Walcott, Derek (Poetry Criticism)
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.
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.
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.
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.
25 Poems 1948
Epitaph for the Young: XII Cantos 1949
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
Collected Poems, 1948-1984 1986
The Arkansas Testament 1987
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
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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...
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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 could be reclaimed for Walcott's poetry, which keeps an axis and has size, and sometimes has a grand, planetary movement carrying the movement on its surface. When I read The Gulf I thought of the three-year-old next door who called the white end-papers of his book “sky”. This very largeness, of subject and of feeling, has seemed a flaw to some critics, and it is true that Walcott's poems run the risk of the impersonal and the rhetorical. It seems to me they defeat these enemies and in doing so many of them move up and away from the common run of poems and close to the best ones.
Of course, affinity with the best can be seen as a flaw, when much poetry is code, or tender hallooing to the self. Walcott is a...
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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 the Old World. His poetry, or at least much of it, is also a radical truth-saying in “other words,” in our time, an old report brought forward with sensitive alterations from “another country” to nuestra américa. And further, it is the Anglophone Caribbean bringing the salt of her history and received language to bear on the comparatively recent seasoning of our hemisphere's newness.
But more than anything else, it is Walcott's territorial and ontological promise in “Islands,” from In a Green Night, that makes me know where I am in relation to and what I am to expect from his contribution to nuestra américa.
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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 track.1
Walcott had been drawn to art early by being “more deeply moved by the sight of works of art than by that of the things which they portray,” as Malraux wrote of Giotto. Walcott used Malraux's anecdote as an epigraph in Another Life, in which he wrote of his discovering art as if he were Saul, blinded with revelation of the true religion (AL, p. 1). His will alone could “transfigure” the mountain shacks of the poor into a “cinquecento fragment in gilt frame” (AL, p. 4). He felt the power of art to recreate the world, to transcend the poverty of those shacks, to redeem his dispossessed people and their history. The task was as immense as that of Adam standing before his unnamed world, though...
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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, increasingly, his work is shaped by a history of self-exile and divorce, a continuous breaking down of the structures in which complacency breeds. He is one of a handful of modern poets who root themselves in tradition, yet become reliable witnesses to modern life.
In the marketplace of Castries, the capital of St. Lucia, where Derek Walcott was born, the audible mixtures of English and patois remind one of the voices in Walcott's poems: the English and French with their Anglo-Saxon and Latin heritage, the vestiges of African dialects that survive in a few inflections or turns of phrase. Walcott has mastered the speech of former rulers and former slaves, which gives him a special right to speak of “The leprosy of...
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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 the word. I think the reason why I hesitate about calling it that is I think any work in which the narrator is almost central is not really an epic. It's not like a heroic epic. I guess that's what I think of it, that since I am in the book, I certainly don't see myself as a hero of an epic, when an epic generally has a hero of action and decision and destiny.
The hero, I guess, is the whole village.
There are different characters in the book who have elements of the heroic in them. I think even a character like the retired English sergeant major is a heroic figure, even if he's slightly ridiculous.
Is that because he's at least making an effort to record what's...
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SOURCE: Walcott, Derek, and Rose Styron. “Derek Walcott: An Interview by Rose Styron.” American Poetry Review 26 (May-June 1997): 41-46.
[In the following interview, conducted in January 1995 with poet and journalist Rose Styron, Walcott discusses the influences of multiculturalism on the creation and appreciation of literature.]
[Styron]: So let's start at the beginning: tell me a bit about your early childhood on St. Lucia—your first memories, or your parents in this multi-racial, multi-cultural group of islands—where you went to school, and how you started writing poetry.
[Walcott]: I was born here, not far from where I am now, near the sea, up at Becune Point. I was born in the very small town of Castries, which is the capital of St. Lucia. My mother was a school teacher and a widow. I have a twin brother and a sister.
I think my mother's encouragement obviously, and because of the fact that my father was a painter and an amateur writer and evidently a director of theatricals as well—was very encouraging in terms of our writing. So I owe her that. I mean she was not one who discouraged it, in a place like this where it, you know, conceptually it seemed to be crazy to want to be a writer, and particularly a poet, and for her that was perfectly okay, and she is the one who physically, practically, helped me, by giving me some money to have my...
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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 a fresh people,” have defined Walcott's work for the past 50 years. He has always been a poet of great verbal resources and skills engaged in a complex struggle to render his native Caribbean culture: the New World—not Eden but a successor to Eden, a polyglot place, an archipelago determined to survive—a world he calls “a ferment without a history, like heaven … a writer's heaven.”
Derek Walcott is the greatest poet and playwright writing in English that the West Indies has produced. His Collected Poems (1986) is itself a massive achievement, bringing together work from 10 previous books written between 1948 and 1984. It moves from his first privately printed pamphlet, 25 Poems, to his Lowellian...
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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 and Other Plays, wherein he asserts, “The last thing which the poor needed was the idealization of their poverty.” Walcott is too traditional to undertake an anti-epic, yet his authorial intrusions and variations on conventional epic devices in Omeros interrogate conventional expectations. Anticipating publication early in 1990, Walcott informs interviewer J. P. White that regardless of his “Homeric line and Dantesque design,” Omeros captures not the epic machinery of gods and endless battles but the “names of things and people in their own context. … Its the origin of the real Caribbean nouns that I'm after.” Far from rewriting the Odyssey or the Aeneid, he confesses to White that he has read...
