Derek (Alton) Walcott 1930–
West Indian poet, dramatist, and critic.
Walcott's writing career began at age eighteen, with the publication of Twenty-five Poems. Since then, in addition to being considered a major modern poet, he has become a respected playwright and is regarded as a voice of West Indian culture and thought. His poems and plays have won many awards, among them an Obie in 1971 for his play Dream on Monkey Mountain.
His recurrent themes include the search for identity—both that of the West Indies and his own within it, isolation and estrangement, particularly of the artist, and the divisive elements in the social and personal self. These ideas accommodate Walcott's poetic vision in his four principal collections, In a Green Night, The Castaway, Another Life, and The Gulf, the last of which deals with the literal and figurative divisions of history, race, class, and language. One of the primary characterizations Walcott uses is that of the islander as Robinson Crusoe, as the New World Adam, as the Castaway, to whom is left a despoiled Eden in the aftermath of colonialism, from which he must create a new West Indian World.
Walcott's loyalty to both his English and his African backgrounds provides the major tension of his work. His written language is split between literary English in the poems and island patois in the plays, though in later efforts the two styles have tended to merge into one that uses more natural speech and rhythm patterns, and a more direct, open mode of expression. Classical influences, while still in evidence, are used more sparingly.
Walcott has been criticized for his interpretation of island experiences through European literary traditions and for his avoidance of definitive statements about his racial and political loyalties. Walcott, however, believes that his mixed heritage has enabled him to put personal experiences into universal contexts. Because of this, he is both at home and displaced wherever he goes, a condition which he elaborates upon in his recent The Fortunate Traveller.
(See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, 9, 14; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 89-92; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1981.)
If the most beautiful thing in the world is inherited wealth, Derek Walcott's poetry is rich. He has none of the self-made man's frugality. He is a natural with all the confidence of a capitalist: that words will never run short, that there will always be fresh pleasures, new colours. He is extravagant and his poems are beautifully illuminated. They make the mouth water…. We drink its vocables and become lightheaded, but we wake up without a hangover. His poems have an indestructible flavour like that of a summer holiday abroad: bright, congested, nostalgic. They send us far from the complexities of cities, but they return us safe and sound.
[In a Green Night] is Derek Walcott's first collection of poetry and the book is well packed and comprehensive, containing poems written between 1948 and 1960…. I would rather have had a slightly more restricted choice. (pp. 77-8)
Most of the book is on a high level and some like Allegre … display an agreeable pessimism and are really tempting and evocative. He is continually searching for the true feeling of beauty, what it feels like to see, as well as how it looks, and this is why the self comes into these poems at unexpected moments. It is not always successful:… Simply Passing Through, tucked away at the back of the book, deserves no praise. One feels a pointlessness as of a documentary film about a foreign country. The weak associations show...
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The title poem of [Derek Walcott's] second major collection, The Castaway …, portrays a lone man on a sand-bank looking out to sea for rescue. He is lost. The implications are pessimistic. Yet Walcott's progression has been towards greater self-discovery and achievement. It is this paradox that lies behind the work of the finest Caribbean poet writing in English today.
From his earliest published work Walcott turned a critical eye on the predicament of the West Indian. We may find that his attitudes were a little pretentious, but this is not simply because Walcott was a young man when he wrote them. The critical intelligence he turned on his world he turned also on himself. In the first poem of In a Green Night, 'Prelude', he placed himself in a relationship to his poetry that is in part self-mocking…. This is the stance expected of the young West Indian intellectual. It also has a more serious purpose. Such attitudes are a protective mask, necessary until experience forms deeper reactions to life…. The styles that embody his attitudes are also 'useful'. They are ways by which he may discover his personal voice. Every young poet has to use experiments in style as stalking horses to track down his true poetic medium, but it is particularly important for a West Indian passionately concerned with the craft of words in areas where there is no native poetic tradition. Walcott tries on mask after mask…. But the very consistency and thoroughness of Walcott's early experiment should warn the critic that here is not simply an imitative poet. And as Walcott's experiments continued, gradually but surely, we see his masks shimmering, dissolving, and a face, Walcott's poetic features, appearing through. (pp. 86-8)
Walcott has been accused of turning to the European culture and experience in order to interpret the West Indian and so betraying his own civilization. There are critics who would like to see him pursue his experiments with dialect, or the direct, uncomplicated speech we find, for instance, in 'A Letter from Brooklyn'…. But the West Indies have no definitive and exclusive culture. Its peoples have come to the West Indies as travellers, forced or of their own will from Africa, Asia and Europe. Any claim that there is one West Indian voice, at least as yet, does not bear examination. Secondly, for better or for worse, although the great majority of West Indians have an African background, the peculiar circumstances of Caribbean history, its slavery and its emancipation, its educational and governmental systems, have all been within the European system. Further, the concept that 'European' culture has a nationalist identity in opposition to that of the Caribbean has the dangerous elements of racial mythology. The 'literature of England' reaches backwards and outwards to the cultures of Greece, Rome and medieval France. It touches the thought and civilizations of Europe, the new world, even Asia and Africa. Its preoccupation is with man as a human being, and for this reason a culture that becomes isolationist and inward looking can paradoxically cut itself off from the means of knowing itself. It is not simply chance that the greatest nationalist writers in French and Spanish as well as English, in modern Africa as well as the West Indies, have been those who have been able most fully to come to their own predicaments through mastery of the European literary experience. Walcott is in this tradition and from the reader he demands the same sympathies, at least in his earlier poems. He expects his reader to recognize and expand allusions to the metaphysicals, Shakespeare,...
