Walcott, Derek (Alton)
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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CAMERON KING and LOUIS JAMES
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...
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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...
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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 rushes into temptation by writing of exile, ancestral loss, historical plangencies, the gulf between man and man.
He is in a middle state, history at one extreme, sensibility at the other; history, meaning loss and bondage,… and sensibility, meaning a sense of responsibility to feeling, its validity and measure….
In principle, Mr. Walcott wants a direct style. "All styles yearn to be plain as life," he says, but he will not let his own style yearn for that quality…. [Many] of Mr. Walcott's poems howl, their sensibility overwhelmed. Sometimes the abuse is his own fault, one violence answering another, and we have the feeling that Mr. Walcott is impatient to assume the world, he will not wait for the...
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Samuel Omo Asein
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 address himself to and which provides an immediate thematic link between his poetry and his plays is the theme of racial and individual identity. The best and most representative treatment of that subject is contained in Walcott's most accomplished dramatic work to date, Dream on Monkey Mountain. (pp. 73-4)
What Walcott tries to do in his writings, is to affirm a positive cultural identity for the West Indies; and his works to date might be said to add up to just such a cultural affirmation. The fact that many of Walcott's characters fail in their various quests goes to emphasize the precariousness of man's existence in an unsympathetic universe. But grim as the picture may appear, Walcott does not allow room for...
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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 made popular by Thomas. While immature in both theme and craft, Epitaph is an attempt to move beyond the fragments of lyric poetry to a larger structure shaped around the inner life of the author. The speaker's voyage through life is that of a modern Ulysses, a West Indian who, no matter how much he makes use of European myth, is conscious of problems of ethnic identity and colour…. Alongside the concern with problems of young love in a multiracial society, and the attempt to master the idiom of European elite culture, an ironic awareness of falsity emerges…. The burden of Walcott's poetry will be to explore his dual inheritance, especially in the various forms it is found within the New World. (p. 120)
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Robert D. Hamner
[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 grief the sentiment rings hollow more for the archaic language than for the fact that Christophe himself plotted Toussaint's destruction. Even allowing for poetic license, there is nothing in this play to show of the bodily sweat that Christophe celebrates shortly before his death…. (p. 53)
Noticeably lacking in Walcott's first play are modulation of feeling and differentiation of character. In his second drama he avoids these weaknesses and also the problem of the discrepancy between character and style of presentation. Harry Dernier, a tour de force for radio production, though markedly literary and metaphysical in tone, achieves greater unity by the expedient of having only one player and having him placed in an...
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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….
It is always dangerous for a young poet's future when he begins, as Walcott did, with a subject. Language may become, then, nothing but the ornament to his message, the rhetoric for his sermon. Walcott did not escape this ornamental view of language (and his uncertainty as to his own genre caused him to spend twenty years writing for the theater, forming a theater company, and directing plays, the most direct and urgent form of literary communication).
But there were other aspects, not anthologized, to Walcott's early verse. One was the presence of island patois—unsteady, not well managed, but boldly there, confronting the Yeatsian poise…. Somewhat later, a shrewd social observation made itself felt in Walcott's...
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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 no official or acknowledged way the heir of Keats, Browning, Hopkins, or Yeats; his native culture is after all the victim, not the inheritor, of an expansionist and exploitative European empire. Yet there he stands on his seagirt island, immensely talented, enamored of the English language, intimate with the European literary tradition going back to the Greeks. What else can he do but work within that tradition and become, well, "one of us"?
Walcott has written many poems about this difficult process of assimilation, exploring most deeply, often at great cost to himself, the labyrinthine implications of race. As a consequence, his quest for self-definition has been remarkably, and profitably, explicit. His race, language,...
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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 especially "early Pompeiian," about his wife's miscarriage, are touching examples in which he dares to be precise, to trust in and respect the real things words designate. These pieces, and in spots the title poem, evince strong narrative, respect for content and wariness of poetic rhetoric. They confirm Walcott's worth, that we are fortunate voyagers—when we read him at his best.
Kenneth Funsten, "In Verse: 'The Fortunate Traveller'" in Los Angeles Times Book Review (reprinted by permission of the author), April 4, 1982, p. 13.
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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 of James K. Baxter's later poetry, in feeling and conviction as well as in a certain Lowellish rhetoric. Walcott's poetry, always rich and full of feeling for the natural world, has opened out since he moved north. He breathes deeper and there's a greater sense of space and tranquillity in both speech and phrasing. I think he's essentially a poet of place, whether that place be London, the West Indies, Wales, or 'Belle Epoque Manhattan.'… Most poets of place are strongly earthed in one locality. Walcott's at home anywhere and everywhere. As a 'fortunate traveller' he sees the universal in the particular…. His imagery is as brilliant as ever. But it's always the islands of the Caribbean that call him home. (pp. 73-4)...
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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.
Walcott's are sophisticated poems versed in the Anglo-American tradition, dedicated to the likes of Mark Strand, Anthony Hecht and Susan Sontag, and aimed primarily at a circle of readers in London and New York. (p. 16)
Blake Morrison, "Beach Poets" (appears here by permission of the London Review of Books and the author), in London Review of Books, September 16 to October 6, 1982, pp. 16-18.∗
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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 well. The whole is a consummate piece of ventriloquism—except that Lowell would not have sunk to the simplistic equation … that Walcott makes here.
When Walcott moves beyond this slavish imitation of the master, his outsider's eye on New York (and, beyond that, on northern Europe) produces some arresting similes … but his commitment to a hectoring note of naive antipathy persists, along with his commitment to the rhetoric of excess…. (p. 62)
Alan Jenkins, "Private and Public Languages: New Poetry," in Encounter (© 1982 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. LIX, No. 5, November, 1982, pp. 56-63.∗
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