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Poet Derek Walcott Knows Joy and Pain of Divided Spirit

November 12, 1986|JUANA DUTY KENNEDY | Juana Duty Kennedy is an editor on The Times daily opinion page.

The poem was entitled simply "Prelude." And it has turned out to be just that--an introduction to an incredibly long career. Incredible because in this hard-edged, bottom-line age, there are still people who have the courage and blessed perversity to make a life as a poet.

Derek Walcott, who has been writing for nearly 40 years, is one of them.

I with legs crossed along the daylight, watch The variegated fists of clouds that gather over The uncouth features of this, my prone island. Meanwhile the steamers which divide horizons prove Us lost; Found only In tourist booklets, behind ardent binoculars; Found in the blue reflection of eyes That have known cities and think us here happy. Time creeps over the patient who are too long patient, So I, who have made one choice, Discover that my boyhood has gone over. And my life, too early of course for the profound

cigarette, The turned doorhandle, the knife turning In the bowels of the hours, must not be made public Until I have learnt to suffer In accurate iambics The West Indian poet and playwright was 18 when he wrote "Prelude" in 1948; now, at 56, retrospect makes its sentiments all the more striking. He has since had seven volumes of verse published in the United States. Many of them can be found in Walcott's new "Collected Poems 1948-1984," which was one of the winners of the 1986 Los Angeles Times Book Prizes awarded last week. A new book of poetry, "Arkansas Testament," about his "connections to the South," is due this spring. A prolific playwright as well--he has written more than 25 plays--his work has been staged at the Mark Taper Forum, Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival and at countless regional theaters across the country.

His political drama "To Die for Grenada" opened last month in Cleveland and "Pantomime," which he described as "a satiric comedy about master-servant roles," begins Dec. 11 at the Hudson Guild Theater in New York City.

In an interview during his visit to receive the Times' award, Walcott, a reluctant subject, talked about his work, the state of the American theater and his beloved St. Lucia, the island home that has provided much of his inspiration. Tall, with a bit of a paunch, Walcott looks considerably younger than his years, a condition aided by the fact that he was dressed in faded jeans, T-shirt, a battered denim jacket and running shoes.

For more than four years now, he has taught graduate classes in poetry and playwrighting at Boston University and lives in the adjacent suburb of Brookline. He divides his time among Boston, Trinidad and St. Lucia.

As a writer, Walcott's themes have grown out of a personal struggle with isolation, fostered by the racial inequities experienced while growing up in St. Lucia, then a British dependency; now an independent but still tiny island of 100,000, dependent mainly on bananas and tourism for its survival.

One of three children born to Alix and Warwick Walcott, Derek Walcott inherited his artistic bent from his parents. His father was a schoolteacher and watercolorist who died when his son was a year old. His mother, nearing 90, still lives in St. Lucia. She shared her son's love of books and theater and urged him to publish his first poems. His most recent collection is dedicated to her.

Walcott uses poetry and the theater to express the cultural tensions between a love of the English classics and rich African folk traditions. His plays, unlike his sharply etched poems, which some critics have described as among the best in the English language, generally tend to be loosely structured, one-act folk allegories written in the Creole and English dialects of the Caribbean.

His work frequently deals with the joys and pains of the divided spirit, the toll of colonialism, what writer James Dickey has described aptly as "the situation of the cosmic castaway."

" I who am poisoned with the blood

of both, Where shall I turn, divided to the

vein? I who have cursed The drunken officer of British rule,

how choose Between this Africa and the English

tongue I love? Betray them both, or give back what

they give? How can I face such slaughter and be

cool? How can I turn from Africa and

live? "

--From the poem, "A Far Cry From Africa"

Yet as Walcott has grown older, it seems that he feels a bit less "the divided child" than he once did.

"I can't afford to worry and I don't worry about the idea of being a black poet and I don't think black American poets should do that either," he said. "We must not allow our anger to turn us inward. Your work loses its universality and becomes boring."

Minority writers, Walcott contends, cannot focus just on their own plight. "The struggle is against injustice, not just the struggle of a particular race. This is not to minimize the effect of the bland hypocrisy that goes on about race in this country right now," he said. "But every minority group faces the danger of being splintered into querulous factions and we cannot afford to do that."

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