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Derek Walcott has always had, even in his rawest apprenticeship, a head for metaphor. From the merest pastiche, the occasional and wholly original metaphor would burst to signal a talent that would endure. This gift has been one of the chief constants in his development and in his adventures among various styles…. That gift has itself undergone some development. (pp. 47-8)
A few preliminary observations about Walcott are necessary to help establish a context for the discussion of metaphor in his poetry. The first may seem, initially at least, rather trivial. In his first major collection, In a Green Night …, there are only two poems in which he does not follow the old convention of beginning each line with a capital. In The Castaway … only seventeen of the thirty-three poems follow that convention, while in the latest book, The Gulf,… all the poems are in the new convention. These statistics indicate more than a readiness to be in line with typographical fashion. They indicate Walcott's general hankering after a kind of poetic plainness, after a simple, direct, "natural" style. His development in this pursuit of plainness can be seen in a comparison of In a Green Night with The Castaway and The Gulf….
[The] overall impression left by [In a Green Night] is not so much one of "crisp," "clear," "cold" verse, as of an exuberance of language, a delight in the rich music of words, in the grand and sonorous verbal gesture. (p. 48)
[Some] of his strongest early influences came from poets who excelled at sonorous vocables and the histrionic line, at intricate playing with the more obviously musical qualities of words—poets like Dylan Thomas, Hart Crane, the early Stevens, the early Lowell; and there is some of the grandeur of seventeenth-century poetry. I think of poems like "A City's Death by Fire," "Steersman, my Brother," "Castiliane," "En Mi-Careme."… Of course, it isn't just the sound of the words or the rhythm which carries the echoes, but also the imagery and the whole way of using language. This Walcott [is] tipsy on the sweet and heady wine of words…. (pp. 49-50)
Walcott has not abandoned the ringing line, and it would be a pity if he did, but he has come to use it with less prodigality and a greater functional discretion. He has been moving towards sparer yet, in a way, subtler rhythms, more angular perhaps, nearer to normal speech and prose rhythms, and to this extent we may say that he has been developing a more natural, a homelier style. (p. 50)
The verse forms of his later poetry are, on the whole, freer, more open, contributing to the overall effect of comparative directness and plainness. The rhetorical flourish and the rich melody are used now more discreetly, with more specific functional point. The title poem of The Gulf is a model of a firmly controlled blend of eloquence and rhythmic emphasis on the one hand and the plain-sounding and low-keyed on the other…. The three-line stanza pattern, giving a sense of order, seems to want to remember terza rima, but there is no attempt at any regular rhyme-scheme and there is great freedom of movement within the three-line structure…. (p. 51)
What I am talking about is not simply a question of "style." The stylistic obsession is a function of Walcott's relentless tracking of the elusive and...
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Mr. Walcott is a powerful writer, but many of his poems are trapped in the politics of feeling, knowing the representative fate they must sustain. It is enough for any poet that he is responsible for his own feeling; he answers to his scruple, his conscience, hard master. But Mr. Walcott's poems try to serve a second master, the predicament of his people. They tie themselves in historical chains, and then try to break loose. It is my impression that the poems [in The Gulf] are trying now to escape from the politics of feeling by an increasingly personal understanding, taste, truth. Fighting against rhetoric, he resorts to rhetoric, both Caribbean, inescapable. Besides, he has a weakness for grandeur, and he...
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Walcott's treatment of the theme of death and the inscrutable ultimate power that governs the universe, and his moral statements on the tussle between the God-head and the Devil in us are various extensions of a central concern with the precariousness of the human condition. The dominant theme in The Sea at Dauphin is the perennial struggle between life and death. The theme recurs in a less obvious form in Ti-Jean and His Brothers, Malcauchon and Dream on Monkey Mountain. In each case Death is presented as a perennial source of anxiety an intractable Force which man is constantly trying to reconcile himself with. (p. 70)
The most intriguing question which Walcott has continued to...
