Derek Walcott Essay - Walcott, Derek (Poetry Criticism)

Walcott, Derek (Poetry Criticism)

Introduction

Derek Walcott 1930-

(Full name Derek Alton Walcott) West Indian poet and playwright.

A Nobel laureate and prominent West Indian literary figure, Walcott is known for writing poetry and drama that transcends traditional boundaries of race, geography, and language while exploring themes of cross-cultural ethnicity, political chauvinism, and postcolonial Caribbean history.

Biographical Information

Walcott was born on January 2, 1930, in Castries—the capital city of Saint Lucia, a small Caribbean island that was once a British colony in the Lesser Antilles. His father, who died during Walcott's early life, was British; his mother was West Indian. Both were teachers who valued education, cultural enrichment, and creative expression. Encouraged by their mother, Walcott and his twin brother Roderick were active with a local theater group as children and young adults. Walcott displayed an early talent for poetry, publishing his first work at fourteen and his first book, 25 Poems (1948), at eighteen. At twenty he wrote and staged Henri Christophe (1950) and cofounded the Santa Lucia Arts Guild with his brother, who also became a playwright.

In 1953 Walcott received a bachelor's degree in English, French, and Latin at the University College of the West Indies in Jamaica. Soon thereafter, he began to teach in West Indian schools, while continuing to write and produce plays. In 1958 he accepted a Rockefeller fellowship to study drama in New York City. The next year, he moved to Trinidad, where he established the Little Carib Theatre Workshop, which would later become the Trinidad Theatre Workshop.

Although he also continued to create and produce plays, during the next decade Walcott turned his attention once again to poetry. His 1962 volume, In a Green Night, garnered positive reviews in the English-speaking world and brought his name to the forefront of emerging nontraditional poets. In 1971 Walcott's play Dream on Monkey Mountain (1967) received an Obie award. This marked Walcott's first major notice as an internationally recognized playwright.

Walcott received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1977; in 1979 he was named an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. During the early 1980s, Walcott began teaching at several universities in the United States, including Columbia, Howard, and Boston University. He divided his time between residences in the Caribbean and in the United States. In 1992 Walcott became the first native Caribbean to receive the Nobel prize for literature.

Major Works

The central theme of Walcott's poetry focuses on dichotomy of Caribbean and Western civilization as seen through the prisms of postcolonical race relations and cross-cultural identity issues. His first significant collection, In a Green Night (1962), established several of the themes that would appear in subsequent verse. His 1969 volume, The Gulf and Other Poems, is notable for stylistically diverse poems that are unified through a repeated thematic examination of separation and loss. Also among his early volumes of poetry is Another Life (1973), an autobiographical book-length work.

Walcott's primary poetic output is considered by some observers to be that which was published between 1976 and 1987, including Sea Grapes (1976), The Star-Apple Kingdom (1979), The Fortunate Traveller (1981), Midsummer (1984), and The Arkansas Testament (1987). In 1989, Walcott published his epic poem Omeros, which was based on the themes and portrayals of odyssey and identity found in Homer's classic The Iliad.

Later works of poetry include The Bounty, which was published in 1997, and Tiepolo's Hound (2000), a book-length poem illustrated with the author's own paintings.

Critical Reception

Although his dramatic works are also highly regarded, Walcott's literary reputation is based most securely on his poetry. He has been widely lauded as an accomplished poet known for masterful explorations of racial, cultural, and historical consciousness that incorporate both classical and Afro-Caribbean themes and experience. Among Walcott's poetry, In a Green Night, Another Life, and Omeros have been particularly well-received by literary critics.

Despite—or perhaps because of—his prominence as an accomplished English language wordsmith, some critics have charged that Walcott's written expression is so refined and technically intricate that it can obscure or overshadow his meaning. Walcott's self-defined position as a cross-cultural artist and commentator has also invited criticism from both sides of an often contentious cultural divide: he has been called too Western by some Afrocentric critics and too Afro-Caribbean by some Eurocentric critics. This type of criticism has softened somewhat as his international literary status has grown. Walcott has earned a literary reputation that, by many accounts, places him among some of the greatest contemporary writers.

Principal Works

25 Poems 1948

Epitaph for the Young: XII Cantos 1949

Poems 1951

In a Green Night: Poems, 1948-1960 1962

Selected Poems 1964

The Castaway and Other Poems 1965

The Gulf and Other Poems 1969

Another Life 1973

Sea Grapes 1976

Selected Verse 1976

The Star-Apple Kingdom 1979

The Fortunate Traveller 1981

Midsummer 1984

Collected Poems, 1948-1984 1986

The Arkansas Testament 1987

Omeros 1989

Poems, 1965-1980 1992

Derek Walcott: Selected Poems 1993

The Bounty 1997

Tiepolo's Hound (poetry, plays, and essay) 2000

Dream on Monkey Mountain (play) 1967

Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays (plays and essays) 1970

The Joker of Seville [with music by Galt MacDermot] (play) 1974

O Babylon! [with music by Galt MacDermot] (play) 1976

Remembrance (play) 1977

Pantomime (play) 1978

Beef, No Chicken (play) 1982

A Branch of the Blue Nile (play) 1986

The Capeman: A Musical [with Paul Simon] (play) 1997

What the Twilight Says: Essays (essays) 1998

Walker and Ghost Dance (plays) 2002

Criticism

Lloyd W. Brown (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Brown, Lloyd W. “Caribbean Castaway New World Odyssey: Derek Walcott's Poetry.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 11, no. 2 (1976): 149-59.

[In the following essay, Brown offers an overview of Walcott's poetry, tracing the theme of “the New World” that appears throughout his work.]

In the poem ‘Elegy’ Derek Walcott offers a bleak image of the American Dream as New World nightmare:

Our hammock swung between Americas
we miss you, Liberty. Che's
bullet-riddled body falls,
and those who cried the Republic must first die
to be reborn are dead.(1)

This elegy on the democratic ideal in the New World as a whole is interwoven with an exposé of the essential falsities that have always been inherent in the rhetoric of idealism within the United States:

Still, every body wants to go to bed
with Miss America. And, if there's no bread,
let them eat cherry pie …
Some splintered arrowhead lodged in her brain
sets the black singer howling …
and yearly lilacs in her dooryards bloom,
and the cherry orchard's surf
blinds Washington and whispers
to the assassin in his furnished room
of our ideal American, whose flickering screens
show, in slow herds, the ghosts of the Cheyennes
scuffling across the staked and wired plains.

(The Gulf, p. 31)

This poem deserves to be cited in some detail, because it provides a useful introduction to some of the typical emphases in Walcott's poetry, specifically, his interest in a New World experience that is concentrated in a Caribbean consciousness and symbolized by United States history. In turn, this interest is rooted in a sense of crisis regarding the myths and institutions of moral idealism. On the one hand, the idea of a New World conjures up the image of new beginnings, the promise of a re-created order of things; and this new order is fraught with new epistemological possibilities—with new ways of perceiving and describing (or naming) things. On the other hand, there is a brooding suspicion that the new possibilities have been betrayed in that historical process which destroyed the dreams of a Che, and before him, groups like the Cheyennes. (It is dramatically appropriate that Che's name represents the first three letters of ‘Cheyennes’.) The orthographic coincidence points up a telling historical analogy: it is the same analogy which links the oppressed Black (by way of the arrowhead metaphor) with the dispossessed Indian, or (ironically) the bullet-riddled Che with the victim (John Kennedy, presumably) of a presidential assassin. Moreover, the geographical image of the West Indian archipelago (‘our hammock’) unobtrusively links the tragedy of dispossession in North America with the destruction of the hammock-weaving Arawaks of the pre-Colombian Caribbean. The cultural and geographical divisions of the New World have been deliberately obscured in Walcott's vision of betrayed ideals and corrupted institutions in the New World as a whole.

The poet subjects the mythic traditions of the New World to similar juxtapositions. In one sense the mythological process is creative and vitalizing: it both represents and facilitates the human need to articulate the perceived truths of experience and those dream ideals which transform reality. Walcott's Che is, thus, the poet's mythic apotheosis of social justice and reform. But, in another sense, myth is not a transforming truth but a mere falsehood decked out in the transparent images of specious innocence. Hence the all-American sex code is a feigned but profitable puritanism (‘every body wants to go to bed / with Miss America’). Having demolished the wholesome image of the innocent all-American, the poet establishes a highly suspect image of that perennial symbol of American innocence—the cherry pie. Thus the cherry tree invokes not only the legendary honesty of George Washington (that pre-eminently ‘ideal’ American), but also suspicions about Washington's possible contributions to the falsehoods of America's ‘innocence’, falsehoods that are palpable in the fates of the Cheyennes and the Blacks. The echoes of Marie Antoinette's Old World decadence (‘let them eat cherry pie’) are, therefore, shocking precisely because they are unexpected in the ‘innocent’ ambience of the New World. Finally, the poem offers a self-conscious view of the artist's role in it all. Walcott associates his own analysis of the New World with the works of those writers whose insights and techniques are pertinent to his themes. Hence the theme of death and re-birth, which mocks the history of promise and disillusionment in New World democracy, echoes T. S. Eliot's vision of life and death in The Waste Land. The image of ‘yearly lilacs’ recalls Eliot's grasp of the paradox of life co-existing, even dependent upon, death;2 and it also reflects Walcott's awareness of the old corruptions which have destroyed the early promises of the New World, as well as his continuing optimism that there can be a genuinely new order that is intrinsic to the New World although rooted in the old waste land. In a similar vein, the cherry orchard reference recalls Chekov's vision, in The Cherry Orchard, of the possibilities of rebirth-in-death.

On the whole, this theme of new beginnings assumes the dimensions of an odyssey in Walcott's poetry. In a general sense, he envisages the odyssey of the artist (Eliot or Chekov, for example) as the search for, or a re-assertion of, stable values in a moral and social waste land. Hence the grim moral landscape of the Americans in ‘Elegy’ is counterbalanced by the kind of moral energy that is evoked by the implied references to the insights of The Waste Land and The Cherry Orchard. Chekov and Eliot assume outsider identities because their moral idealism contrasts so strongly with the false or aborted ideals with which they are surrounded in Walcott's America. The artist's identity as outsider, or castaway (to anticipate a typical Walcott archetype), emphasizes his lonely odyssey for renewal in an environment of decaying values. In more specifically West Indian terms, Walcott's artist is the outsider archetype, not only in the traditional sense of the alienated artist, but also as an example of the West Indian as ethno-cultural castaway from Europe and Africa. And for this West Indian artist-castaway the quest for moral meaning is also a special odyssey for that new sense of being, that renewal of human possibilities, which Walcott derives from the geo-cultural symbolism of his New World ambience.

What we have in ‘Elegy’, then, is an overview of the cultural and moral malaise which prompts the odyssey of the castaway figures in his poetry as a whole. It is the kind of malaise that he describes repeatedly in the first three volumes of poems (In a Green Night, The Castaway, and The Gulf). In ‘Goats and Monkeys’ the racial and sexual tensions of Shakespeare's Othello represent the divisiveness of a world in which love has failed. The ‘innocent’ Desdemona and the ‘malevolent’ Moor are equally the victims of that failure:

Virgin and ape, maid and malevolent Moor,
their immoral coupling still halves our world.
He is your sacrificial beast, bellowing, goaded,
a black bull snarled in ribbons of its blood.

(The Castaway, p. 27)

As the allusive quality of ‘Elegy’ has already demonstrated, Walcott's vision of the waste land habitually invokes the insights of his literary predecessors, and the Shakespearean themes of ‘Goats and Monkeys’ are typical instances. So is ‘The Prince’, for here the intellectual figure contemplating moral corruption is represented by Hamlet, brooding over his mother's ‘lechery’ and the murder of his father (The Castaway,) p. 29).

In both these poems Walcott intensifies his vision of the failure of love and idealism by locating that failure, as did Shakespeare, in the family—in Othello's marriage and in the corrupted family ties of Hamlet's world. However, the failures symbolized here by the family are extended more explicitly to society as a whole in other poems. ‘The Gulf’ envisions the Gulf of Mexico as a symbol of human division (The Gulf, p. 27-30). The lift-off of a jet airliner over the Gulf enacts an emotional and moral separation, or detachment, that is essentially destructive: ‘the divine soul detaches / itself from created things’; and human separateness is a foreboding of some punitive withdrawal by a Divine force. In the process, this kind of separation has transformed the United States from the symbol of New World beginnings into a three-fold paradigm—of individual alienation (‘we leave [Dallas'] Love / Field’), of the violence of presidential assassination, and of the betrayal of old ideals (‘the divine union / of these detached, divided States, whose slaughter darkens each summer now’). The prospects for the future are not re-assuring: ‘The Gulf, your gulf, is daily widening.’ The prophetic warning to the ‘divided’ States is grimly ambiguous: since the United States is, after all, a symbol of the human condition, the word ‘states’ extends the American experience to all nations and to all states of being; and finally, ‘your gulf’ not only addresses the American with a wry reminder of...

