On this episode of World of Ideas, Bill speaks with Derek Walcott about the United States’ discomfort with its role as an empire and the difference between the American dream and the “black man’s dream.” The Caribbean-born writer also speaks of poets’ obsession with language and truth telling, and the “divine discontent” at the heart of all art.
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[reading from his poem, “The Schooner Flight”]
Christ have mercy on all sleeping things!
From that dog rotting down Wrightson Road
to when I was a dog on these streets;
if loving these islands must be my load,
out of corruption my soul takes wings.
But they had started to poison my soul
with their big house, big car, big-time bohbohl,
coolie, nigger, Syrian, and French Creole.
so I leave it for them and their carnival-
I taking a sea-bath, I gone down the road.
I know these island from Monos to Nassau,
a rusty Mad sailor with sea-green eyes
that they nicknamed Shabine, the Patois for
any red nigger, and I, Shabine, saw
when these slums of empire was paradise.
I’m just a red nigger who love the sea,
I had a sound colonial education,
I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,
and either a nobody, or Iím a nation.
BILL MOYERS: [on camera] That was Derek Walcott, I’m Bill Moyers. Join us tonight for a conversation about the power of words, and the words of the powerful.
[voice-over] Either nobody or a nation. Neither an insider nor an outsider. Derek Walcott was born on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia when it was still a British colony. He learned English in school almost as a second language. It was the language of great poets and great literature, of a mighty far-flung empire of which he was part. But it was also the tongue of political mastery, of a culture imposed by white men from afar. The contradiction is one Derek Walcott confronts in his poetry and his life. He spends half the year at in what he calls the prehistoric Eden of his childhood, and half the year teaching in the world’s newest empire, the United States. I caught up with him at Columbia University in New York, where he had come to do a reading of his poems.
[interviewing] Plato banished the poet from his Republic, Why?
DEREK WALCOTT: Well, I think, he was smart. Poets are always making waves. I mean, you know, in an ideal situation, the ideal republic can’t tolerate poets because, it isn’t that they mutter and criticize, it is that the poet does not accept the situation called the “perfect” condition of man in other words, perfect in the materialistic sense. Because the Communist regime, they say, “What are you complaining about? Who are you to complain? You’re not special, you’re not different from anyone else, because, hey, you have roads, you have medicine, you have housing. What more do you want?” That’s the idea of the Republic, everything is working, you know, so, who are you to complain?
The reason why, I think, poets chafe at the arrogance of the idea of an ideal republic-because the ideal republic, obviously, would have to be Communist Russia; the totally functional democratized America would have to be the ideal republic, and why should anyone complain? The poet doesn’t complain only on the level of sociology. The poet complains or points out the discontent that lies at the heart of man, the individual man, and how can that be redeemed? It’s not redeemed by better medicine, better roads, better housing. And it’s not only a matter of chafing at the human condition; it is an awareness of the human condition. The discontent that lies in the human condition is not satisfied simply by material things.
BILL MOYERS: So, what is the perfection the poet is seeking.
DEREK WALCOTT: That’s the point, he does not seek the perfection. The poet is saying there is no such perfection, and the idealist is saying-
BILL MOYERS: Neither materialistically nor spiritually?
DEREK WALCOTT: No. Right. And that’s why Plato said, “Get out of here,” because you guys would spoil things if there were a republic.
BILL MOYERS: In several of your poems, and in at least one of your plays, the story of Robinson Crusoe keeps coming up. What is compelling to you about the story of Crusoe?
DEREK WALCOTT: Crusoe and Friday. The immediately obvious one of superiority of conversion, of Christianizing cannibals, of convening people from savagery to whatever. So, that’s the sort of dramatic aspect of it. The more involved aspect of it, I think, is how does Crusoe feel? What does he become isolated from his country, his language, and so on? Who wears a smile, who only has himself to perpetuate? And when he finds Friday, I think the question is what use is Friday to Crusoe? I don’t think that’s in, you know, the general idea of the text–
BILL MOYERS: What’s your idea of that? What’s your sense of that?
DEREK WALCOTT: I think that Friday is more useful to Crusoe than Crusoe is to Friday.
