Omeros is: "This is how, one sunrise, we cut down them canoes".

Just a little kind of an aside about writing in Creole. One of the reasons why I was very much tormented about beginning Omeros properly, was that I didn’t want to invoke the Muse, which I think is a ritual that has to be done, and the fisherman in the book is a muse in a way. But I thought, “How should I, how can I start this book legitimately? It is in Saint Lucia”, and I thought: “I have a duty to make some Oxford don speak bad English”. (laughter) I owe it to England. So I want an Englishman to say: “(Saint Lucian accent) Dat is ’ow one mo’ning we take up dem canoes”. And I want to hear him say it at Oxford in a consortium of scholars, and to pronounce it properly, not: “(Oxford accent) That is how one morning we mash up them canoes4”, no, no, no, no, no. It don’t go so. It is: “(Saint Lucian accent) Dat is ’ow one mo’ning…”. Get it right. (laughter) The same way in which, in the Divina Commedia, you must get the Italian right. So please get this right. This is pure arrogance and revenge. But that is not how it began originally. It began with a description of Saint Lucia and so on, setting it in that mood. And by the way, when I hear my voice called formal, I bristle — even if it is Mr. Markham — I bristle because there is more freedom in a well-placed caesura than there is in free verse. It is harder to place your caesuras properly than it is to just cut the lines off in a pattern, in a certain way.

To go back, though, to that, I thought that the only way to start this thing was to have a sound that is Saint Lucian, right? That is part of that benediction, that is the light, that is at the beginning of the page, that starts. I started the poem that way because of all those invocations — epics are invocations of light after all, or of the light that may not be direct but comes out of the page before it continues. It is a long answer to a question but it really is the core of what I believe. The contradictory part, the prodigal part is perhaps not enough, like the Baudelaire “lecteur” thing. The prodigal part is not savage enough, I don’t think there is enough betrayal, so that it is a little placid in terms of the self-interrogation. I try hard, but I don’t know how many writers really try hard to deracinate and examine and anatomize themselves without having something to protect, which is of course the protection of the “I” writing tough things about “I”. So the “I” is always triumphant, no matter how examined and vicious that character is supposed to be. That is Baudelaire’s point. The “hypocrite lecteur” who is me. I am me reading my own work, I am a traitor to the truth, that is what is there. So the opposite of that is this landscape which is a benediction, and that ego that is a betrayal of that benediction. So the whole book is about, really, the betrayal of a gift in a sense, for some reason, from conduct, from treachery, from all sorts of things, but that is the core of it. Do I always take such a long time to answer such a simple question? No.

AM: And of course one of the things in that book, Omeros, that excited us and still excites us, is how [it achieves] all sorts of things that other Caribbean writers have been struggling with before and not actually succeeding, that is to say connecting our world to the ancient or classical worlds. I am thinking of Wilson Harris’s poems, I am thinking of A.J. Seymour, I am thinking of how people have tried to “creolize”, if you like, the great neo-mythological figures of the distant world or the classical world. And here, Derek comes along and with his taxi drivers, his fishermen, his maids, with Helen, with Achille, with Hector; and effortlessly, or so it seems to the reader, he is able to get these Caribbean people whom we know to fill the shoes of those neoclassical, heroic type of people without any sense of strain. Now this is something that we had been trying, that people had been trying to do before, failing to achieve it. What is interesting, after Derek, and Derek is still here, [is that] it became a little easier for the rest of us. So it is that sort of transform[ation], and I don’t expect you to talk about it because you are not going to blow your own trumpet. [It was very important] for the rest of us to discover that certain things are possible, that they are not pretentious, that they are not beyond our reach, &c, &c. So many of these things grow out of that type of research that you have done. Now, I, perhaps, if there is time, would like to ask another question […].

DW: May I answer some of this?

AM: Oh sorry!

DW: It was not a question but I think I may like to make a short comment. Whenever asked about the book, I point out that it is wrong. It is not exactly Homer, things are wrong, there was never any big thing between Hector and Helen: it is all wrong, but that is the point. It is wrong. The point is that these associations… I will give you a real example. In Gros-Ilet, the village that I live nearby, there is a man called Achille, that is his real name. He does not know who he is. (laughter) If you call him Achille, he knows: “My name is Achille”. “Who was Achille?” “I don’t know”. The fact that he does not know is a most important thing, the fact that he does not care, the fact that he does not try to model himself as a Greek, because he is not Greek, he is a black guy from Africa, and he is a Saint Lucian. All right, but he has a cousin called Hector. (laughter) That is a fact. I asked the guy, I said, “What’s your cousin’s name?” “Hector”, he said. And then he said, “Oh give me a break”. And of course Helen is…, there are a lot of Helens in Saint Lucia.