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The examination of the drama of his own life against that of his community and region has been one of Walcott's main themes. His individual experience has become part, if not necessarily typical, of what it means to be West Indian. (pp. 119-20)
[Epitaph for the Young: XII Cantos, an early volume published in Barbados,] is in an experimental modern style. The epiclike twelve divisions of Epitaph, the parallels and contrasts of a West Indian life with the classical past, are indebted to James Joyce's Ulysses. There are echoes of T. S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas. The emphasis on late adolescence and early manhood, in which maturation is seen as a condition of feverish dying, had been...
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[The] study of Walcott's career as a dramatist must begin with the play he regards as his first, Henri Christophe—and it is written in verse. (p. 52)
The plot unfolds in Haiti and concerns black characters for the most part but there is little besides to mark the play as West Indian. A quotation from Hamlet and one from Richard III, heading respectively each of the two parts of the play, are in keeping with the language Walcott puts into the mouths of illiterate ex-slaves…. The major problem is with the Jacobean polish on words and images that seems inconsistent with the rough-hewn dignity of the characters being portrayed. When Christophe utters fine poetic lines about his...
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[Derek Walcott's] voice was for a long time a derivative one. His subject was not derivative: it was the black colonial predicament…. But there was an often unhappy disjunction between his explosive subject, as yet relatively new in English poetry, and his harmonious pentameters, his lyrical allusions, his stately rhymes, his Yeatsian meditations. I first met his work in an anthology that had reprinted his "Ruins of a Great House."… It was clear that Walcott had been reading Yeats…. Walcott's piece did not seem to me then, and does not seem now, a poem, but rather an essay in pentameters. The emotional attitudes of Walcott's early verse were authentic, but shallowly and melodramatically phrased…....
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[The Fortunate Traveller] shows that a poet can deal in an illuminating way with … [the] problems of personal identity, aesthetic choice, and political commitment. (p. 12)
[Walcott's] travelling is not altogether fortunate. Imagine Robert Frost spending half of his time in Kuwait, teaching oil-rich Arabs. Or William Butler Yeats wintering in Mexico, giving workshops at an artists' colony. But Walcott's life as a commuter poet does at least dramatize the other ways in which he is a go-between, shuttling from one culture to another. He is a black man who writes for a largely white audience. He is "an islander and a colonial" who both resents and admires the language he must work in. He is in...
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In "Cantina Music," [from The Fortunate Traveller] Derek Walcott warns that poor people—like poor nations—may turn to violence and that lack of opportunity is responsible….
Unfortunately for his message, Walcott's "Traveller" is not new art but a good example of tiresome "respected" poetry. Not that I disagree with what he says; but poetically, his voyage relies entirely on previous charts. There's no personal experiment or development of equipment; no new hazards—and often little precision….
Walcott lags behind the artistic antennae of new work; nevertheless, he seems anxious to burst convention in a few poems, to sing what he knows. "The Hotel Normandie Pool" and...
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Derek Walcott has been alternating for some years between his native West Indies and America. Meanwhile he has produced a steady flow of fine discursive poems—Sea-Grapes and The Star-Apple Kingdom—set in the Caribbean and full of a growing sense of Walcott's search for a new identity. In [The Fortunate Traveller] he seems to have found it…. But, as the title suggests, his new-found freedom is double-edged. He can look back and 'think of Europe as a gutter of autumn leaves / choked like the thoughts in an old woman's throat' but he also feels 'like lice, like lice, the hungry of this earth / swarm to the tree of life.' His increasing identification with 'suffering humanity' reminds me of some...
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The Fortunate Traveller is an impressive collection that moves lucidly and at times brilliantly between abstract notions of power and responsibility and visual notations of landscape, cityscape and sea. But it is only the title poem that comprehensively escapes Walcott's rational grip: elsewhere one is too aware of him press-ganging images into the service of an idea. This is especially true of his poems about the United States, which have too many smartly appropriate similes…. The poems that explore the guilt and regret of being away—'North and South', 'The Fortunate Traveller', 'The Hotel Normandie Pool'—are the ones in which he seems to me most fully at home.
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[Derek Walcott] dedicates many of the poems in The Fortunate Traveller to, presumably, friends—from Joseph Brodsky to Susan Sontag—but his dedications have an unmistakable air of name-dropping, of bandying cultural credentials. The cultures Walcott evokes on his travels … are many and varied—geographically and historically—and the range of ostensible literary connections or devotions is great. Yet it is clear from the first poem, "Old New England", whose voice it is that exercises the most powerful spell over Walcott…. The spire, the whale, hellfire—the progression and the terms are Robert Lowell's; the hectic tone, the densely-packed phrases and lunging alliterative lines, all early Lowell as...
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