BILL MOYERS: Because?
DEREK WALCOTT: Because what appears to be Friday’s subservience and acceptance, right, is not a surrender. It is a sharing. In other words, it’s easy for us to say, well, this conquered person was taught my way. But I think with the companionship that exists-I don’t think Third World writers, if you want to say that, are interested in the dependency of Friday. They’re interested in the extension of the idea. It’s like empire. What does a colony do for an empire? Rather than what does an empire do for a colony?
BILL MOYERS: Well, we know what empires have done to colonies.
DEREK WALCOTT: Yes. But culturally, this happens in language as well. I mean, I think-this may be an aside, but we can go back to it-I think that one of the things that America has to face is the reality that it is an empire, that it is very difficult for Americans to accept that.
BILL MOYERS: We don’t think of ourselves as an empire.
DEREK WALCOTT: The thing is that this country is. The inevitability of history has made America an empire, and therefore the responsibility of empire does rest on America’s shoulders. Now how can you be that contradiction, the opposite of the founding fathers? How can you be a democratic empire. It is possible, I imagine, that you could have such a thing as a democratic empire, provided the empire realizes that culturally, spiritually, America can be enriched by Nicaragua, you know, or any other country; could be enriched by the Middle East. The democracy, if it takes in the culture, racial complexity of those outer provinces, that those outer provinces can fertilize and recreate the idea of the republic, and not be driven apart by barriers of race or of history or the conventional idea. And that’s what I think I mean by saying that for Friday, Friday is Nicaragua and Robinson Crusoe is America. The writers who, sort of, rewrite the idea of Crusoe are not pleading for Friday, they are simply saying that the limitations of Robinson Crusoe may be his unawareness that he could adapt Friday and become a larger intelligence, in the same way that the empire can absorb culturally.
BILL MOYERS: In Defoe, this Englishman puts words in the mouth, English words in the mouth of Friday, and that seems to me the stereotypical image.
DEREK WALCOTT: But there’s a superior part to that, and that is in The Tempest. The best poetry in The Tempest, apart from Prospero’s speech at the end, is spoken by Caliban. And this is where the greatness of Shakespeare is. This is real greatness in the sense that he doesn’t make Caliban talk like Tarzan, or some ape, or he doesn’t make him grunt He gives him the greatest language, the most musical language, in the mouth of someone who says, “You taught me language, and my profit on it is to learn how to curse.” Because he doesn’t only curse. He says beautiful things like, “Be not afraid, the isle is full of noises.” That’s his speech, you know. I think there is a point now for writers outside the periphery of the idea of empire as language, who look at really great writers and say the really, really great writer is someone beyond prejudice. And for truly great surviving writers -Shakespeare; Joyce, I think, had that kind of mind -prejudice is an inferior form of thinking. So that Caliban, the reason why Caliban speaks this beautiful language is Shakespeare is not being ironic, he simply gives it to him. That this man has learned this language. And what is the process, then, inside Caliban that makes him speak as well as Prospero? Not as well as, in terms of diction, but to render an imagination in language that says, “We have the same imagination.” This is a Crusoe and Friday thing.
BILL MOYERS: You’re saying that as America is an empire, cultural empire at least, the language is going out -that the goods and ideas of America are spreading around the globe, if we’re smart, and open, we’ll bring a lot back.
DEREK WALCOTT: I think if it’s accepted that America -we divide, I think, two Americas: we divide the average citizen who is, unjustly so, theoretically not interested in expanding, in the expansion of the frontier, right, who is not interested in owning anybody else’s land, or occupying anybody else’s land, etc., etc. But for the other countries of the world, who know that America is an empire and who see how lousy so much of the foreign policy is and how hostile, you know, and just stubborn it can be-there’s another America that they come to as immigrants which they still believe in very family, not only by contrast, but they believe it -that is a contradiction of the America that they know. It isn’t hard for them to accept the power of America, but when they see an America that pretends not to have power, but does things that are a complete contradiction of denying their own power, then it gets very baffling or hypocritical. In other words, if you take an idealized situation; there are aspects of the British empire -this may be horrific to say to people listening -that were very benign. I consider myself to have been brought up in a colonial situation that was benign. Now someone may say, “How can you talk like that; when the background of that is slavery, exploitation and stuff like that?” In my personal experience, I never went through any punishment as a colonial. As a matter of fact, the opposite happened. What I felt as a colonial young man or boy was that I was part of this Civis Brittanicae or sum idea, you know, we’re all one; New Zealand, Egypt, you know, one-seventh of the world, and so on.
