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Skinning the lion (A dialogue between Derek Walcott and Ben Okri)

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Ben Okri talks to Derek Walcott about poetry and painting, racism in literature, and ideas of Arcadia.

Two figures in overcoats converge on Tom Stacey’s house in Kensington, once the home of the pianist and composer Muzio Clementi and visited in its time by Mendelssohn, Paganini and Chopin. Derek Walcott, Nobel Prize-winning poet and playwright, is in London to celebrate the 25th anniversary of independence for his native St Lucia, and has agreed to be interviewed by Ben Okri, Nigerian-born novelist and poet, and retiring member of the RSL Council.

They begin by discussing ‘Tiepolo’s Hound’, Walcott’s long poem about art as it reflects the relationship of the West Indies to Europe. Its protagonist is Camille Pissarro –  who was brought up on the island of St Thomas as part of a French Jewish family –  and it considers the idea of light as a language which varies from one country to another. The writers’ conversation also dwells on two related pairs of opposites: description versus plain story-telling, and occupancy (in the sense of fresh acquaintance with a place) versus possession (meaning complete familiarity with it).

They go on to talk about racist writers, and Walcott’s upbringing and enthusiasms…

 

ACT ONE

OKRI: Last time I saw you was in Turin. We were fixing a wrestling match between you and your professor. I was going to be the promoter – I still am, by the way.

WALCOTT: Weren’t you living there?

OKRI: I was living in Lucca. And you hadn’t brought out Tiepolo’s Hound yet. That was a real surprise – because this book brings together so many parts of your genius, not just in terms of literature, but your fascination for painting, your travelling, your autobiography, your sense of history. It’s your most universal book, and I just wondered, how did you arrive at this extraordinary point?

WALCOTT: I can’t tell you exactly. But I remember three or four of us were in St Lucia one night and we began to talk about painters, and one of them was Pissarro. We were making claims about whether he could be called a West Indian painter. I think one of the curiosities was, ‘What would he have been like if he’d stayed in the Caribbean?’ It’s a very technical thing, but would there have been the same kind of exploration of semi-pointillism, of the refraction, of the prismatic quality of the surfaces? Did that have to do with the climate of Paris as opposed to, say, the Caribbean, where the light is very different?

And then I had the other anecdote, which is in the book, about being in the Metropolitan and the astonishment of seeing the way this dog was painted [in Feast in the House of Levi, variously attributed to Tiepolo and Veronese]. These two things interconnected. I think I wanted to do a book which was very close to painting, because I paint in the Caribbean, and the whole matter of technique in painting and the cultural history of that is very important for me.

OKRI: I’ve seen quite a few of your pictures, and you paint differently from how you write. What is the dialogue within you between those?

WALCOTT: I certainly try to catch the Caribbean light as much as I can in terms of verse; and I think to me they’re more simultaneous than different. I think that if you’re painting a sky, the strokes that you’re painting are related to the syllables that you write. Maybe my work as a painter is not bold or experimental enough – I’m very square as a painter.

OKRI: I think you’re more traditional as a painter, whereas as a poet you’re anything you want to be. In your poetry, you’re very much like Joe Louis.  You constantly jab, you constantly hit me away, at the centre of the mind with clear images. Whereas your painting is contemplative and restful. I get two sides of a personality, and these sides come together in this book. And I just wondered, were you writing painting or painting writing?

WALCOTT: Well, sometimes they blend. I get up in the morning and I’m not sure if I’m going to draw or if I’m going to write verse. That’s a nice rhythm to have. But going back to Pissarro: here’s the question. Although he was a white Frenchman living in St Thomas, is he a West Indian? One is talking about the landscape around him; in other words, when he went to Paris, did he have his light broken up for him in the way that it was not really broken up in the Caribbean?

OKRI: Are we bringing the light with us that we use to write about the light that we find, wherever we find ourselves? It is a big question. You can see the reverse of that in Gauguin, can’t you? Because he’s taking Paris light to the South Seas.

