Derek Walcott Essay - Walcott, Derek (Vol. 9)

Walcott, Derek (Vol. 9)

Walcott, Derek 1930–

Walcott is a West Indian poet and playwright. With the publication in 1962 of In a Green Night, he was hailed as the first outstanding Caribbean poet. A recurring theme in Walcott's verse is the isolation of man, and in particular the isolation of the artist. His drama is characterized by a concern with the influences modern society brings to bear on man. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4.)

[The Caribbean plays of Derek Walcott] are not precisely Latin American, having been written in English and Trinidadian patois, not Spanish or Portuguese…. Yet Walcott's plays are not in the naturalist and/or militant mainstream of North American black drama of the past decade. Whether or not the Latin American influence is direct, indirect, or coincidental, the affinities of Walcott's poetic folk dramas to such plays as The Mulatto's Orgy and On the Right Hand of God the Father are greater than to the uncompromising naturalism and revolutionary exhortation of Bullins and Baraka. Surely the white exploitation of black folk materials in such entertainments as The Green Pastures and Cabin in the Sky has soured such materials for North American black writers.

Walcott does not anathematize the part of his sensibility which is white. Nor does he fully accept it. He recognizes that it is part of what he is as a writer and as a man. He notes the colonial oppressiveness which created the subservience and self-hatred of "native" culture, but he realizes that the past cannot be obliterated, that he must accept the cultural schizophrenia which has formed him. "My generation looked at life with black skin and blue eyes," he states in the poetic prologue to his collection of plays [Dream on Monkey Mountain, and Other Plays]. His roots are in Warwickshire as well as in Africa, and his literary tradition is in a very real sense that of Chaucer and Shakespeare. His God, as remorseless and irresponsible as He is, is Christian, and his Devil is Milton's Lost Angel. One theme which unites his plays is "one race's quarrel with another's God."

The acceptance of the complexity of human personality and culture, the unwillingness to sacrifice the ambiguity and self-doubt which leads to self-discovery, the simultaneous homage to the claims of the old and the demands of the new—distinguish Walcott's plays. First and foremost, this is poetic drama. Nuance, irony, metaphor—these are the demands the playwright makes of his language. In all the plays he roots his dialogue in Trinidadian dialect, a patois of English and French. But it is not naturalistic: he has attempted to forge "a language that went beyond mimicry,… one which finally settled on its own mode of inflection, and which began to create an oral culture of chants, jokes, folk songs and fables." And to imbue this diction with the resonance of the great English poetic tradition.

Walcott's language, when he is not striving too consciously for high poetic effect, works well theatrically, particularly in his major plays. In the shorter plays, The Sea at Dauphin and Malcochon, the language as well as the forms of the plays themselves aspire too strenuously for traditional tragic resonance. In both the former play—which attempts to evoke for impoverished Caribbean fisherfolk the stoic dignity of Synge's Riders to the Sea—and the latter—a folk tragedy which finds Man "between beasthood and godhead groping in a dream"—the tensions between the indigenous materials and the traditional tragic forms are not wholly resolved. One senses too ardent a desire to claim that these people deserve the mantle of tragic nobility as well as Hamlet or Lear. The author's aim—"an electric fusion of the old and the new"—is not fully achieved. In the two major plays in the collection—Ti-Jean and his Brothers and Dream on Monkey Mountain—however, Walcott comes much closer to his goal by abandoning traditional tragic models and forging not only a new language but new dramatic structures as well. The tension between old and new—literary and ethnic—sensibilities continues, but it is expressed thematically and structurally rather than by pouring new wine into old bottles. (pp. 67-8)

Gerald Rabkin, in Review (copyright © 1974 by the Center for Inter-American Relations, Inc.), Winter, 1974.