BILL MOYERS: By empire you mean what?
DEREK WALCOTT: By empire I mean any very, very large cultural and, if you wish, political
BILL MOYERS: -and certainly economic.
DEREK WALCOTT: -yes, force, country or territory that has influence over not only its border, but even beyond its borders. An empire need not necessarily have a need to expand its frontiers. You see what I’m saying? America has no real need to expand its land.
BILL MOYERS: We don’t need land, territory, turf.
DEREK WALCOTT: But, what is in America is-there is no country in the history of the world that has practiced as hard as it could, and here’s a black man talking, about slavery. In a way, these can be relegated to historical experiences. I’m going into a larger experience. Because I come from the Caribbean, I can look at American history differently. It may appear to be identical, that the Caribbean experience of slavery would be the same as the American experience of slavery. But when I come here and I pass the ghettos of 125th Street, I’m appalled at the condition that exists of a colony existing within an empire.
BILL MOYERS: How do you explain that to yourself.
DEREK WALCOTT: I don’t know how to explain it. It has to be taken in. I think it’s an interior thing. I think it’s something that has to do-I think it may even have to do with the responsibility of the idea of being an empire. Because if you keep the idea of domestic empire, or metropolitan empire confining itself to cities and problems in cities, you don’t have a unified whole of a concept of America and its responsibility. You have a succession of separate problems under a unified idea of a noun called “America.” But if there’s a unifying idea that there is a thing called, not only America, but the American empire, then perhaps it would address itself to its domestic problems, right, with much more responsibility and unity than if it were thinking of what are the problems outside. Why should America be concerned about Nicaragua when you have 125th Street? Nobody lives like that in Nicaragua.
BILL MOYERS: Harlem, Newark.
DEREK WALCOTT: Yes. Do you know what I mean? So, these things become ambivalent to people looking on from the outside. And I think that the hesitancy about responsibility is part of the whole problem.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think the American empire is a mature empire?
DEREK WALCOTT: I think it does not accept its maturity. I think it would like to remain adolescent and collegiate, in a sense, by saying, “Well, it’s none of my business,” or “We don’t want to do that,” and so on. There’s a sort of phony ideal of Augustine Rome. Just as there is a phony ideal of the Raj, or a phony ideal of the Victorian empire. Well, I came up at the end of the empire, and therefore, as I said, politically I did not feel myself different from a British schoolboy. I mean, I was sharing the same – even more intently, I think – I was sharing the same education of Latin and Classics and stuff like that, and feeling completely free.
BILL MOYERS: But were you constantly reminded that you were black and the British were white?
DEREK WALCOTT: No. Because the British were smart enough to have let power go as far as possible up to the administrator. This is the Roman technique. Everyone else except the proconsul shared in the government of the empire, not in the decision, but in the government
BILL MOYERS: As you talk, I think of something I read in a review of one of your books of poetry where someone said that miscegenation, mixture of things, is the key to the modern world. Mixed descent, mixed race, mixed English. Do you think that’s an apt description?
DEREK WALCOTT: Well, the word miscegenation, if I got it right, is a foul word. Miscegenation means there’s something wrong genetically. Miscegenation. Is that right?
BILL MOYERS: That’s what it used to mean in the South. That’s correct.
DEREK WALCOTT: Well, that is an inhuman concept, that any two people of different races are committing miscegenation by joining. Miscegenation is not an idea that we would have in the Caribbean. It wouldn’t come up because anybody could marry anybody, you know. I’m not saying that there aren’t prejudices in the Caribbean, but the idea of the word “miscegenation” is not something that we think of. You know, if you see a black and white couple you say, “Oh.” Of course, it will strike you, but it is not like it is an offense. It’s not offensive. It’s not like something is wrong here. If the critic is using it in the sense that-if he means mixture, you know-
BILL MOYERS: I think that’s what he meant.
