Diary Note 6: Derek Walcott

8 May, 2017

As I trusted the judgement of Elisabeth Bishop, on her advice I invited Derek Walcott to Poetry International Rotterdam. He came more than once and liked the festival. Mainly to meet congenial souls. One thinks of Brodsky or Heaney.

To me he exemplified something I felt strongly about. That it is possible to lead a great life in limited surroundings. To be an islander and yet a citizen of the world, beyond every horizon. To love small things and yet to imagine them as great. It is perhaps accurate to say that this bridge between the limited and the unlimited can only exist in the imagination. But yet in the contact between poets from so many different limits, the imagination of the unlimited took hold of them for a few days in the seventies in the Doelen in Rotterdam.

Recently, a poet from those days told me that he remembered the festival as the only real one, though he had participated in many others afterwards. It was for him a touchstone still. Its reputation seems alive. The present mayor of the city once told me that the poetry festival was recognized as a brand when he travelled on other continents. It opened doors. But, he added, it is difficult to tell this to Rotterdam. It takes some arrogance to dream.

Walcott was a poet and a painter that did refuse to betray his native land. He did not migrate. There are many of them, poets that will cling to their language or their religion or their country. Like Avrom Sutzkever to Yiddish. But his refusal had nothing defensive, he believed, as a Greek philosopher put it: that also here, at home, gods visit.

Late in life he met another painter, Peter Doig, who believed in Derek’s Island and settled there coming from the outside. Recently a book has been published with Doig’s paintings of the island and Walcott’s poems in response. It is moving to see that the best of Derek’s poems, his most universal, are about domestic things, his daughters, his wife, trees, a place called Paramin.

The last time I met him was in the hard marble corridors of the Doelen during yet another poetry meeting. I asked him how he felt about the festival. He shot back: you should be knighted for it. I answered; no need, the Queen has bestowed me the Order of the House of Orange, already. We Dutch do not do knighthoods. But in retrospect I regret that dismissal. Knighthoods become people having dreams on islands.