OVER more than five decades of producing some of the 20th century’s best poetry, Derek Walcott found many local metaphors for his trade. He was a bent astronomer, tracing out the circle of time in the singeing stars above the mango trees; the careful stenciller of a flowered window frame, or the planer of a canoe; an egret stalking the reeds, his pen’s beak “plucking up wriggling insects/like nouns and gulping them”.

Above all, though, he was a poet-mariner, a rusty-head sailor with sea-green eyes, “a red nigger who love the sea”, as locals said: red because he had Dutch, English and black in him, the inevitable mingling of voyagers to the Caribbean. All roads led to the sea, it was always visible; the roar of the surf was in his body, and its rhythm in the lines he wrote. Each dawn, after cigarette and coffee, he was called to his blue portable typewriter “like a fisherman walking towards the white noise/of paper, then in its hollow craft sets his oars.” His pen became a sea-dipping swift crossing and recrossing the waters, like memory, or a crab, “obliquity burrowing to surface”. Inevitably the hero of his greatest poem, “Omeros”, was a simple fisherman, Achille, who in a conscious echoing of Homer set his pirogue on the ocean and simply sailed away. His story was written in terza rima, flexible and ever-flowing.

The sea was history: beneath it were the wrecked ships that had fought for the islands, British, Dutch and French, with their drowned sailors and drowned slaves, the women now manacled with cowrie shells. It floated Achille to Africa and Africa to the West, each prisoner carrying its rhythms but not its language to the other world,

and what began dissolving
was the fading sound of their tribal name for the rain,
the bright sound for the sun, a hissing noun for the river,
and always the word “never”, and never the word “again”.

Yet Mr Walcott did not believe slavery should be dwelt on, like a chafing sore. He raged at it, but the sea erased everything, and the surf’s lines were ici pas ni un rien: what has been done is nothing, start again.

His personal life knew the same flux: three wives, all treated badly, to his later grief; many liaisons. His loves too were expressed in sea-language: post coitum “the eight limbs loosen, like tentacles in water”; in the morning he would lie watching “the fall and rise/of suspiring linen, like a skiff at anchor”. He would cup a breast as he fondled a white stone from the beach. These propensities, noted when he was teaching in America in the 1980s and 1990s, cost him the chance to be, in 1999, Britain’s poet laureate and, ten years later, professor of poetry at Oxford. He was not concerned, for he did not want to drop his anchor long on any northern shore.

The horned island

The one point of fixity in his life was his home island of St Lucia, where the indigo horns of the Pitons rose to the sky, where the coppery sea-almonds shook in the wind and clay paths wound, through green bananas, to the villages of rusted galvanise; where all was bright and present-tense, all the time. St Lucia was the beautiful Helen the colonisers had fought over, reimagined as a black housemaid strolling the beach in a yellow dress, swinging a plastic sandal; who “dint take no shit/from white people”, and whose waist swayed like palms in the weather.

There he had first found the “foreign machinery” of English literature: Dickens and Scott on the shelves at home, “The World’s Classics” in the barber’s shop, Kipling, Shakespeare and Milton at school, and imagined his own shadow falling on those distant, cobbled streets. There he began to write seriously at 11, a poem a day in an exercise book, and at 19 published his first collection, paid for by his mother.

He was madly in love with English then, and knew that his calling was to be a great English poet. A great English playwright, too, perhaps; he wrote 80 or so plays, and set up theatre workshops in both Trinidad, his base for 20 years, and Boston. A London house, Cape, published his first book outside the West Indies in 1962. But he found an inevitable cleavage between these worlds: that in both hustling America and drizzling, hedge-bound England, with their strange snows and disorientating cities, he would always be an exile, patronised as “a Commonwealth writer” or, by some blacks, as a craven admirer of the Western canon. He strove not to forget his native patois of the babbling cedars, ground-doves and sea, or the astonishment of colour and light: a light that made him a painter, like his father, as well as a writer, and led him to consider the poet’s craft as a celebration and a prayer.

He had travelled often and far, but concluded that poetry was best done within a perimeter of about 20 miles. The truest, simplest, potentially the greatest, lay close to home: in the red flares of the flame tree, the “leoparding light” of the forests, the gossip of café and rumshop, the thick-leaved breadfruit yards. And, most of all, in the ocean. Without it, he pushed his pen “through a thick nothing”; with it, he had a shining shield, a theatre, a light-sparkling hoard, a music, an untiring lover. The last line of “Omeros” was his own: “When he left the beach the sea was still going on.”