DEREK WALCOTT: He could have said hybridization or creolization-but, yes, because in one city of Port-of-Spain, which is a cliché, but every culture, every continent of the world is represented in that one city. And not just as a sort of detritus of slavery or indenture -actively represented by the Hindu religion, by Moslem religion, by Chinese, Indian, Syrian, Lebanese, white, black. It’s all there in a very small area of one of the capital places in the Caribbean. The day-to-day experience of that has become so habitual that nobody makes distinctions about saying, “Oh, this is Chinese; oh.” So, there’s no concept of miscegenation. There’s a concept, rather, of whole people can look at it as a bastardization. Some people can look and say, “Oh, well, Africa has lost its dignity because it’s all mixed up with China; and China has lost its identity.” But what is the identity? The identity is in the very fulfillment of criss-crossing of those various cultures within one very compact city. And therefore, Port-of-Spain is, perhaps, one of the most interesting cities in world. And someone may say, “Where’s the culture of Port-of-Spain?” The culture of Port-of-Spain-since it was only 200 years out of slavery-lies in the people of Port-of-Spain. And it is inevitable that, if all these various strains of Asian, African, Mediterranean, so on, are circulating within a vertiginous situation, that something is bound to ferment that is very, very fertile.
BILL MOYERS: Do you find a difference when you come to New York City? Because, like Port-of-Spain, we are, well, the melting pot not melting. I mean, everything is right here, from all over the world.
DEREK WALCOTT: Well, I think it’s the same thing. I think, of course, it’s a larger space. I mean, you don’t have that concentration as you would, you know-
BILL MOYERS: Port-of-Spain is so tiny.
DEREK WALCOTT: Yes, exactly. This is what the American dream means to someone outside. You know, that’s why New York remains emblematically, a place where a man is supposed to be whatever he wishes to be. But, of course, it doesn’t work out like that. We know that. I mean, not in detail. But conceptually, that concept has never been affected for the immigrant.
BILL MOYERS: Your own story is often held up as a metaphor, you know. You come from African, Dutch, English descent You move back and forth between Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and the United States. You, as someone said, are from everywhere and nowhere. You live nowhere and everywhere. Do you sometimes feel that you’ve become that metaphor? That you belong nowhere?
DEREK WALCOTT: No, I know exactly where I want to be, and that’s in St. Lucia. I mean, I’m there.
BILL MOYERS: In the Caribbean.
DEREK WALCOTT: I have an idea of dislocation as if-when I do, I identify myself with a kind of rootlessness that does happen to the Caribbean people, you know, a reality of discontent about trying to make a living in the Caribbean; the fact that people have to emigrate, you know. But, I think what’s not looked at by -to say the word again -by the empire that is the immigrant’s dream about America is inviolable. Inviolable. What should happen is that the black man’s dream here should be inviolable; it should be equally inviolable. It is not. And that’s what one feels is unfulfilled.
BILL MOYERS: Is the black man’s dream different from the American dream?
DEREK WALCOTT: It is made to be different.
BILL MOYERS: By?
DEREK WALCOTT: By forces that want to keep him in his place. By limits that are set on his endeavors, I think.
BILL MOYERS: If blacks from the rest of the world know that here there are two dreams; the American dream and the black man’s dream, as you say, and the black man’s dream is not allowed to become the American dream, why do they keep coming? What draws them to this place of such stark contradiction?
DEREK WALCOTT: Even when it was stark, people came. Because there’s a lot visible that was possible even then. Because it is an ideal. Because there’s no other country in the history of the world that people have wanted to go to so much, in their hearts. Not because of the money, but because of what the ideal said.
BILL MOYERS: The ideal said what?
DEREK WALCOTT: The ideal said what the Constitution said. Everybody’s created equal.
BILL MOYERS: We the people?
DEREK WALCOTT: Yes, right.
BILL MOYERS: They still believe that in places like Port-of-Prince, Caribbean, India, East Asia.
DEREK WALCOTT: It’s tougher to believe it because of your foreign policy, but they still believe it.
BILL MOYERS: Our foreign policy, which is what?
