Derek Walcott’s loose tongue


In 1970, Derek Walcott wrote a philosophical introduction to a collection of his plays. The title of the essay, What The Twilight Says: An Overture, is intriguing. There, Walcott recalls his youthful days in St Lucia learning the craft of writing in the 1940s.

“I sighed up a continent of envy when I studied English literature, yet, when I tried to talk as I wrote, my voice sounded affected or too raw. The tongue became burdened, like an ass trying to shift its load. I was taught to trim my tongue as a particular tool which could as easily have been ordered from England as an awl or a chisel … .”

Theatrically, Walcott puts on the mask of a young man struggling to find his tongue – both voice and language. But the accomplished poet is no longer tongue-tied. The mature Walcott demonstrates his complete mastery of the language of English literature, both sound and substance. The ironic tension between what is recalled – the raw tongue – and how it is called to mind – the images tripping off the tongue – that is the pleasure of Walcott’s craft.


In What The Twilight Says, Walcott gives a frank account of his lifelong quest to fashion a literary language that sounded like his natural speaking voice. He confesses his alienation from the very subjects of his poetry, his own St Lucian people: ” . . . The voice of the inner language was reflective and mannered, as far above its subjects as that sun which would never set until its twilight became a metaphor for the withdrawal of Empire and the beginning of our doubt.”

tight_knotsThat’s quite a tight knot of images. Hear how I unravel it: the “inner language” of Walcott’s poetry is like an absentee landlord distantly imposing authority on its subjects. In the very act of “reflective and mannered” writing about his people – his subjects – the poet assumes the imperious pose of coloniser.

But Walcott is also forced to subject himself to the demands of the language of empire. Language is the medium of ideology. It summons the ghosts of the past. As an agent of literary domination of his own people, the poet himself becomes implicated in the imperial enterprise.



The setting sun of empire does not automatically allow the Caribbean intellectual to find his tongue. The poet as colonial subject often becomes the victim of self-doubt. Can he speak for himself? Is he ready to play the lead role in the drama of his own life? Or must he continue to inhabit the asinine fictions of congenital inferiority?

By contrast, the vast majority of Caribbean people have no such anxieties. They simply refuse to trim their tongue. Walcott’s St Lucian subjects and their confident cousins across the region are, quite often, well aware of the distance between the patriarchal language of empire and their nurturing mother tongues.

As our own Jamaican poet and public intellectual Mutabaruka so wickedly observes, “The language we talk we can’t write; and the language we write we can’t talk.” Mutabaruka speaks to the compounded failure of the educational system in Jamaica to a) teach literacy in the mother tongue, Jamaican; and b) ensure that all students can, in fact, competently speak the official language of literacy, English.


Spellbound by the English literary tradition, the youthful Walcott is, at first, unable to loosen his tongue. Eventually, he stops playing the ass. He finds another language to express the full range of his artistic sensibility. Walcott writes about this discovery in the third person:

“On the verandah, with his back to the street, he began marathon poems on Greek heroes which ran out of breath, lute songs, heroic tragedies, but these rhythms, the Salvation Army parodies, the Devil’s Christmas songs, and the rhythms of the street itself were entering the pulse-beat of the wrist.”

The theatre of the street is a seductive mistress who lures the poet from his more respectable muse. Or, at the very least, forces the muse at home to dance to a different beat. Pure slackness! And that potent image of rhythms in the wrist confirms the value of literacy as a medium for transmitting and transforming oral knowledge.


The imported tools of empire made the young Walcott envious, alienating him from his own culture. He would later claim both English and his own St Lucian Creole as intimate languages to voice his distinctive Caribbean identity. Derek Walcott has written 24 volumes of poetry, 25 plays and several other books. He has received numerous awards, including the Nobel Prize for literature. His tongue and wrist became very loose indeed.

Derek Walcott is the most celebrated creative writer to have studied in the Department of Literatures in English (formerly, just English) at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Generations of poets, playwrights and novelists were cultivated in that department. It’s a roll call of distinction.

Edward Baugh, Mervyn Morris, Slade Hopkinson, Jean D’Costa, Velma Pollard, Dennis Scott, Rachael Manley, Wayne Brown, Rawle Gibbons, Kendel Hippolyte, Robert Lee, Merle Collins, Kwame Dawes, Curdella Forbes, David Heron, Marlon James, Tanya Shirley, Ishion Hutchinson, Kei Miller, Joanne Hillhouse, Ann-Margaret Lim and so many more! The poet/dramatist is dead. Long live poetry, drama, fiction and all the arts!

Do All Household Helpers Steal?

