Fourth Lecture - Derek Walcott

Derek Walcott

Fourth Lecture - April 12, 2005

"An Integrated Americas: A Caribbean View"

Speaker: Derek Walcott, Nobel Literature Laureate

Obviously, it is quite an honor to be here with you today. When I was invited here, I felt the typical torment of having to express myself in prose. I’m not a logical thinker; I’m not a good thinker. I am lucky to be a poet, in the sense that as a poet, I can start a sentence wanting to say one thing; and by the time I’ve ended it, I’ve contradicted myself.

But this is something that Gould Whitman, the great American poet, says: if I contradict myself very well, well I contradict myself. To make a contradiction in front of an audience such as this one, with ambassadors and other distinguished people is terrifying; on the other hand, it isn’t terrifying because evidently we’re all human beings, which means that the responsibility of a diplomat, of an ambassador, is the conscience and I thought, if I’m going to do something like this, perhaps I shouldn’t choose a piece of prose in which I might say predictable things such as the great future that awaits us all - there are only two versions of this, right? -, and do something in between the two.

So what I’m going to do here, perhaps to put all of you in this position, is to recite you a poem, but I’m going to try to do it because XX century poets don’t often feel encouraged to say much about any subject, especially in verse; and yet what we have to see in the world around us, has to do with the conscience, it has to do with responsibility, and it has to do with what we inflict upon ourselves, in the sense that at times we’re unwilling to accept the horrors that occurred in the XX century. It would seem that they are constantly self perpetuating in the XXI century and this institution where I am today is concerned about these horrors, some unimaginable, others which are repeated.

It is not my duty to do nothing, but what a poet always does in a society. A poet once wrote that all that poets can do is simply warn…warn; so I’m not here to be a prophet. However, in another society, in a place of honor such as this one, it would have been natural for a poet to speak to the ambassadors, senators, and politicians of another type of civilization. In our civilization, this voice is silent. It can be found in literary magazines or in a conference now and then. Therefore, what I’m going to read you is something very casual; and I don’t want this to turn into a literary magazine, but I’m going to talk about something that I thought would be interesting to read to you on this occasion.

This is about a man, about whom I know little; he’s a fictional character. I’m not a novelist; I don’t really know who my character is. I also write plays, but in this sense, I don’t know what it is about or about whom I am speaking. I’m not very certain of his biography; all I know is that this seems to be good for UNESCO, a large institution. It seems that he was someone from the academic world, a professor at some university, perhaps a university of little prestige in England that is quite fond of the Jacobian poets that followed Shakespeare; and in some way this person enters into an agreement with a third world country. He isn’t dishonest, but what he does is create an uprising in the country where he is working; and I would say that for me, this poem especially was a very exciting challenge because it is a model of something that could be by Graham Green or John Le Carré, one of those exciting political plays. But in reality, it is written in verse and for me, this was a challenge. The person at the center of this story is someone who is afflicted by the desire to do good, but he is restricted by the circumstances, by the conflicts due to certain realities. So apparently he makes a deal with a Third World country, something that has to do with tractors or I don’t know what. I’m here as if I were listening to what he says, although I’m creating him; so I try to remove myself a bit from the situation. I’m not participating directly in it, not forming it nor trying to listen inadvertently; but the heart of all this, when I wrote it and when I continue writing, I notice that this had to do with something immense as a subject; and this subject had something to do with the horror of the XX century, the holocaust, the fact that the XX century was a time of hunger and disease and of all these cheerful things that we mention every day in the office.

The fact is that the man I was speaking about was a common man. He wasn’t a hero. He wasn’t a great intellectual. And in the epigraph that I took from the Book of Revelation, what I found there caused me great pain. Just saying it now causes me pain because the last verse says: See that this harms neither the oil nor the wine. It is very painful; that is, do not destroy the oil or the wine. This warning is a warning for everyone, but especially, and we hope, for those who assume power, those who are to assume power at this time. See that neither the oil nor the wine is damaged.

Full Speech