The discovery of an unpublished manuscript is showing the voices of poets past are as relevant as ever.
“Blow a kiss, fire a gun…” Despite its language, Major Lazer’s 2015 dancehall-inflected hit Lean On is more likely to conjure images of packed clubs rather than political revolution.
Yet its style of exuberant expression and Calypso voice finds roots in the literary traditions of Caribbean poets and writers that grew out of hundreds of years of colonial rule. One of those poets is Sir Derek Walcott, whose prolific writing has probed the issues of race and identity for more than half a century.
Dr Michael Griffiths, a lecturer in English literature at UOW, recently uncovered a previously unpublished Walcott manuscript in an archive in the University of Toronto’s Fisher library.
“It’s pretty rare you find something by a writer, let alone a Nobel Laureate, that they didn’t publish and you’re able to say, ‘Here’s a piece of literary history that’s being made or created’,” Dr Griffiths says. “Then comes the task of puzzling out why it matters, or what might have been the motivation not to publish. It’s an interesting detective story in a way.”
Dr Griffiths’ quest to uncover the story behind the manuscript provides a window into poetry and literature for younger generations, and is a poignant case study in why the arts remain as important as ever.
Sir Derek Alton Walcott was born in 1930 on the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia and studied at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica.
He grew up speaking English, French and the local Creole and published his first poem aged 14. By 16, he’d written five plays and had his first collection of poetry published.
Both his grandmothers were said to have been the descendants of slaves and, as Walcott himself has acknowledged, the dying embers of the British Empire and the lasting effects of colonial rule (Saint Lucia became independent in 1979) heavily influenced his writing.
He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992.
Dr Griffiths first struck upon Walcott when he was struggling to find a way to teach a class of undergraduates at a community college in the United States about Homer’s epic poem, Odyssey.
“The course brief that I was working from was the epic, so I started looking around for epic texts that perhaps came from a more diverse background. Walcott’s long poem, Omeros, is an epic poem, a retelling of the Odyssey in a Caribbean setting, but it’s by a Black man.
“I came across him in the context, ironically, of teaching in Houston, Texas, where my students were predominantly Black and Latino. The challenge was how to get them to think about maybe the aspects of the humanities that didn’t seem immediately relevant to them.
“If they asked, ‘Why would Homer be relevant?’ I could say, ‘Well, this person of colour thinks he’s relevant and has written a whole epic poem out of his relationship with Homer’.”
“Poetry is, yes, is absolutely his form of insurrection,” Dr Griffiths says. “What’s fascinating about Walcott is that he has experience of dispossession but he sees value in all cultures, be that the Caribbean culture – a mixture of the African and, what they call there, East Indian – or European culture.”
It was during a trip to Toronto that Dr Griffiths learned the city was home to a Walcott manuscript. He dived into the archive and “struck gold” – a 13-page manuscript of unpublished work. The manuscript is likely an early draft of what later became a Walcott classic, The Fortunate Traveller, which loaned its name to a collection that would be published in 1981.
“What I found in the difference between the published poem and the manuscript from the archive was that the unpublished manuscript is heavily vested in a kind of critique of Europe, critique of colonialism, critique of the colonial legacy.”
The poem imagines a traveller, fortunate because he can visit third-world countries on a return ticket, who is struck by the decimation of land he visits and sets out to strike a deal to sell tractors. The government changes and his life is threatened.
Through this traveller and the two worlds he inhabits, Walcott reverses the idea of the African savage, popularised in Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel, Heart of Darkness.
Dr Griffiths says the poem is a critical depiction of economics and the politics of lending and receiving, that colonialism has become global and diffuse, and vested in a neoliberal capitalist ideology.
“He basically says bureaucratic, modern, European-derived society has, because of its tendency towards technology and bureaucracy, the capacity for destruction that you don’t find in so-called primitive societies.
“And that may be slightly romantic, and he is slightly romantic, but it certainly calls attention to the degree to which bureaucratisation and modernisation of modes of organising people is savage.”
The Heart of Darkness is not Africa.
The heart of darkness is the white-hot core
Of the holocaust, not in the dark hands holding the spear,
but in pale rubber surgical glove, the pincered claw
selecting scalpels in antiseptic light
~ Derek Walcott in The Fortunate Traveller
Dr Griffiths says Walcott’s power was in his ability to represent both the colonial world and the world of the Creole people, who trace their histories to Africa.
This contrast could be seen in Walcott’s home of Saint Lucia, where the island’s economy shifted toward tourism and a reliance on well-heeled Western visitors to keep alive ancient Indigenous practices, such as the cutting of canoes.
“Walcott matters because he’s both global and locally relevant. You immediately have to put things into the context of how they relate. There’s a relationship between colonial dispossession in Saint Lucia and here in Australia. Walcott makes you think about the locally specific histories of dispossession here in this country.”
Matters of the arts
Relevant is also a word Dr Griffiths uses to describe the value of the arts in education. He argues passionately for arts’ place in contemporary education, where makers rather than thinkers are championed as the leaders of tomorrow.
Fittingly, the literature classes at the Wollongong campus take place in the shadow of Mount Keira, which was used by the local Wodi Wodi people as a sacred place of learning.
“We take seriously that we have a lot of people at UOW who are the first generation in their family to go to university,” he says. “It’s something we should value and we should be proud of, and I think that in the humanities, the ethos has always been about the democratisation of education.
“These days people read novels, they don’t read poetry. And so we have to both preserve that and hope that when they come to classrooms here they stop and understand that poetry is interesting, it’s relevant.”
In modern times, poetry is often viewed as an unnecessary extravagance. However, from the ancient works of Homer to Shakespeare, to musings of our contemporary poets, such as Paul Kelly and even Major Lazer, this art form remains as important as ever in understanding the world around us.
As the American painter Jimmy Ernst once mused, “Artists and poets are the raw nerve ends of humanity. By themselves they can do little to save humanity. Without them there would be little worth saving”.