“At some point while I was reading ‘The Odyssey,’ where Odysseus has been shipwrecked and washed up on the rocks and is trying to save himself, I realized that this could be a Caribbean story,” poet Derek Walcott told the press at a luncheon yesterday in Athens.
The poet, playwright and 1992 Nobel laureate in literature is in town to deliver a lecture tonight for the Megaron Plus series at the Athens Concert Hall (see What’s On) and receive an honorary doctorate from Athens University tomorrow.
He was explaining, no doubt for the umpteenth time, what led him to write his epic poem “Omeros.”
“When I began to write ‘Omeros,’ I said don’t do this, because it will lead to these sorts of questions,” he joked.
But the close parallels he observed between the civilizations of the Aegean and the Caribbean, with their stories of ships and fishermen, is a powerful theme threading through his work.
He loved the “freshness, gustiness, wind, sea, light, waves and action” that he found in Homer. “The one image that Homer has given to the world is that of a sail, a ship leaving and coming back,” he said.
Walcott’s own work is steeped in images of the sea and of the lives and dreams that grow on it and around it. Some poems hark back overtly to Homer, as in “Archipelagoes,” from “Map of the New World”:
At the end of this sentence, rain will begin. / At the rain’s edge, a sail. // Slowly the sail will lose sight of the islands; / into a mist will go the belief in harbors / of an entire race. // The ten-years war is finished. Helen’s hair a gray cloud. / Troy, a white ashpit / by the drizzling sea. // The drizzle tightens like the strings of a harp. / A man with clouded eyes picks up the rain / and plucks the first line of the Odyssey./
Elsewhere, as in this excerpt “Adios, Carenage” from “The Schooner Flight,” the tale is still timeless but the scene and the language are redolent of the Caribbean:
In idle August, while the sea soft, / and leaves of brown islands stick to the rim / of this Caribbean, I blow out the light / by the dreamless face of Maria Concepcion / to ship as a seaman on the schooner ‘Flight,’ / Out in the yard turning gray in the dawn. / I stood like a stone and nothing else move / but the cold sea rippling like galvanize / and the nail holes of stars in the sky roof // till a wind start to interfere with the trees.
Walcott’s artful incorporation of the vernacular among the multiple registers in his verse was a challenge for his Greek translators. Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke and Stefanos Papadopoulos, who have done a marvelous job of translating his poems into Greek for Kastaniotis publishers. Anghelaki-Rooke and Papadopoulos worked on Walcott’s poems together for three months. They chose not to employ an equivalent for the Caribbean element, said Anghelaki-Rooke, because it would have been impossible to convey the flavor by means of some Greek dialect.
Choosing which poems to translate was a tough task, she said, with a strict limit on the size of the book. But one of the criteria, wisely, was to select poems that would work in Greek.
One hopes that the next edition of the volume will get some more meticulous proofreading to weed out solecisms like dual spellings of the author’s and one translator’s names.
Asked about the burden of the poetic past, Walcott sympathized with Greek writers: “It must be tough to be a Greek poet, having to deal with the weight of all that stuff,” he said. “Any young Greek poet who lifts a pen is lifting a column.”