Derek Walcott, Nobel Prize-winning poet and playwright, sits beneath a dim spotlight casting shadows upon his wrinkled face, his relaxed posture and thick Caribbean accent a testament to the homeland that both inspires his poetry and evokes his anger. He has a love-hate relationship with the place he calls home: Its natural beauty constitutes much of his lyrical verse, but he laments that the social problems of the Caribbean are muffling the voices of young artists.
“There’s not a theater in Saint Lucia, but there are three or four new hotels,” he said. “It’s a betrayal of people to do that.”
Though Walcott said he would never encourage a would-be artist to make their home in the West Indies, he chooses to spend half of each year on the island (the other half is spent teaching at Boston University and, as of this year, Yale). On Wednesday, Walcott spoke before an audience of admirers at “An Evening with Derek Walcott,” hosted by the Yale Repertory Theatre and the School of Drama at the New Theater.
Born in Saint Lucia in 1930 and a graduate of the West Indies’ University College, Walcott is best known for his poetry, particularly the ambitious “Omeros,” which is drawn from Homer’s epic “Odyssey” and is set in the Caribbean. At Wednesday’s event, every seat was filled by fans interested both in Walcott’s poetry and his connection with the Caribbean identity.
“People never know whether you’ll make a commentary between poems or just read,” he said. “I’ll go by the vibes.”
The audience laughed, and the room soon fell silent.
“You look like you need commentary.”
He read some of his famous works, including “Forests of Europe” and “The Schooner Flight,” evoking gentle hums of agreement and nostalgia as specific images resonated with the audience.
“Sometimes is just me, and the soft-scissored foam/ as the deck turn white and the moon open/ a cloud like a door, and the light over me/ is a road in white moonlight taking me home./ Shabine sang to you from the depths of the sea.”
With those final words of “The Schooner Flight,” Walcott ended his reading — and with the close of his book came the roar of applause.
“Any more questions? You don’t have to,” he quipped to a sea of raised hands and questioners interested in his opinion on everything from cricket to West Indian culture.
Questions on the latter brought Walcott’s mixed feelings about the Caribbean Islands to the fore, as he criticized both the lack of artistic support in the West Indies and what he called a “placid, receptive, almost indifferent writing society” in the U.S.
Walcott said he is appalled by the apathy he sees among American writers regarding social injustice; namely, torture.
“I’m not disappointed,” he said. “It’s not my country. But I am embarrassed about the silence of the American intellectual.”
One woman commented that Jamaica and Barbados strongly support the arts, to which Walcott replied, “All fallacies!”
“There are too many suicides of young artists in the Caribbean,” he said. “The state is responsible for them, having them feel they can stay here. This anger I’ve felt is anger I’ve had since I’ve been 18. I’m 76.”