DEREK WALCOTT: Which is adolescent, immature, irresponsible, impulsive, it doesn’t listen. It doesn’t understand that Latin American is not one country; Latin America is a complicated mini-continent with all of its own problems, with all its own, you know. You see, any culture that has the English language, the English language is so authoritative and so terrific that it doesn’t listen to Spanish, for instance, or French. You know, there’s an inherent superiority in English that says, any other language is really not up to it. Most empires have that, right? But if you have a son of democratic approach to speech, right, not arrogance but a democratic approach to speech-you don’t really listen to other people’s languages because you think you’re speaking the proper way. So, if you hear Spanish, you think immediately of saying, “Well, it’s an inferior people. They don’t really talk English.” And so you call them Spics. I mean, not you, one calls them Spics.
BILL MOYERS: Right, I understand.
DEREK WALCOTT: Which comes from language, right? No “speak.” Right? It’s a matter of language, do you follow? He’s a Spic because he can’t “speak” English, you know. But when this is a blanket, you know, over an entire continent, it’s part of the attitude.
BILL MOYERS: And yet you say that we speak a democratic language, and one doesn’t think of anything democratic assuming a superiority.
DEREK WALCOTT: Well, here is the contradiction. That here, the man who gets up and says, “We’re not gonna take any nonsense,” or x, or y, does not speak like a dictator. He does not speak in the pitch of a dictator, nor does he speak with the polysyllables of a dictator. He speaks with the monosyllables of American averageness, but he’s still carrying the same force. So that, again, is a contradiction. I mean, the real language that should be up there on the podium should be a language that contains the polysyllables of power, but it is shielded by, you know, the mediocrity of monosyllables that makes it interchangeable. We should be able to characterize a candidate by the vehemence of his rhetoric, not by the accommodations of his rhetoric. Let’s just take Nicaragua. The language matches an attitude toward Nicaragua.
BILL MOYERS: Ronald Reagan obviously doesn’t like Nicaragua. He wants to get rid of the Sandinistas. But you’re saying that-
DEREK WALCOTT: Right. Right. But he doesn’t say it in that language. He says it in the language that is interchangeable with a McDonald’s ad.
BILL MOYERS: An ad, because?
DEREK WALCOTT: Well, because, one, the responsibility is, “I don’t dare say how I really feel.” And that’s what I mean by responsibility. You see, if, for instance, the moments when America appears to be villainous to, you know, its allies, or its enemies, even, if that were couched in a language that was equivalent to the passion of the vehemence, it would be more clearly understood. What is bewildering is the fact that the language is ironed out into a uniformity that says nothing on either side.
BILL MOYERS: Maybe it means nothing anymore. Maybe English has lost, in a political sense, the power of its appeal.
DEREK WALCOTT: No. I think, as I said, it does not happen in great journalism in this country. It does not happen in the poets of this country. So, it is a language that can be vehement, you know. The poetry of Ginsburg is very vehement in terms of its abuse of people who he thinks are corrupting the American vision. The prose of Mailer is vehement in terms of its anger, and so on. So, it’s not a matter of saying, I think, that language is lost, it doesn’t mean anything anymore. You have writers who continued it may be very fine and anguished as it is in Lowell, or it may be beautifully, you know, syntactically powerful as it is in the best of Mailer. So, I the language itself, the American language, is not in trouble, I don’t think.
BILL MOYERS: Do you realize how much you are the language you speak. I mean, I’ve never met you until just now and yet I hear you, I see you now, in person, as I discovered you in the poems. You are the language you speak.
DEREK WALCOTT: Well, I think it takes you all your life to try and write the way you speak without faking it. I mean, I think it’s very hard for a poet, very, very, very hard to get to hear his own voice without affectation. I mean, I couldn’t read my poems with a British accent or American accent, you know. There is an inner thing that makes me speak, I hope, the way I would write; totally, not just in terms of vocabulary. So, I can perhaps move from talking to you now and read something that does not heighten me, you know, sociologically or because I’m on TV or something; you can just slide into your own voice. And that is what a poet, I think, spends his life trying to do.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] From Columbia University in New York, this has been a conversation with Derek Walcott. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on April 1, 2015.