WALCOTT: Well, yeah, because by the time Gauguin was painting in the South Seas, he was painting almost flat colour – not very much depth, and not very much perspective, because the light is not broken as much as it is in his Parisian or French pictures. That’s a terrific comparison: Gauguin going in one direction and Pissarro going in the other. Any artist who migrates for whatever reason, from Nigeria to London or from St Lucia to New York – we all go through that drama of having to make a choice, or being unable to make a choice: and to use the example of Pissarro and Gauguin as typical, the use of colour absolutely involves choice.

OKRI: It’s practically everything. Pissarro said to Cézanne, ‘The trouble with your palette is that you’re using black – you’ve got to drop black.’ And Cézanne set himself the task of actually achieving the effects that black achieves but without using the colour black. Have you had to make extreme choices like that in poetry?

WALCOTT:  That’s not what’s intended in this quote from Marlowe, but I think it applies to Caribbean light. It’s from Tamburlaine, and I think it’s a cry of grief because Tamburlaine is mourning the death of Zenocrate, or the absence, and the line is ‘Black is the beauty of the brightest day’. Now this would mean in grief that the brightest day has turned black, but when I think of it in terms of sun and shadow in the Caribbean, then the deep shadows – the shadows in a breadfruit tree, the shadows in the grass – are so strong that black and green are almost the colour of the vegetation. If you’re painting, you get very frightened of shadow in the Caribbean: you say, ‘Jesus, this is so dark,’ and you don’t want to use black because black is a killer, so you do what Cézanne found that he had to do.

OKRI: But if one were to banish you from using the word ‘black’ in your poetry, what do you think it would induce you to do?

WALCOTT: If you use black in a watercolour it kills it because it’s too strong, because it defines and gives an edge to something that doesn’t really have edges. Let’s be glib and say that most modern fiction is based on chiaroscuro – the definition of character is based on a contrast of shadow and light. But part of the idea of Tiepolo’s Hound is that the verse should not have chiaroscuro – it’s not our kind of light. I think it’s culturally very, very significant that a sentence by you and a sentence by an Englishman are different sentences – because of the geography, because of the concept and experience at the back of your head of what light is: and I think that estimation of light in people’s work is crucial.

OKRI: It’s precisely that thing about colours that makes a difference between Hemingway writing about Africa and Achebe writing about Africa. You take something like Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro, and you take a short story set in the same territory by Ngugi: Hemingway gives you the light, the shadows, the colour, the vegetation; Ngugi doesn’t bother. When the landscape is alien, you have to conjure it on the page to the reader; but when the landscape is inhabited – as it were, part of you –  you don’t feel that you need to. But then something else happens: you come along and you do both – you put the colour there, and you inhabit it at the same time. Are you conscious of this?

WALCOTT: That’s extremely flattering. I think Hemingway was a phenomenal writer in terms of the process of description, the excitement of what’s happening to the English – the texture.

OKRI: Don’t you think this applies to even Russia, in, say, Pushkin writing in Eugene Onegin? There’s so little description, because in a sense he doesn’t need to do it. Or let’s take Macbeth: what occupies the centre of that work is the dramatic problems, the thematic explosions and the conclusions. It’s so tight that it’s practically fleshless: it does not have to evoke the Scotland all around.

WALCOTT: Let me tell you something that annihilates that. There’s a passage where one of the minor characters says, ‘This guest of summer, the temple-haunting martlet’. That’s staggering.

OKRI: OK, but it’s brief.

WALCOTT: We’re talking about brush strokes, in a way. I totally understand your point in terms of speed, occupancy, progress of the story; but I don’t think that’s as important as the texture. That one passage from Macbeth is not the same kind of speech as you get in Antony and Cleopatra. Great poetry, both of them, but different oral contexts.

OKRI: I would say different occupancy as well, of terrain.

WALCOTT: Are you saying which territory is it that Shakespeare’s really occupying? He’s not occupying Egypt.

OKRI: He’s creating Egypt in order for us to occupy it. And in Macbeth there is semi-occupancy.

WALCOTT: I would say that in Macbeth there is complete possession.

OKRI: But those are the two points in relation to Gauguin, Pacific; Pissarro, France; Walcott, Boston and Walcott, West Indies. I’m asking you a question about occupancies and light, in a sense. Do you create more to occupy when there is possession, or not? I’m just fascinated by that. Because in Tiepolo’s Hound there is equal occupancy of home and away – it’s the first time I’m aware of that.