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Valerie Trueblood (essay date May-June 1978)

SOURCE: Trueblood, Valerie. “Valerie Trueblood on Derek Walcott.” American Poetry Review 7, no. 3 (May-June 1978): 7-10.

[In the following essay, Trueblood discusses poems from multiple volumes of Walcott's poetry, including In a Green Night, The Castaway and Other Poems, The Gulf, Another Life, and Sea Grapes.]

The West Indian poet Derek Walcott published his first book of poetry in 1949, when he was still in his teens. His second, In a Green Night, came out in 1962, and since that time he has given us five more (as well as numerous plays) and a world. “World” has lost its punch from being applied to the districts of too many writers; I wish it...

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Andrew Salkey (essay date winter 1982)

SOURCE: Salkey, Andrew. “Inconsolable Songs of Our America: The Poetry of Derek Walcott.” World Literature Today: A Literary Quarterly of the University of Oklahoma 56, no. 1 (winter 1982): 51-53.

[In the following essay, Salkey discusses recurring themes of light, harmony, and completeness in Walcott's poetry.]

Rather like the generalized implication that there is a whole unified scene going for all of us in the New World, in the geographical, historical and political concept of José Martí's nuestra américa, anything anyone says about the poetry of Derek Walcott can be argued as true. His is a new voice redolent with traceries of the elitist elegance of...

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Robert Bensen (essay date spring 1986)

SOURCE: Bensen, Robert. “The Painter as Poet: Derek Walcott's Midsummer.” Literary Review: An International Journal of Contemporary Writing 29, no. 3 (spring 1986): 259-68.

[In the following essay, Bensen examines the centrality of painting and imagery in Walcott's Midsummer.]

An island of obsessive beauty, a people impoverished but rich in their cultural heritage from Africa and Europe, and a lifetime to celebrate them in art: these gifts had been given the young Derek Walcott, who swore with his friend Dunstan St. Omer not to leave St. Lucia before they had put the island on canvas and in words—every ravine, inlet, mangrove swamp and hill...

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David Mason (essay date spring 1986)

SOURCE: Mason, David. “Derek Walcott: Poet of the New World.” I Literary Review: An International Journal of Contemporary Writing 29, no. 3 (spring 1986): 269-75.

[In the following essay, Mason explores the geographic expansion of Walcott's “literary territory” from the Caribbean roots of his earliest writings to North American and Mediterranean settings.]

Although Helen Vendler has called Derek Walcott a “Poet of Two Worlds,”1 it may be more accurate to call him a poet of the New World, a world which has absorbed the old and is still faced with its own lack of definition. His formal proclivities help him bridge old and new writing styles, and,...

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Derek Walcott and Rebekah Presson (interview date 1992)

SOURCE: Walcott, Derek, and Rebekah Presson. “The Man Who Keeps the English Language Alive: An Interview with Derek Walcott.” New Letters 59, no. 1 (1992): 8-15.

[The following interview focuses on Walcott's epic poem, Omeros.]

[Presson]: The last time we talked you made much of what Omeros is not, and so what would you say it is?

[Walcott]: It's long. I don't know. In the reviews that have been coming out, they've been using the word “epic” a lot. I just reread it again, and I suppose in terms of the scale of it—as an undertaking—it's large and does cover a lot of geographic elements, historical ground. I think that's...

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Edward Hirsch (essay date autumn 1997)

SOURCE: Hirsch, Edward. “Poetry: Derek Walcott.” Wilson Quarterly 21 (autumn 1997): 109-11.

[In the following essay, Hirsch offers a positive assessment of Walcott's career as a poet and playwright.]

There is a force of exultation, a celebration of luck, when a writer finds himself a witness to the early morning of a culture that is defining itself, branch by branch, leaf by leaf, in that self-defining dawn,” Derek Walcott said in his Nobel Prize lecture for 1992. That force of exultation and celebration of luck, along with a sense of benediction and obligation, a continuous effort of memory and excavation, and a “frightening duty” to “a fresh language and...

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Robert D. Hamner (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Hamner, Robert D. “Philoctete's Wound.” In Epic of the Dispossessed: Derek Walcott's Omeros, pp. 33-58. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Hamner offers a critical analysis of Walcott's epic poem Omeros, focusing particular attention on the role of the character Philoctetes.]

Despite the explicit parallels and allusions linking Omeros with its numerous epic predecessors, Walcott insists on more than one occasion that he deliberately resists writing a traditional “heroic poem.” This position may be traced at least as far back as “What the Twilight Says,” his introduction to Dream on Monkey Mountain...