417656_251659581637258_1041631005_nLast Sunday, the third annual ‘Dis Poem Word Festival’ was staged in Hope Bay, Portland. It was a beautiful setting by the sea. Conceived by Ras Takura, an enterprising poet, the festival was held in honour of the ‘Iancient’, Mutabaruku – poet, political philosopher and talk-show host on both radio and television. In the mystic ‘I and I’ language of Rastafari, ‘Iancient’ means ‘elder’.

Now Muta is two years younger than me. I don’t know about him, but I am certainly not ancient. Although I have to admit that I was once asked by a very imperceptive woman if Muta was my son. She clearly needed glasses. It sweet Muta when mi tell im. Im laugh so till! An im seh im know it must burn mi. All mi could do was laugh.

images-3Anyhow, I was quite happy to accept Ras Takura’s invitation to read at the festival in honour of the ancient. I’m not a poet. But since it was a ‘word’ festival, I figured I was free to interpret ‘poem’ rather loosely. I decided to tell a story I’d written two decades ago, which I’d dusted off for the ‘Kingston Pon Di River’ festival last year. Incidentally, the river winds its way to Hope Gardens on June 30.

417844_10201239447410234_62773901_nMuta likes to throw words at brand-name poets who keep performing the same works over and over. I figured I could get away with it as an amateur. In any case, this was a new audience. My story, “Live-een Helper”, is told from the point of view of both the helper and her employer. It raises the twin problem of theft and trust. It’s a big chance of trust you take bringing strangers into your home, even when they come with superlative recommendations. These are often quite fictitious.


100dollarbillI once had a helper, Gloria, who helped herself to a US$100 bill and replaced it with a one-dollar bill which looked like it had suffered a very long minibus ride through Kingston at rush hour. It was all crushed up, bearing no resemblance to the rest of the notes in the envelope. When I confronted Gloria, she insisted that she had not made the switch.

She then asked me, “How much money yu did have?” Now this question is a classic piece of jinnalship designed to shift attention from the real matter at hand and to create doubt in the mind of the victim. Pure strategy! If you’re not sure how much money you had, how could you be so sure you’d been robbed? Fortunately for me, I had my bank receipt, which I promptly flourished. Gloria was not impressed. She insisted on her innocence.

CallingTheBluffWebBut nobody else had come in the house since I’d brought the money home the day before. I decided to call Gloria’s bluff. I called the police. In a most amusing turn of events, one of the officers who interviewed her offered to give me a US$100 bill that he just happened to have on him if I would agree not to press charges. He must have thought I was born yesterday! But I really couldn’t let them arrest Gloria for a hundred US dollars even though 20 years ago that was a fair bit of money.

lightfingers_smallI commended the officer on his generosity, telling him I hadn’t realised there were men of such compassion in the force who would sacrifice their own money to help out a poor young woman who found herself in a difficult situation. All he was asking in return was that Gloria come to the station for counselling. Miss Gloria had a very ‘healthy’ body, even though her fingers were rather light. I had no idea how the counselling would go, but it was none of my business. I had got back my money.


images-4When one of my friends heard my story, she asked me how come I don’t know that all helpers steal, no matter how well you treat them. I protested. I may be naïve, but I refuse to believe that there are no honest helpers left in Jamaica. To prove her point, my cynical friend told me a rather disturbing story. She knew of a helper who had been working for two days a week at the handsome rate of $4,000 a day.

Things were going along quite well until her employer started to get the uneasy feeling that money was disappearing from her purse. But she really couldn’t believe that the helper was stealing from her. She figured she must be just forgetting exactly how much money she had. One morning, she decided to count the money in her purse, which she then placed in her handbag. Sure enough, at the end of the day, a thousand-dollar bill was missing.

images-6Her helper vigorously denied that she had stolen the money. The brazen question she asked in her defence was, “Why I would take only $1,000?” Pretending not to understand either multiplication or addition, not to mention subtraction, the helper seemed to claiming that such a small sum was beneath her dignity. If she was going to steal, she would steal big. But if, over the course of a year, she stole only $1,000 each time she came to work, that would amount to more than $100,000! One-one coco full basket; one-one thousand dollar empty purse.

images-7And, I suppose, the helper’s justification of her systematic stealing would probably be that if her employer didn’t miss the money, she really didn’t need it. It could be put to much better use. My friend told me that when the helper realised she was going to be fired, she had the nerve to announce that she needed the job. But, of course! If you are well paid and can also get away with theft, you have a very good job indeed! Sounds a lot like politics.

Lessons from St Lucia Jazz

The producers of the Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival really ought to go back to the drawing board and rethink the concept.  TurnKey Productions, the US-based company that has been staging the festival right from the start, needs to change key.