WALCOTT: I think in my new book that’s what I try to deal with a lot. Let me make a parallel. Fifty years ago, if I read about Ruskin or anybody going to Italy, doing the Grand Tour – Goethe, Dickens – I couldn’t identify with those writers. If a Frenchman goes to Italy, it’s just another aspect of Europe; for me to be in Italy, and to begin to be aware of being in Italy, is irritating – and this irritant makes the work happen. So for me to find that in this book I am saying how much I enjoy both Italians and Italy almost constitutes a treachery. I feel, ‘You’re just doing what Goethe did, and you’re not a white German.’ That sensibility that makes a judgement – is it derivative, or is it seeing something freshly? I think that is the big problem. That’s your question about occupancy and evocation. It’s absolutely crucial in terms of its revelation and its questions to all of us as writers who had to go through this and may feel delivered. Some of us who still feel it are still asking what it means.

OKRI: The occupancy/evocation thing also carries another quality which is of great importance to us. Hemingway writing about Africa in the Thirties and Forties: he’s an American at a time of its rising power, so there’s a slight sense of cultural superiority – there has to be. The same question is there when a middle-class writer is writing about the working classes. It’s much easier for them to write humour when the class is one step lower than when the class is one step higher.

WALCOTT: Let’s hang around here a little bit and explore it. When Hemingway describes…

OKRI: I’m talking about the spirit in which he goes there and arrives there and is called ‘Bwana’ and is carried around…

WALCOTT: I was just going to say the same kind of thing. ‘One of the boys did this’, ‘One of the boys did that’. Because when he’s there in his tent on his safari and these guys are serving him something, I think that there is an element of self-savagery. In The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber I think that the apparent superiority of the people in the tent is superficial. Maybe not; maybe it is patronising.

OKRI: What I’m talking about is not so much the people, but the spirit that makes you write about that place in a certain kind of more relaxed way than if you were writing about New York, where you’ll be perceived as someone who comes from the provinces.

WALCOTT: OK. If you had to write a history of English fiction including Africa, it may be that a huge tidal change has to happen. In other words, you have to let the niggers into the club. And if they come into the club, are they there patronisingly, or are they there as people who have earned membership of the club? That is genuinely, I think, the position of English criticism of what used to be called their Commonwealth. I think it is also there in Hemingway.

But then, Ben, think of what it would mean: the entire history of English fiction would have to be looked at not from the point of view of victims, because it’s not that people are victims; not even equality, because that’s a patronising thing. I’m talking about a radical aesthetic that would have to say, ‘Can that be forgiven, that when Hemingway is writing in his tent while the boys are skinning something, it’s from the point of view of the guy drinking the gin and tonic and looking at the Africans?’ Now, there’s a lot of tribute paid to the beauty of the Africans –

OKRI: – and the loin skins –

WALCOTT: And all of that. But nor are we saying that now the boys who were skinning the lion are going to write novels from their point of view. I’m talking about the state of criticism. Because you have to let people into the club, if you think you want a club. This is the most important thing.

OKRI: Let’s take it full throttle. I think that the club has to go.

WALCOTT: You know who has to make that choice? The English have to. Their intelligence, their critical faculties. It’s not like people are going to protest so much that eventually they’re going to see a light. It’s like you’ve got to reconstitute your thinking, and that’s not going to be done. The purveyors of the quality of English Literature – especially contemporary writing – are not going to surrender that, because that is the last thing the Empire gives up: its intellect.

Helen Vender, who has this great reputation as a critic, said about a poem of mine that it ends with the expression ‘something pally’, and ‘pally’ is not American. But I got it from Bogart – and who’s more American than Bogart? I’m not making a scene out of that, I’m just saying that even in a minimal detail like that it’s a matter of opening the door to the Avon lady and saying, “I don’t want any today,” because the people who review your novel in whatever English newspaper do not let the scales fall from their eyes. They cannot, because they would surrender power.

OKRI: Is it also the case that they in many ways can’t see? Because I get that: reviewers often say, ‘Do you have to know Africa in order to read these works?’ And it gets to the point where one says to oneself, these questions are so stupid I’m not actually going to deal with them.