So the book is deliberately a book of the wrong…, it is not a template, it is not like Ulysses, which is a template of The Odyssey, it is a Caribbean thing, therefore it is based on error, misconception, association. Because that is our aesthetic. You are not supposed to have a sequence in design, you have a band play, say, Julius Caesar, and the next thing you have is a bunch of Polynesians. It is illogical, but that is Carnival. You cannot go and say to the Carnival aesthetic: “No, no, no, no, no, the Polynesians should not be here, they should be over there, you know. You put them in a certain kind of parade. So you can’t put a bunch of Mexican bandits next to Roman senators”. And the answer would be, from a Trinidadian: (Trinidadian accent) “Who say so? Nobody say so.” That is how it happens. And I think that that is the instinctual and very confident genius of Caribbean writing, no matter who the writer is. That central confidence that says, I can do what I want. I am an Indian writer, I am a Black writer, I am a Chinese writer, I am a Portuguese writer, or painter, I can do that, I can put things in apparent disorder. And I think that that is the great freedom that is in Caribbean writing as it has been in Irish writing when it came out, or in American earlier writing.

AM: Thank you. I now am going to [talk a little about] a linked collection of short stories called Meet Me in Mozambique. Why Mozambique? Because I liked the sound of the name, of the words. Later, I used to say to people: “Look, well, they were concerned with the Arab slave trade and not with the Atlantic slave trade and therefore by going to Africa, by going to Mozambique, I can’t be accused of actually seeking my roots”, which is something I have never really felt a particular need to do. It is interesting: when I was in the South of France writing a short story about five or six years ago, I was invited out to lunch and I thought I wanted to get the skeleton of this story down before going to lunch because it is too boring, too pretentious, to be late for lunch when somebody is kind enough to invite you, merely because you are writing a short story. I was exercised by the fact that my main character needed to go somewhere at the end of the story. One or two people whom I know, women readers, had said to me in the past: “Why is it that your main characters always end up in places that you know, in Tuscany, in France, in the Caribbean, wherever? You are not learning enough from that experience by not sending them away somewhere new, somewhere that you don’t know!” And that probably is what helped me to jot down Mozambique as a place where he should go — an Anglophone Caribbean heritage sort of person.

I thought that when I got back from lunch I would really find out where this character should go. I came back and took down my little Times atlas to check out Mozambique, and I liked what I saw. The first thing was: on the map, it is like a Y that a not very confident child would make, and I thought that this was so different from the regimented look of American states or indeed of some African states, and that there was something natural about this. Another thing appealed to me, and that was the fact that it seemed so green. When I looked closely at the map, I realized that it seemed green because most of it was below sea-level and hence subject to flooding. But the good feeling of it seeming green stayed with me and helped, if you like, to infuse the spirit of it. Later, […] when I started reading the history of Mozambique, because I had never been to Africa then, I was enormously impressed by the integrity, really, of certain people who were in charge of the country, a country that had come out of fifteen years of war of liberation, and twelve years of civil wars. And having come through this, the people in charge of the country seemed to retain a degree of normality that one does not really necessarily associate with leaders. […] The leader of the country is a man called Samuel Michel (?), [he is] head of the army. They are fighting the rebels, funded by an international consortium of people. The rebels come to a village and there are seven rebels and forty people in the village. By the time Michel’s forces get to the village, having burnt, raped, done all of those things, the rebels, by whatever means, have merged into the population, and no one can detect who they are. Finally, miraculously, they get on to Michel, and they say : “We have a problem. We can’t identify the rebels, they are forty villagers here, we have got forty-seven people, what do we do? Are there forty people and seven rebels, or are there forty-seven rebels?” Without the least hesitation, and we must keep in mind that this country has been bombarded and all sorts of things, Michel says: “There are only seven rebels in the village.” Now I met that sort of response everywhere I went in Mozambique, and I thought, “This is different”. So what started as an aesthetic thing — liking all sorts of things about the country without knowing it — gave way, after going there, to the discovery of a sort of morality in the way things were conducted, which seemed different from my experience of moving around the world.