In colonies where history has been suppressed or forgotten or never amounted to much, myths come easily. Perhaps that's why so much colonial history makes good movies. Derek Walcott in that prodigious autobiographical poem Another Life rejected 'the myth of the Golden Carib' while endeavouring to construct a new one. In [Sea Grapes] he gets down to cases, beginning with the Fall and working backwards…. Where before, eloquence bordered on effusion, in the opening sections of Sea Grapes the lushness of the verse is carefully tended. Walcott has never written better. The perfect garden sets off human frailty…. From the Caribbean garden to the rough smoky world is a move inevitable enough. But Walcott is too intelligent to imagine that independence restores lost innocence. 'Then after Eden/was there one surprise?/O yes, the awe of Adam/at the first bead of sweat.'…

Colonization often entails that a ludicrous history be visited upon an unsuspecting people. In the disenchantment with the aftermath of independence, his control falters and Walcott's language becomes too wild to connect. (pp. 82-3)

Christopher Hope, in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1977), February-March, 1977.

Sea Grapes is full of bitterness against those who oppress and enslave; and it is full of compassion for those who suffer losses that seem beyond words. The figure of the exile—particularly the exiled writer, and whether the fact of exile be actual or metaphoric—weighs on Walcott's mind and heart. A post-Adamic world is acknowledged although there are glimpses of moments of what the Garden of Eden might have been like before the Fall.

The long poem "Sainte Lucie," named for the island where Walcott was born, engages us in naming villages, fruits, birds, and people as if naming them helps to bring them back or get them right or create them in the spirit of some Adamic feat; a lusty Creole song is sung; an altarpiece in a native church gives rise to depicting what is carved on it, and what might have been carved on it in another time by someone else. Elaborate counterpointing makes belief again possible to the extent that the modern, ironic poet can allow belief at all…. There is a clean sharpness about these poems which engages me. (pp. 186-87)

[In "Force," the] beast, or the bestial, is equated with a force beyond easy moral categories, and perhaps beyond moral categories at all. Love and violence, and instinct and reason, are shown to be less separate than they might ordinarily be thought to be. In the same way, the fear of violation and the wish to be violated draw together as the poet moves toward the conclusion of the poem…. If what he sees outside him does not help him accept the contrary, contradictory parts of himself, neither does it prevent him from the possibility of acknowledging what understanding has been possible. He will never completely understand the beast in the man, the beast as man, or the writing beast. Yet by starting with the rain "hammering the grass blades into the ground," Walcott makes some understanding of himself to himself and to us possible. (p. 188)

I find the same clean language of "Force" displayed in "Earth" and complicated by the resonance of ritual this other poem demands…. A study in possession, "Earth" takes us as deeply as we could go short of death. To the extent that we all die, none of us can ever be dispossessed. The movement of the poem is at once upward and downward, and both motions are in quest of that total possession. It is a knowledge we come to very late, the poet suggests, but a knowledge that stands there only waiting to be embraced. Calm, authoritative, the poem takes in language as different as "vegetal knuckles" and "through forever." And it is suggestive and representative of what the whole book of Walcott manages so exceedingly well. (pp. 188-89)

Arthur Oberg, in Western Humanities Review (copyright, 1976, University of Utah), Spring, 1977.

The title poem of Derek Walcott's Sea Grapes brings together, with stunning effectiveness, certain qualities readers have come to associate with this poet: visually powerful sea imagery, a wealth of classical allusions and a deeply felt concern for the Caribbean ethos. This recent collection of Walcott's poetry contains forty-six poems ranging widely in theme and set against several countries—Britain, the United States and the West Indies.

The potency of Walcott's imagery lies in an uncanny commingling of lyricism and unvarnished realism: for example, sunset that "shares its mortal properties/with the least stone in Frederiksted" is a show waited for by "old men like empties/set down from morning outside the alms-houses." There is an overwhelming sense of dry disillusionment and cynicism as Walcott's razor touch slashes at the prostitution of people, cities and nations, but there is also the inextinguishability of the human spirit….

In the poems dedicated to fellow writers Walcott zeroes in on something integral to the other's attitudes or contribution. For instance, in a poem for John Figueroa these are the lines: "a gnarled poet/bearded with the whirlwind,/his metres like thunder." "At Last," a poem addressed to novelists who have contemptuously left the West Indies, expresses Walcott's thundering affirmation that Caribbean literature has come into its own. If anyone had any doubts on that score, Sea Grapes will help dispel them. (p. 325)

Uma Parameswaran, in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51. No. 2, Spring, 1977.