WALCOTT: It’s not a question of Ben Okri and Derek Walcott talking about how they got very bad reviews because they’re black. I’m talking about something so radical that you almost cannot bother to take it on. But it is at the core of any concept of contemporary literature, in the fact that it is so varied and everybody comes from somewhere and everybody has the right to say, ‘That’s not how it is.’

OKRI: But my point is this – there is a failing of imagination, because when I read Dickens, or I read a contemporary writer writing today, I am as alien to their internal experience as they are to mine. I trust the fact implicitly that if they’re good writers, they have put in that text everything that I need to get into it.

WALCOTT: I agree. But you’re talking about the writer; I’m talking about the critical climate.

OKRI: But when you say ‘dissolving the club’, I think time will do that, and a greater club will be created, which is what I was going to bring you to. The next stage of development of the canon is going to have to be, not an opening of the door, but a reconstitution of the perception of standard. It’s going to have to be a complete revolution, because otherwise what we have is the perception of standard being culturally determined – and yet a work of art transcends culture. That’s quite basic. Take my mother’s first encounter with The Magic Flute: she did not need to have heard Mozart before, she didn’t need the whole history of Western music. She just thought it was beautiful. There’s got to be a revolution in consciousness.

WALCOTT: But there also has to be a revolution in terms of assessment and judgement. In other words, you cannot in our terms now be a truly great writer if you retain any prejudice.

OKRI: But let’s take the case of someone like Wagner, who tears people apart. People talk about his anti-Semitism, and yet you can’t get away from the beauty of his music. Is there anti-Semitism in his notes? Is there racism in brush strokes?

WALCOTT: Take two writers. Larkin is a total shit when it comes to his racial opinions. But when he writes poetry, none of that can remain: he has to tell the truth. It’s the same problem that you have with Ezra Pound. When Pound writes about the American flag and calls it ‘a bacon-rind banner’, that is fantastic, because the flag looks like strips of bacon; but he’s a total asshole when he talks about the Jews. So you can get great artists who are complete idiots when it comes to political opinions. But what is redemptive is that they create art that supersedes their own pettiness.

OKRI: So what you’re saying is that in their art they’re writing from the highest place within themselves; but in their person and their politics they can speak from all these stupid and unrefined places – and we can allow that distinction, except when the person invades the art, as in To Have and To Have Not, and some problematic passages of Shakespeare

WALCOTT: There’s a thing in Hemingway, ‘The nigger had been out on a rumba.’ You read that and you say, ‘What do I do here? Do I say, “Well, in those days they did that?”’ Hemingway’s genius is secondary – he will remain not good enough in terms of the spirit. Brilliant in terms of the prose, but not a fulfilled spirit. Because it’s an insult to the native intelligence, and that’s unforgivable. I come from a very, very poor island, an illiterate island, but I have enormous respect for the genius of the language of that island, and I grant everyone living there an imagination.

OKRI: So we’re fundamentally talking about humanity. It has to do with the fact that I am looking across at you; you are going to be a character in my fiction. It is incumbent upon me as an imaginer that I see you clearly and truthfully. You can tell it in the grades of great painters – the way they treat their black characters. With Manet’s Olympia, for instance, the black woman there is quite different from the black figure painted in the Adoration of the Magi by a Renaissance painter. The Renaissance painter actually looks at the colour: it’s a loving depiction; but with that woman in the Manet, there’s a deep problem. The humanity is about looking and seeing what’s there in front of you, the beauty and the uniqueness. I think what you’re saying is that the stakes have been raised – that now we can’t get away with substandard looking and substandard imagining.

WALCOTT: So what we talk about is, ‘OK, move me in the way Mozart moves me – that’s my only criterion’. And this was not there before. Because everything before was sociology.

OKRI: We have to go back to that difficult word ‘humanity’. I think that problem will have to create the new literature: the new standard, the new perception – and we’ll have to regulate it backwards into the canon. Because many of the things in the canon that we accept cast a shadow of limitation of representation, of seeing, on their descendants.

WALCOTT: We’d have to go back to Chinua Achebe’s Heart of Darkness essay. It’s kind of hard to take. OK, let’s say that Conrad touches a deep universality in terms of human conduct – but it really is secondary.

OKRI: I have to agree. It’s a great crippled short story.

