Remembering Derek Walcott: Enemy of metaphor, and a metaphor thief

In Mahmoud Darwish’s last published collection before his death, Athar al-Farasha (A River Dies of Thirst, translated by Catherine Cobham), there’s one poem that has received little attention: the poem in which the Palestinian poet declares his admiration for Caribbean poet Derek Walcott. Titled In Cordoba, it recounts a meeting between the two poets in the Spanish city during a poetry festival. In the middle of the poem, Darwish refers to Walcott as “one of my favorite poets,” adding that (in Cobham’s translation) “ … we stayed together for three days, continuously making fun of poetry and poets, who he described as metaphor thieves. ‘How many metaphors have you stolen?’ he asked me, and I was unable to answer.”

Derek Walcott passed away on March 17, leaving behind everything and nothing: just language.

I read In Cordoba when the book came out in 2008. I liked how it compared poets to thieves, but I was more surprised by this Caribbean poet I had never heard of before. I was in New York, and I researched Walcott: a poet who won the 1992 Nobel Prize in literature, writes in English, and is a legend in his homeland, the island of Saint Lucia in the eastern Caribbean Sea. But I didn’t read Walcott directly. There was a huge barrier between me and English poetry in general, a barrier that required a poet of Walcott’s power to overcome.

Two years passed. In 2010, as part of my PhD, I took a class at Columbia University on Greek poetry and its effect on contemporary poets. Finding Walcott’s name on the reading list, I smiled, as if he was winking at me. “Here he is then,” I thought.

The class started, and so did Walcott’s impact and a new history of poetry in my life. After spending over 15 years reading poetry exclusively in Arabic, emotionally shunning almost all poetry written in any other language unless translated, along came Derek Walcott, lighting a fire before my eyes.

In his masterpiece Omeros, Walcott reproduces Homer’s Greek epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, in Saint Lucia, creating a turbulent poetic narration of the story of the island, its sorrows, and the slavery and occupation by the British and the French. Its only hero is poetry, and Walcott prodigiously fuses time, place and characters, recreating the heroes of Greek mythology as fishermen and farmers, and the Greek Helen as a 20th-century housemaid. He thus captures how Saint Lucia’s powerful geographic location in the Caribbean Sea made it the subject of hideous contention between British and French occupiers, who took turns controlling the island and its inhabitants for three centuries, calling it the “Helen of the West Indies.”

It was the land’s beauty and charm, then, that mainly led to its occupation, just like the beauty of Greek Helen started the Trojan War in Homer’s epics. Even after independence in the mid-20th century, Saint Lucia remained a target for greedy American companies and interests. There’s a passage in Omeros where Walcott wearily complains how the island’s beaches are full of Americans: “there was a plague of them now, worse than the insects/who, at least, were natives.”

The analogy between the Greek Helen and the Saint Lucian Helen is one of the main keys of this intricate epic poem. Walcott seems pessimistic and sarcastic about humanity’s decline and its ill-treatment of each other during and post occupation. In one fantastic scene, Omeros comes to the 20th century and Walcott meets him. They speak about Helen, love and war. Then Omeros asks him whether men still fight and wage wars and Walcott answers in the affirmative, but adds: “not over beauty, . . . Or a girl’s love.” According to the legend the Trojan War which gave the world the Iliad and the Odyssey was ironically a war for beauty, a war for love, unlike the horrendous modern colonial wars.

Walcott’s epic doesn’t just seem weary of modern warfare and its misery, but also of poetry, its value and importance.

Walcott’s epic doesn’t just seem weary of modern warfare and its misery, but also of poetry, its value and importance. He often wonders in the text about the secret that makes people understand things only through metaphor and simile, which effectively form a barrier between us and the truth of what’s in front of us. Why can’t things be understood as they are, without linguistic accessories? Helen, the Greek woman or the poet’s country, is present again, and Walcott wonders: “Why not see Helen as the sun saw her, with no Homeric shadow? … When would I enter that light beyond metaphor?”

Metaphor is a cause of suffering. If people had seen an ordinary woman in Helen, the Trojan War wouldn’t have started. The problem was that they described and mythologized her beauty. They got linguistically involved in maiming the Hellenistic nature physically, resulting in a veracious war. Saint Lucia wishes it had remained a bare location excluded from the lexicon of geographic metaphors as the most important, most beautiful and most magnificent island, because this only resulted in colonial aspirations.

Likewise, Darwish’s homeland was transformed from a mere location where people live into a mythical “promised land” through metaphorical language coined by the Zionist movement to legitimize occupation and the displacement of a population.

Of course, the irony in Omeros is that the poet expresses his weariness of metaphor, poetry which uses metaphor and poetry, making us wonder with him whether there’s a way to evade them at all. He literally flees from poetry to poetry.

Poets, the metaphor thieves Walcott discussed with Darwish, are the people most passionate about transforming the mundane into metaphor. Walcott here takes his contemplation on the relationship between the poet and the homeland to another level. Poetry flourishes most in times of war, when poets are given an unequivocal opportunity to let their talents thrive. Omeros takes Walcott by the hand and tells him that the Trojan War, for him at least, isn’t a war, but just “an epic’s excuse.” While people die, the poet sits in his tower using description, metaphor and allegory. What matters to Omeros is that the war allowed him to write one of the greatest poetic texts in history.

What about Saint Lucia and its relationship with its mythical son, Derek Walcott? In Omeros, the poet diffidently hints at some kind of self-criticism of what he does to his homeland: he transforms it into metaphorical text, creatively describing the land’s wounds, wars and colonization in fascinating poesy that won him a Nobel prize, among many others.

Metaphor will never cease, and nor will my passionate interest in Walcott, sparked by reading his epic in that class. My relationship to the English language and poetry was changed forever by an poet who was not originally an English speaking poet, but a poet who mastered English simply because his country was an English colony. I remember my classmates’ and professor’s surprise at how intoxicating I found Walcott’s work. He seemed to be a language beast, manipulating and altering it to his liking. I shall memorize and recite his passages as I recite Al-Muallaqat (the Hanging Poems, seven long Arabic poems from the pre-Islamic era, hung on the Kaaba), al-Mutanabby and Darwish. At last, English poetry speaks to me.

Darwish tells us that Walcott asked him: “‘If you liked a woman would you approach her?’ … ‘The more beautiful she is, the more daring I am,’ I said. ‘What about you?’ ‘If I like a woman, she comes to me,’ he said.” Fascination with women and the female body permeates every part of Omeros through the poet’s central metaphor: a weariness of metaphor and poetry. Walcott belongs to a country feminized through the allegory of Helen due to its beauty and importance. Walcott feminizes places and creates peculiar relationships between women and the boats, ships and coasts of Saint Lucia. “A girl smells better than the world’s libraries,” he writes. Walcott talks about the scents, feelings and sighs of Saint Lucian women, the swishing sound of garments, and curving bodies being rubbed with perfumes and oils in delirious scenes. But Walcott admits that beauty surpasses poetry’s descriptive capacity, leaving language “paralyzed past any figure of speech.”

Derek Walcott passed away on March 17, leaving behind everything and nothing: just language. But it’s a language that can make you love it so much that you hate it. Walcott had never read Arabic poetry, he told Darwish, but we can read him, in his English language which made American and British poets and critics take a bow. Unfortunately, Walcott hasn’t been much translated into Arabic, and I am not sure if it’s actually possible to translate his epic Omeros, given how complicated and full of allusions and metaphors it is.

There are two reasons to learn and master the English language: it’s one of the world’s most spoken languages, and it’s the language of Derek Walcott.

Translated by Amira Elmasry

Omar Khalifa 

You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism