THE nation mourns as its literary giant, Sir Derek Walcott, leaves us physically this week, brackets now sealing the dates he first took his deep breaths of the world he conquered through his magical words.
His death is a great loss, especially to Saint Lucians who for seven decades were enamored by his writing style that lifted their spirits from the ashes of the Great Castries holocust in “A city’s death by fire” and another poem, “Omeros”, which four decades later placed him – and an entire nation – at the pinnacle of the literary world.
But Sir Derek, who was knighted in 2015, was foremost a Caribbean man who told a Caribbean story that could find its place in any island. Through his captivating words, the rest of the world saw deeper meaning in the region, felt a greater respect for, and realized that greatness resided in us.
His storied life traces back to a single mother raising twin boys (Roderick being his brother) who would go on to marvel the world with their tremendous talent that even forced Saint Lucians to notice that what the best outcomes are still possible despite their humble circumstances. Sir Derek came from grassroots Chaussee Road to become the best living writer in the English language, an honour someone else will now be bestowed.
Sir Derek told our stories in his way but saw those lines of poetry and prose through our collective eyes, often seeing things that we took for granted that required a closer look and a pause for introspection. He truly had his way with the words that defined us as a people, as Saint Lucians.
Notwithstanding his sheer literary genius, which often left other writers stumped just wrapping their minds around his superb metaphors, Sir Derek also used his stature to advocate for a deeper humanity across the world, especially in the Caribbean. To him, the essence of just being in harmony was the best start to any poem or piece of prose.
But he was also a champion for the environment and was often quoted in several forums denouncing any attempt to erode the value of our natural environment at the expense of so-called development. He spoke his mind unequivocally for years regarding the ill-treatment of our majestic Pitons and how tourism had made a once patriotic people lose their way at the expense of profit.
His death, ironically, comes at a juncture when the nation is at such a crossroad: when the people must make the tough decision to either allow for what was once deemed sacred to become part of a job-creating scheme that might leave a bitter taste afterwards. With him now gone, any hope of his voice dimming such an attempt to choose commonsense over dollars seems unlikely.
As far as icons go, Sir Derek was truly in a league of his own. But that did not prevent his critics from dismissing him as a man who went from being soft to grumpy within seconds. Many Saint Lucians are still out of touch with his greatness and, thus, believe that his contribution to country is overrated.
With him now gone, however, it would do us all a great deal of good to at least become familiar with his writings, ensure that Walcott House begins to function regularly, finally create the long-overdue creative space at Rat Island and add his and fellow laureate, Sir Arthur Lewis’ works to the school curriculum.
Like Sir Arthur, Sir Derek’s time has been spent. It is time that we spend ours doing the things we need to do and not simply resign ourselves to having poets write stories about the things we leave undone.