WALCOTT: All the work we’re talking about – a lot of the literature we praise now – is secondary. There’s a canon of what is really, really good – absolutely moving – which consists of x number of masterpieces. So it may be that we are reducing the number of potential masterpieces to ten.

OKRI: That’s fine – it’s good for the human race. The canon has been oppressive not only in terms of who defines it, but in terms of setting the limit of human achievement.

WALCOTT: I think that it is possible to say very simply that if a writer does not have love, he’s a second-rate writer.

OKRI: And the love has to radiate the whole world.

WALCOTT: Does Hemingway ultimately have love for the guy skinning the lion? I don’t think so.

OKRI: But Melville has a really great feeling for Queequeg. He actually makes his hero sleep in the same bed as Queequeg, and he’s able to give us lovely comic moments of this guy shaving himself.

WALCOTT: You have to put Moby Dick up there with The Divine Comedy.

OKRI: I think this business of prejudice applies not just to races – it’s also to do with tribes. I think it can apply even within class; it can apply within the same nation. And this love you talk about also has to be a class thing. The quality of seeing that we bring to people of a different class: that we don’t see more in the class higher and less in the class lower, and that we don’t sentimentalise and invert it either.

WALCOTT: What sort of a writer would Jesus Christ have been? Would he have been a good novelist, or would he have forgiven all his characters and then nothing would have happened? A sense of evil has to be there – which he would have, I suppose.

OKRI: If we take his parables –

WALCOTT: Then he’s a great writer.

OKRI: Which is your favourite parable?

WALCOTT: The one about the talents.

OKRI: I love that. What do you like about that?

WALCOTT: It’s just my vanity!

OKRI: What about the Good Samaritan? That’s a good bit of story-telling and that transcends race.

WALCOTT: That’s a very good point.

 

ACT TWO

OKRI: OK, I want to take off here. I’m just going to throw some words at you, and you can do what you want with them. ‘Happiness’ – are you a happy poet?

WALCOTT: A word I use a lot in my work is ‘elation’, which means feeling a sense of being transported. I’m regularly transported by the tropical landscape – the sea, the light. It’s something that Edward Thomas describes – although his is quiet: the elation I’m talking about is so forceful that it’s like your heart beating. Blessedly, I feel it in the landscape a great deal; and though it’s anguish trying to paint something properly, I’m happy painting – I’m not happy writing. There’s always something wrong. Writing is a pain in the ass; painting is a pleasure.

OKRI: I’m so glad you said that. ‘Rage’: I was surprised by how many times that word is mentioned from the beginning to the early part of Tiepolo.

WALCOTT: Something that enrages me now is the horrible irresponsibility of St Lucians in terms of litter: this anger has to go right deep down into ‘What kind of people am I from, that allow this to happen in my country?’ Another kind of rage, which is distant and impersonal, is the anger at injustice: you can write about it, but you can’t do much about it. In terms of my temper, I’m asinine in how quickly I lose it – much to my embarrassment.

OKRI: You wouldn’t say you’d been hurt into poetry?

WALCOTT: It’s something to do with the style Auden wrote in that he came up with certain phrases that are nice to hear but don’t mean much. What could that mean, ‘Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry?’ It doesn’t mean that Ireland because of its madness made Yeats a poet – that’s an absurd statement.

OKRI: Can history not hurt you into poetry – the history of the times in which you find yourself?

WALCOTT: No, I think you’d have to be very self-conscious and melodramatic and conceited to think ‘History made me what I am.’ That’s what dictators say.

OKRI: So this rage doesn’t have anything to do with a source of creativity.

WALCOTT: I shouldn’t say that, because a lot of work I’ve written blames history. But the abstract noun ‘history’ is fairly scary. History is venerated in cities and in Europe, but any European city has its history of massacres and persecution and torment, so there’s a kind of ambiguity. But I don’t think that applies to us in the Caribbean, because we don’t have that formalised idea of history.

OKRI: What about plain, everyday history in the sense that folks are just having a bad deal in life? History as it’s worked out in politics, as it’s worked out in power?