[There is another passage], which is not from the Mozambique section, and which is a bit of local colour because people accuse us, both critics and writers are frightened of local colour. And therefore you think, “Well, let me try and do the local colour thing and see whether I am traumatised by it”. So this is […] a story set in England in the 1950s, when I lived and went to school in London. You can try to control your environment, but you will find that your control is nearly always limited. My mother, who came from the West Indies, decided not to subject herself to racist landlords and landladies and that sort of things, so that she insisted on buying a house for us, to save us that. What she did not know was that the house next door was owned by a fascist. (laughter) You have probably heard of Oswald Mosley: he was a fascist leader in Britain, and his second in command owned the house next door: we lived in 86, and he lived — I can’t remember if it was 88 or 84 — but he lived next door. A very polite man — we met him several times a day. In fact, this is one of the things that distresses about England these days: the new fascists have failed to maintain the standards of courtesy of the old fascists, back then in the fifties. (laughter) It is a Saturday afternoon, five o’clock in the afternoon, in 1959. General election. Harold MacMillan is having his general election, and there are rallies all over the country. I am doing my Latin homework in the sitting-room. My mother is sitting at the window looking out, on the first-floor. I hear a sort of cheer, I look up from my Latin, look past the window where my mother is looking out, and I see not only my mother but Oswald Mosley in the window, I see his face in the window. Because my mother owns the house, he has come to hold his rally outside my house. He is on a podium of some sort so he is absolutely level with my mother, about four or five feet away, and what has occasioned the cheer is that he tipped his hat to my mother. […]
So, over to you, Derek.

  • 5 The poet Claire Malroux, Derek Walcott’s translator in France (notably of Another Life for Editions (...)

DW: I am going to [talk about] the “The Schooner Flight”, and [I want to say that] Claire Malroux’s translations have been very enjoyable to me5, and great in terms of tone. The test of a translation, I think, is tone, not even accuracy, or [else, it would be] a rhythmic type of accuracy. “The Schooner Flight”. The speaker is a Trinidadian red-skin man who is a smuggler, and he is getting into trouble because he has a Dominican — meaning she is from the Dominican Republic — mistress, who he gets into trouble with. The first four lines are deliberately modelled on Piers Plowman:

  • 6 William Langland, The Vision of William Concerning Piers the Plowman. Ed. William Skeat, Oxford: Cl (...)

In a somer seson * whan soft was the sonne
I shope me in shroudes * as I a shepe were
In habite as an heremite * vnholy of workes.
Went wyde in this world * wondres to here

Nice beat. So I thought, let’s do that in the Caribbean. […]

AM: Would you say something more about tone?

DW: Robert Lowell wrote what I think is a terrific book called Imitations in which he did what no writer had undertaken to do before, that is to say that he imagined that he had written the great poems he was translating. […] But what is true is that every writer who is writing or reading Baudelaire, thinks he is Baudelaire, or thinks he is Rimbaud, or thinks he is Blake, while he is writing. What Lowell did was to say, “OK, that is how I feel, so I am going to do that. I will take a poem by Rimbaud, and I will enter it, and I will rewrite it”. It is not like Borges’s story about the man who rewrote Don Quixote, it is different: I would then translate the poem that I have in my mind as if it were I who had written it. He doesn’t change things, but what he does, that is honest, is to pitch the poem to his own tone. So the criticism has been: “Well, it is not Montale, it is not Pasternak, it is not Baudelaire, it is not anybody you want, it is Lowell”. Yes! That is what he says he is doing. It is as if those great poems were written by Lowell, because every writer, every writer, be it in prose or poetry, has, at the core of their writing, a kind of envy. Admiration is really the same thing as envy. So that what you feel is what I think I have called a “benign envy”. Even of your contemporaries. Because it is not jealousy, it is the form that creates that.

  • 7 Aimé Césaire, Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, [1939], Paris, Dakar: Présence Africaine, 1983, 7.