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James Wieland (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Wieland, James. “Adam's Task … : Myths and Fictions in the Poetry of Derek Walcott.” In The Ensphering Mind: History, Myth, and Fictions in the Poetry of Allen Curnow, Nissim Ezekiel, A. D. Hope, A. M. Klein, Christopher Okigbo, and Derek Walcott, pp. 165-88. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents, 1998.

[In the following essay, Wieland explores recurring allusions to mythological and fictional themes and characters in Walcott's body of work.]

On the dust jacket of Another Life, George Lamming is quoted as having said:

This is not the first time that Walcott has given a hint that his first passion is art as the...

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John Thieme (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Thieme, John. “The Poet as Castaway.” In Derek Walcott, pp. 77-100. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Thieme analyzes the recurring motif of the Robinson Crusoe archetype in Walcott's poetry.]

While Walcott's plays from Ti-Jean and His Brothers onwards demonstrate an increasing engagement with folk forms and community values, his poetry of the 1960s and early 1970s remains very much that of an individual, isolated observer. Such a figure is the central protagonist in his next collection, The Castaway (1965), where three poems, ‘The Castaway’, ‘Crusoe's Journal’ and ‘Crusoe's Island’, are...

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Charles Lock (essay date spring 2000)

SOURCE: Lock, Charles. “Derek Walcott's Omeros: Echoes from a White-throated Vase.” Massachusetts Review 41, no. 1 (spring 2000): 9-31.

[In the following essay, Lock presents an analysis of the depiction of women in the language and structure of Walcott's Omeros.]

In reading Omeros we are struck, as we are in the Iliad, by the silence of Helen. What is this silence, and how in a poem is silence to be figured? To depict the woman, without representing her voice, is for the poet to exercise his (specifically his) descriptive powers, and to render the woman an object, whose silence is matched by its/her passivity. What remains is of course...

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Derek Walcott and William R. Ferris (interview date November-December 2001)

SOURCE: Walcott, Derek, and William R. Ferris. “A Multiplicity of Voices: A Conversation with Derek Walcott.” Humanities 22, no. 6 (November-December 2001): 4-7, 50-53.

[The following interview focuses on influences on Walcott's literary career including Caribbean history, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, and the language of Shakespeare.]

[Ferris]: I want to begin by quoting Joseph Brodsky's remark that “The West Indies were discovered by Columbus, colonized by the British, and immortalized by Walcott.”

You were born and raised in the West Indies and spend a good bit of each year in St. Lucia. What do you feel are the...

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William A. Shullenberger (essay date November-December 2001)

SOURCE: Shullenberger, William A. “An Iliad for Our Time: Walcott's Caribbean Epic.” Humanities 22, no. 6 (November-December 2001): 47-49.

[In the following essay, Shullenberger compares Walcott's epic poem Omeros to Homer's Iliad.]

Although we tend to assign the epic to the literary past as a bygone genre, Derek Walcott's Omeros, published in 1990, asserts the ongoing power of the epic to claim our attention and shape our understanding. The epic is a monumental literary form—an index to the depth and richness of a culture and the ultimate test of a writer's creative power. Homer's Iliad stands at the beginning of the epic tradition in...

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Jahan Ramazani (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Ramazani, Jahan. “The Wound of Postcolonial History: Derek Walcott's Omeros.” In The Hybrid Muse: Postcolonial Poetry in English, pp. 49-71. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Ramazani traces the theme of postcolonial Afro-Caribbean cultural identity in Walcott's Omeros.]

From an early age Derek Walcott felt a special “intimacy with the Irish poets” as “colonials with the same kind of problems that existed in the Caribbean. They were the niggers of Britain.”1 Passionately identifying with Yeats, Joyce, Synge, and other Irish writers, Walcott shared especially in their conflicted response to the...

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Isidore Okpewho (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Okpewho, Isidore. “Walcott, Homer, and the ‘Black Atlantic.’” Research in African Literatures 33, no. 1 (2002): 27-44.

[In the following essay, Okpewho examines Walcott's themes of journey, voyage, and cultural identity within the context of African Caribbean literary discourse.]

I

In exploring Derek Walcott's abiding recourse to Homer in his creative writing, I have chosen to invoke the discursive paradigm recently advertised by Paul Gilroy in his book because whatever problems we may agree it creates in its analysis of the condition of blacks in Western society, the book has at any rate invited us to rethink familiar...

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