WALCOTT: I thought as I got older that the idea of evil would become more simplified, and in a way it has been, so that the abstract nouns don’t matter any more, and you always ascribe blame to something. I think one of the intolerable evils of Caribbean towns is cheap British plumbing. If you’re going to build a city, you’ve got to have proper sanitation. Britain never did that.

OKRI: ‘Arcadia’ – what would your own sense of Arcadia be? I don’t mean in the old sense of ‘pastoral’.

WALCOTT: My personal idea would be a lot of chicks floating around – like the Muslim idea.

OKRI: You like the whole odalisque set-up.

WALCOTT: If I’m honest, yes.

OKRI: ‘Father’ – who was your father?

WALCOTT: I didn’t know my father. I was a twin, and my mother brought us up.

OKRI: You were a twin?

WALCOTT: Yes. My brother died three or four years ago.

OKRI: You mean I’ve been reading a twin all this time? How extraordinary. How did it affect you?

WALCOTT: We were very close. We shared the same interests. He kept a theatre company going in St Lucia and wrote plays for them – the same as I did in Trinidad. He used to write folk material as I did, and we used the same kind of actors.

OKRI: And you didn’t know Dad at all? Where might he have been from?

WALCOTT: I think he was from St Lucia. His father was a white Englishman or Bajan. I tell you a great thing: it may be considered bastardy, but to me it’s great not to have any kind of genealogy. I think it’s made me a very free person. That’s the mental history of the Caribbean – it’s Eurasian. But I think it’s good. I’m glad I didn’t grow up with a sense that my great-grandfather did this or did that.

OKRI: ‘Mother’?

WALCOTT: My mother was great – like all mothers. She was a primary school teacher. She and my father were very happy, and she loved him tremendously and had a lot of pride in him. She did amateur theatricals and he painted, so they had that kind of society together in a very small town.

OKRI: So the painting and the theatre – that’s your environment.

WALCOTT: That gave me, from childhood, total determination about what I wanted to do – and she was completely supportive. She wasn’t one of those parents who say, ‘What do you want to be a writer for? There’s no money in it.’ I think she understood that because of my father, who wrote and painted.

OKRI: ‘Dreams’: do you dream a lot?

WALCOTT: I have nightmares – quite a few.

OKRI: Do you use them?

WALCOTT: No. Dreams are treacherous things: I don’t think you can work a fiction out of them. They have their own fiction.

OKRI: The reason I ask is that I see the word ‘dreams’ very infrequently in your writing.

WALCOTT: Well, I wrote a play called Dream on Monkey Mountain. But I don’t think superstition is part of my nature. I think belief is, but not superstition.

OKRI: ‘Mystery.’

WALCOTT: I think art is a mystery – certainly in the sense of immortality. The survival of a work of art is a mystery.

OKRI: Shall I tell you what troubles and fascinates me when I stand in front of a painting, or a poem? How this thing in the finite space that it occupies can be infinite in terms of the fact that it really is going to live for ever, but one can go on looking into it for ever, and yet it doesn’t change. What is your sense of that lingering quality?

WALCOTT: It’s very strong. What we’re both saying is very unfashionable, because we’re really talking about soul, and that’s not the jargon of contemporary criticism.

OKRI: But is it the immortality of the work, or the immortality of what the work evokes in us who look at it?

WALCOTT: Even if you weren’t there, it would be immortal: the next guy can come along and have that same feeling. And that’s the astonishment of that: it’s not us giving it those qualities.

OKRI: That is a real puzzle.

WALCOTT: The puzzle you’re talking about is life – the meaning of it. And how art can supersede the question of the meaning of life.

OKRI: You think about the kid who was wandering with his father and said, ‘Papa, Papa, come and see these bulls’ in the caves of Lascaux, and the father came with his torch and suddenly these bulls stepped out of the wall which no one had seen for maybe 300,000 years. Art doesn’t have to be looked at – it’s always there. It’s scary to be on the other side of the creation of that.

WALCOTT: That’s one of those immense spaces that terrifies us.

OKRI: So how do you sit down at your desk, or at your canvas? In complete humility? Because it must be complete humility. Do you breathe deeply?