Trapped in the old Air Jamaica format of less jazz and more everything else, the rebranded jazz and blues festival rarely satisfies the discriminating taste of expectant jazz fans. The headliners for this year’s 15th anniversary production clearly illustrate the problem.  Maroon 5 are pop rock; Ron Isley is R&B; Natalie Cole is also R&B with a shimmer of jazz.  She did a magnificent set but it certainly wasn’t hardcore jazz.  Or even blues.

Morgan Heritage

By contrast, St Lucia Jazz is the real deal. True, the festival does include music in other genres.  For example, Morgan Heritage did us proud with a blistering set on the last day.  But the bill is much more jazz than anything else.  I was fortunate to catch the 20th staging of this calendar event last month.  I’d been invited to give a lecture hosted by the Open Campus of the University of the West Indies, St. Lucia.  The title we agreed on was “Islands Beyond Envy:  Liberating Nation Language in the Caribbean.”

The topic of the lecture acknowledged the artistic struggles of St. Lucian Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott to find his own voice.  In one of his essays published in 1970, the poet describes the unenviable position in which he found himself as a young man learning to master the craft of writing in a colonial backwater:  ‘I sighed up a continent of envy when I studied English literature, yet, when I tried to talk as I wrote, my voice sounded affected or too raw.’

Sounds familiar?  As our own poet of the people Mutabaruka puts it so wittily, ‘the language we write we can’t talk; and the language we talk we can’t write.’  Enslaved by envy, the juvenile Walcott at first paid little attention to the language of local verbal arts: St. Lucian Creole.  Eventually, he liberated himself by opening his ears to the sounds of street culture.

LIME’s sweet party

One of the big hits of the St. Lucia jazz festival is the free lunch hour concerts held in the square that’s named in honour of Walcott.

A large cross-section of St Lucian society, including enthusiastic high school students, turned out in huge numbers, three days in a row, to hear some of the stars of the festival perform in the day-time concert series for which LIME was the lead sponsor.

LIME seems to have had a rather sour experience with the organisers of St. Lucia Jazz.  The company was the original sponsor of the whole festival and then got displaced by newcomer Digicel. It’s a familiar tale.  Obviously, as an outsider, I don’t know the whole story.   In any case, proverbial wisdom warns that ‘cockroach no business inna fowl fight.’   But even cockroach can speculatively put two and two together.  How could Cable and Wireless, now astringent LIME, start off as a monopoly and end up as the underdog fighting to survive in a market the company once dominated? Competition is a hell of thing.

All the same, LIME certainly knows how to throw a sweet party. On the Saturday night of the festival the company hosted an event billed as ‘Rapture Theme Party.’  I hit the dance floor running.  At my lecture, I got a good joke from a man who complained that I’d stopped him and his wife from leaving the party. Since I appeared to be older than them, they couldn’t bear the thought of being outdone by a senior citizen with obviously much more stamina.  So they had to keep dancing.  ‘Mi nearly dead with laugh.’

‘Church in the jook joint’

For me, the outstanding performance of St Lucia Jazz this year was given by Regina Carter.  A ‘classically’ trained violinist, she magisterially demonstrated the eclectic fusion that is jazz is in its purest form.  I put ‘classically’ in quotes because I know that supposedly ‘classical’ music is not just European ‘art music.’  It’s simply the best of the best.

A lot of the music we now think of as ‘classical’ started life as lowly popular culture.  So it’s not about ‘class’.  It’s all about aesthetics.  No culture has the monopoly on classic music.  With or without cables, wires and all sorts of strings.

Carter’s jazz band brilliantly illustrated the harmonising of European and African musical instruments:  violin, double bass, accordion and kora.  The kora is made from half of a huge calabash covered with cowskin, with a notched bridge for its 21 strings.  The sound plucks your heartstrings.

Another memorable performance came from R&B/jazz/gospel diva Ledisi who wickedly described her set as ‘church in the jook joint.’  Her insight reminded me of James Baldwin’s witty observation in the novel Go Tell It on the Mountain that it’s hard to hear any difference between the secular music of the sinners going home from the club late Saturday night and the sacred music of the saints going to church Sunday morning.

‘Jook’ is a fascinating word.  A variant of ‘juke’ – as in juke box – the word has African origins.  The Dictionary of Jamaican English compares ‘jook’ with Fulani ‘jukka’, meaning ‘spur, poke; knock down as fruit.’  The dictionary also notes the Cameroons pidgin expression, ‘juk am’, meaning ‘pierce, prick, etc.’

     Like ‘jazz’ itself, ‘jook’ has sexual overtones. In her book Jookin’:  The Rise of Social Dance Formations in African-American Culture, sociologist Katrina Hazzard-Gordon highlights the vital role of the jook joint in nurturing the body, soul and spirit.  If we really want the Air Jamaica jazz and blues festival to ‘tek life’, TurnKey needs to jook it with a lot more jazz.