Let me give you an example. This is a terrible thing to say because it is something I did, sorry about it. The beginning of Césaire’s poem is, “Au bout du petit matin…”7. How do you translate that into English? “At the edge of the small morning”? (laughter) Crazy. What is that? “Dawn”? Trying to get fancy? (laughter) Something else? You cannot do it. And then, on the road to Damascus, it hit me: what you have to do tonally, is to do something in English that has to be West Indian in melody. Because the Césaire poem may be French, but the melody is Martiniquan. Be careful: it is not accurate in the sense that it is Parisian French or some kind of French. It is Martiniquan French. Equally valid. Because every language was a dialect, right? Every one. It is like saying to Dante: “You can’t write like that, you should do it in Latin!” Same thing. So I thought, and I tell people this with great arrogance, that the proper translation of “Au bout du petit matin…” was a Jamaican or Antiguan or Montserratian — not Saint Lucian, it is an English translation. So the English, the Protestant if you want, translation is — because that is not a Catholic pronunciation — “Foreday morning”. That is brilliant. I want to clap myself on the back. (laughter) Because that is an exact melody in terms of scansion, it is close; “Au bout du petit matin…” is a little longer, but the stress and the weight [are the same] in “Foreday morning”. And what “Foreday morning” is in English — English English — is “before day”. “Fore day morning”. So you will get different pronunciations down the islands of “Foreday morning”, but the tone of saying that is what you do not get if you translate it into regular — what you call regular — English. You can’t say it, unless you “intone” it; if you say that the Césaire is “Au bout du petit matin…”, it is not intoned, it is not rhetorical, it is not the beginning of a poem. It is dawn itself, which is unrhetorical; the sunrise is not rhetorical, it is sunrise, right? So the exact tone of looking at a sunrise in the Caribbean is that light that you get before actual sunlight. It is not light, it is a grey light, it is not the sun, the sun is not up yet, but there is time before the actual sunrise, which is a light that is grey, unlit yet, by the sun, but which has that elegiac melody to it, which is invocative — it is like a beginning — but it is very quiet. The pitch of it is not loud. You cannot say (“chantingit loud) “Foreday morning”, except if you are singing it, which is OK. It is as quiet as dawn, and that is the brilliant thing of course in the Césaire, but it is equally brilliant — sorry to say that, but it is so right that I am proud of it — to say “Foreday morning”. And it is very good Elizabethan. A lot of the Caribbean englishes are basically Elizabethan. To say “Foreday morning” on that pitch is what I mean by tone. “Foreday morning” is not dialect. It is very good English. “Fore day morning”. So patriots can shout.

AM: I think you may have answered this in talking about tone, but let me just establish. Again, reading The Prodigal, it seemed to me entirely fresh, as one would expect. And I was thinking, well, here are these sorts of alpine journeys, and journeying, that some of us thought of — they are in the culture, so some of us associate them with Byron, maybe even with Wordsworth a bit. And I was wondering what prompted [it all], how much recognition or sense [was there] of repeating a journey or exploring something that other poets may have done in a slightly different way? How conscious were you of recharting that sort of territory, in the same sort of genre? Because, as I say, for us it is entirely new, but [how does it go] for the poets? Were you conscious of Byron, were you conscious of these fellows?

DW: A thing that a Caribbean writer has to endure is this constant comparison — maybe a French Caribbean writer has to do too — this constant comparison with what preceded him or her. Therefore, at the worst aspect of it, one Caribbean writer like Naipaul calls everybody a mimic, including Naipaul, and this is just a part of the penalty of the history. I have campaigned repeatedly not to go by that same sense of time, not defiantly but in reality. The time that we go by is European time. If you go by that time, even if there is an eight hour difference, that is how you measure difference; Paris is six hours ahead, and we are behind (laughter), we are incompetent, we are behind Paris, or geography is bad, dialect geography is bad. It is not a matter of being original.

  • 8 The exact quotation is: “A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not do (...)

Pasternak said a terrific thing. He said great writers have no time to be original. That is fantastic. Because what he is saying is not that we just repeat things, but that things repeat themselves. It is not: “we repeat things”, but: “things repeat themselves”. That is what happens in terms of what we record. I think that is generically what I am trying to say about measuring time, and if you measure time by a certain code, then you measure everything that goes with time. And you have an idea of what development is. You see, there was once a time when it was astonishing for there to be writers from the Caribbean. Why should it have been astonishing? Why should you say, you know, “Oh, they can write!”, it is like Dr. Johnson’s thing about women, “a dog with legs”, “a dog walking” or something8, so that the colonial person has to go through the ironic benediction of being told: “You are just as good as some of ours”. Really, that is a curse. When you get supporters of that view, like in Naipaul, then it is a horrific thing to have to endure because nothing is an imitation in life. You don’t imitate a death when you die. You don’t imitate somebody if [you are] in love […]. It is not an imitation, it is reality. And literature is as real as what it depicts. So there really is no reason why Dante should be in [the thirteenth] century, and Edward Thomas six […] centuries later. There is no such thing as that kind of time because poetry does not deal chronologically, [just as] the soul is not chronological. You cannot say, “They were like that”. I don’t even think you can say it for painting.