WALCOTT: I think that when you sit down at your desk, whether you’re using a computer or a pen, you’re doing the same thing that a monk did in medieval times – something equivalent to an act of prayer. You’re not just an artist, you’re a priest of the tribe, and therefore you cannot begin to pray unless you enter a state of humility that makes your vocation blessed. I wish I could get that quality from poetry. I now find I like a lot of corny poetry that has feeling. I don’t like contemporary poetry: I think it’s tiresome, I think it’s a riddle. I’m not interested in obliquity: I’m bored with it. Most of the verse that I read is technically unastonishing, very, very prosaic and chopped up.

OKRI: Where do you think it went wrong?

WALCOTT: I blame a lot of it on the American sensibility that first of all dispenses with tradition and has now dispensed almost entirely with metre and rhyme. Who wants to remember what they read in verse now? How many poets make you think, ‘I want to learn this?’ I won’t mention names, but some of the best ones don’t make you think that. That has always been one of the functions and joys of poetry.

OKRI: Do you think it’s that one wants to remember the poetry, or that the poetry already does the work of remembering for you?

WALCOTT: It does the same thing as a good song.

OKRI: You find yourself already humming it.

WALCOTT: Exactly. The melody’s given. How can you have melody without metre? You can’t – and that’s what American poetry is trying to do, because it doesn’t want to be old-fashioned.

OKRI: Is metre absolutely crucial to poetry?

WALCOTT: It is poetry.

OKRI: But before we started to count, was the counting there?

WALCOTT: Yes.

OKRI: So it’s something that is there, and we just become aware of it.

WALCOTT: Breathing is metrical: we breathe metrically, in and out.

OKRI: If you were to take a memory beyond death, what would it be?

WALCOTT: That’s too painful to answer, because I’d like to remember all those that I loved – a lot of people.

OKRI: ‘Heroes.’ Who might they be?

WALCOTT: I suppose, inevitably, sportsmen, examples of endurance.

OKRI: No writers?

WALCOTT: I would have to say people whose work I love. Certainly one of them is Edward Thomas – I really cherish Edward Thomas.

OKRI: ‘Villains.’

WALCOTT: I don’t like manifestations of power.

OKRI: You’re not fascinated by power?

WALCOTT: No. Dictatorships are so abhorrent that any manifestation of power drives me crazy. Not even abuse of power – just power: the fact that one human being can be invested with that authority.

OKRI: I’m going to ask you an odd question. Have you ever had a sense of being mysteriously guided into events – into meeting certain people, or reading certain books that have changed your life?

WALCOTT: I’d have to think very hard. There are people I’ve been very grateful to: Alan Ross, the London Magazine editor – he was not only someone who helped me, but I loved him a lot. Books: I remember reading Conrad’s Victory on some cliffs in St Lucia, and when I put it down I was glazed and stunned by it. I don’t know what it was. And I keep buying copies of Heart of Darkness: I have five or six. And the other one for me of course was Moby Dick.

OKRI: A quick one. Are you a poem or a spirit?

WALCOTT: I really don’t think I’m interesting as a person. But what I hope is that the work can convey something of the spirituality that I have always experienced in terms of a relationship to nature, to landscape, particularly in the Caribbean – be it the sea or be it the mountains. I’m spiritually attached to where I come from: very, very much so. So that without writing anything I can continue to feel elation, a joy in where I am – I’m very blessed in that. I can go around St Lucia and the faces devastate me: if I see a certain old guy, an old musician doing something, I’m blown away by it. I say, ‘How can I capture it?’ I can’t do it in prose, because it’s not going to have all the scene. Poetry is not going to show you anything physically, but if you do it physically, then something is missing. So the art forms that you use ultimately become inadequate, which is good: the effort to make them superior to their inadequacy is the whole point. But I’m glad that I can still be moved by a bunch of St Lucian musicians fiddling away somewhere.

OKRI: If your life were a poem, which metre would it be?

WALCOTT: I think it would be the rhythm of where I come from – what they call en bas gorge music – the violin put under the throat: that very happy yet elegiac metre.

OKRI: If you were to have another life, having done poetry, what would you choose to be?

WALCOTT: I don’t know. A great batsman, maybe: ‘Walcott is on 198 – is he going to make 200?’

OKRI: And finally, which do you prefer – the past or the future?

WALCOTT: I don’t like the past or the future. The present is my tense. It’s very pompous, but that’s my answer