Ralph Thompson | Derek Walcott was ‘obsessed with death’
With the death of Derek Walcott last Friday, the West Indies and the world have lost a poetic giant.
I first met Walcott at the wedding of one of John Figueroa's daughter's. Dressed in a white sharkskin suit, he was sprawled in a lounge chair under a mango tree surrounded by admirers.
I remarked that Figueroa, always the editor, had even rewritten one of the psalms printed in the wedding programme. This tickled Walcott's wry sense of humour and he exploded into one of those fits of laughter for which he was famous, sometimes falling to his knees in a crescendo of giggles. "Thompson seh, Figueroa rewriting the psalms ... . His next book to be The Songs of Songs Revised and Updated."
Many years later, our paths crossed again when, as managing director of the Pan-Jamaican Investment Trust, we sponsored a visit to Jamaica by the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, of which he was the founder and author of the plays that they performed. Perhaps the most famous was Dream on Monkey Mountain.
I vividly remember a party we hosted at our home where I spotted Walcott by himself leaning on a verandah post and surveying the bacchanal with strange detachment. I asked him if he was afraid of death.
"I am obsessed with death," he replied. "Terrified that I may die before I can bring my gift to perfection." To reassure him, I prophetically replied, "Don't worry. One day you will win the Nobel Prize for Literature." This prediction was fulfilled in 1992.
Walcott was an uncompromising formalist, with an astonishing feel for the power and the beauty of the English language. In this, he bucked the trend of more popular forms. There were those nationalists in the West Indies who did not think that his poetry was 'black enough', but, as Seamus Heaney pointed out at a lecture being given by Eddie Baugh at a celebration in St Lucia to honour Derek's 75th birthday, love, not ideology, ultimately defines a poet's greatness.
All art is an attempt to encode in a more permanent form the transience of the world - whether its beauties or its sorrows, its epiphanies or its tragedies, but always with the compulsion to share with others the joy of the creative process. This was the spirit that enriched my friendship with the great poet and allowed me to share some of my poems with him. I was asked to read some of these poems at the 75th birthday celebration. One of them read as follows.
"Four of the five wore patent leather shoes as is the custom but when he crossed his legs, displayed a pair of mid-calf boots zippered on the left, wrinkled but fortunately black, And that was another way.
We could distinguish Walcott from the rest."
As I sit and reflect on our years of friendship, another common interest comes to mind. Derek, like me, was a Sunday painter, and we often talked about painting - he the realistic painter and me, the abstract impressionist.
Derek's wicked sense of humour, his devilish personality and joie de vivre endeared him to the Thompson family. Derek was notorious for never entering into correspondence. He would gladly talk to you on the phone, but was reluctant to exchange letters.
No more time for letters or phone calls, Walcott, but walk good, my friend.
- Ralph Thompson is a businessman, poet and educator. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.