You see, if we are told to divide art chronologically, like good students, as colonials, then all we are doing is trying to achieve what the Empire achieved. You are trying to be Flaubert, you are trying to be somebody else, and that is a benign curse that the Empire bequeaths, and it bequeaths it from France to the French colonial writers, so that finally you say as a compliment, “Oh my God, it is as good as Flaubert!”, which it can’t be, as if there were a kind of horror in achieving that. That is what you go through in a colonial experience, whereas there is no such thing in art as chronological division. There is no logic in the appearance of a great writer at a certain time, and all the concomitances that are supposed to produce a writer don’t apply because a genius is illogical. There is no reason for somebody called Rimbaud to be seventeen years old and to write that kind of poetry. It does not make sense. It makes sense after we hold on to it and start to write things about Rimbaud explaining why he was Rimbaud.

AM: It is probably not my place but I would still like to thank you all for coming and being so engaged; I personally have learnt so much […]. Let me thank the organisers, and thank Derek for being everything we expected. (applause)

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1 Transcribed from audio and video tapes and edited by Kerry-Jane Wallart, this writerly session in which Derek Walcott chats with E.A. (Archie) Markham, fellow Caribbean poet as well as short story writer and critic, and in which both writers read from their works, took place during the Derek Walcott International Colloquium held at the Sorbonne Nouvelle, on 17 March 2006. The readings have not been included, and the inaudible passages have been marked by […].

2 Marta Dvorak had previously explained to the audience that the old hall was a historical one in which the barbers had carried out the first dissections of cadavers in France, when surgeons were still not authorized to do so, before being transformed by Louis XV in the middle of the 18th century into the first free State school for draughtsmen.

3 The banter took place with Fred D’Aguiar good-naturedly sitting in the audience.

4 The first line of Omeros is: "This is how, one sunrise, we cut down them canoes".

5 The poet Claire Malroux, Derek Walcott’s translator in France (notably of Another Life for Editions Gallimard), had in a session preceding Walcott’s talk discussed the challenges inherent in translating his poetry, as well as the strategies involved in the translation process.

6 William Langland, The Vision of William Concerning Piers the Plowman. Ed. William Skeat, Oxford: Clarendon Press (1st edition London: Early English Text Society, 1869), p. 1. The modern English version given by Penguin Classics renders this as follows: "One summer season, when the sun was warm, I rigged myself out in shaggy woollen clothes, as if I were a shepherd; and in the garb of an easy-living hermit I set out to roam far and wide through the world, hoping to hear of marvels." (William Langland, Piers the Ploughman, translated into modern English by J.F. Goodridge, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966, p.25). The first lines of Walcott’s “The Schooner Flight” read as follows:
     In idle August, while the sea soft,
     And leaves of brown islands stick to the rim
     Of this Caribbean, I blow out the light
     By the dreamless face of Maria Concepcion
     To ship as a seaman on the schooner

7 Aimé Césaire, Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, [1939], Paris, Dakar: Présence Africaine, 1983, 7.

8 The exact quotation is: “A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all”, Boswell, Life of Johnson [1763], volume ii, chapter ix.

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Bibliographical reference

Edward Archibald Markham, Derek Walcott and E.A. Markham Read and TalkCommonwealth Essays and Studies, 28.2 | 2006, 95-107.

Electronic reference

Edward Archibald Markham, Derek Walcott and E.A. Markham Read and TalkCommonwealth Essays and Studies [Online], 28.2 | 2006, Online since 15 January 2022, connection on 18 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Edward Archibald Markham

E.A. Markham is Professor of Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam University, former editor of Artrage and current editor of the magazine Sheffield Thursday. Born on the island of Montserrat but living in Britain since 1956, he is the author of several collections of stories (the latest ones being Taking the Drawing Room through Customs: Selected Stories 1970-2000 (2002) and Meet Me in Mozambique [2005]), several poetry collections, including Living in Disguise (1986), Towards the End of a Century (1989), Misapprehensions (1995), and A Rough Climate (2002), shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize. He has edited Hinterland (1989), a selection of Caribbean and black British poetry, and The Penguin Book of Caribbean Short Stories (1996).

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