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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 indispensable language for interpreting reality. He is a colonial who has spent a life trying to dismantle and re-define the cultural apparatus of his imperialist tutelage.
This redefining of which Lamming speaks draws attention to Walcott's relationship with his world and to his concern to make a comprehensive and creative word-picture of the Caribbean. The history he seeks is not that which may be celebrated in monuments or honored through ruins; indeed, he faces a history of loss in which monuments are reminders of subjugation and ruins evoke memories of decay. If history is to be celebrated, Walcott says, it is to be viewed “as fiction or as religion, then our use of it will be idiosyncratic, personal,...
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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 focused on the character that gives the volume its title, while others are filtered through a persona who is also cast away in the sense that he seems to see life as an onlooker. Whether in the Caribbean:
In our treacherous seasonless climate's dry heat or muggy heat or rain I'm measuring winter by this November sun's diagonals shafting the window pane …
or in North America:
Through the wide, grey loft window, I watched that winter morning, my first snow crusting the sill, puzzle the black, nuzzling tom.
(‘A Village Life’, Castaway, 16)
this figure repeatedly appears as a man alone in a room, looking at...
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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 beautiful, but it is a beauty achieved at the expense of the person. The familiar narrative is announced in terms of her (or its) shadow, appearance rather than substance, object rather than subject:
The duel of these fishermen was over a shadow and its name was Helen.(1)
The entire poem is written in hexameters, and Helen's (or “its”) second utterance is made of a hexameter famously not her own:
“Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away,” she croons, her clear plastic sandals swung by one hand.(2)
The woman's voice is traditionally and, to us, offensively subordinated to her beauty, and it is a mere truism to say that, in...
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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 basic elements that make up the Caribbean culture?
[Walcott]: I think its multiracial character is a basic component, particularly in cases like Trinidad and the larger islands. All the races are represented here, not only the African, but the East Indian and the Chinese and the Mediterranean and the European. You can trace their influence in the music, as well as in the language.
Is there such a thing as a Caribbean voice? If so, what does it say?
I think the identity of the Caribbean voice is the multiplicity of voices here in the Caribbean. These languages are derived from dialects of the original languages—Spanish, French, English, Portuguese. They are all represented in...
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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 western culture, and Walcott's Omeros is that tradition's most recent expression.
The epic is the collective memory of a people, offering poetic memory as a way to transcend the afflictions and losses of history. Homer, for instance, marks the differences and continuities between Greeks and Trojans, and Walcott represents the lives of Caribbean people in the waning of the colonial period.
The grace, beauty, and imaginative strength of Omeros depends in good part on Walcott's insightful reading and rewriting of Homer. Walcott is an example of how a contemporary writer can make a place for himself in the literary tradition and harvest its power for his own creative authority. But literary...
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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 cultural inheritances of the British empire—its literature, religion, and language. At school, Walcott recalls, Joyce's Stephen Dedalus was his “hero”: “Like him, I was a knot of paradoxes,” among other things “learning to hate England as I worshipped her language.”2 His best known lyric, “A Far Cry from Africa” (1956), elaborates the poem of ambivalence toward imperial and anti-imperial bloodshed, building on Yeats's simultaneously anticolonial and anti-anti-colonial stance in works such as “Easter, 1916” and “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.”3 As Yeats used a series of counterbalanced questions to dramatize his inner divisions after the Easter Rising, Walcott forty years later responds to the Mau...
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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.]
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 assumptions about questions of self-apprehension created by centuries of stressful relations between peoples of African and European descent. In formulating his concept of a “black Atlantic,” Gilroy abjures all obsessive attachment to an African racial antecedence, embracing in the process a modernist consciousness that entails, as he puts it (following Habermas), “a rift between secular and sacred spheres of action” whereby contemporary artists feel “a sense of artistic practice as an autonomous domain either reluctantly or happily divorced from the everyday life-world” (50, 73). Gilroy especially celebrates the “rhizomorphic, fractal structure” (4) of this unique formation because in “[transcending] both the structures of...
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Breslin, Paul. “Tracking Tiepolo's Hound.” Poetry 178, no. 1 (April 2001): 38-40.
In a positive review of Tiepolo's Hound, Breslin calls the work “strikingly beautiful.”
Cribb, T. J. “Walcott, Poet and Painter.” Kenyon Review 23, no. 2 (spring 2001): 176-84.
Examines the interrelationship between Walcott's poetry and painting, as evident in Another Life, Omeros,and Tiepolo's Hound.
Davis, Gregson. The Poetics of Derek Walcott: Intertextual Perspectives. The South Atlantic Quarterly 96, no. 2 (spring 1997).
This collection of essays by North American and Caribbean literary scholars includes a previously unpublished essay by Derek Walcott, “Reflections on Omeros.”
Dentith, Simon. “Heaney and Walcott: Two Poems.” Critical Survey 11, no. 3 (1999): 92-9.
Offers a critical comparison of Seamus Heaney's “The Ministry of Fear,” and Derek Walcott's “Homecoming: Anse La Raye,” which first appeared in The Gulf and Other Poems in 1969.
Donoghue, Denis. “Themes from Derek Walcott.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 6, no. 1 (1977): 88-100.
Traces themes of exile and identity in a discussion of Walcott's works that includes particular focus...
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