Walcott, Derek (Vol. 160)
Derek Walcott 1930-
St. Lucian poet, playwright, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Walcott's career through 2000. See also Derek Walcott Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 2, 4, 9, 14.
A Nobel laureate and preeminent West Indian literary figure, Walcott is included among the leading contemporary English-language writers of poetry and drama. Born of mixed European and African heritage, he uses literature to explore themes of ethnicity, cultural chauvinism, and political inequality. Moreover, he examines these subjects in a manner that leads to psychological and moral insights pertinent not only to the clash of Western and Caribbean culture, but to the universal human condition. Having learned English as a second language, and acutely aware of its status as the language of colonial power, Walcott has assimilated the bulk of the Western literary canon—from Greek epics to modernism—skillfully employing its techniques and traditions in his works, while never losing sight of his Caribbean identity. Walcott's poetry, particularly in In a Green Night (1962), Another Life (1973), and Omeros (1989), is celebrated for its dazzling use of sophisticated poetic forms, heartfelt self-examination, and evocative descriptions of Caribbean life.
Walcott was born in Castries, the capital city of the small Caribbean island of St. Lucia, a former British colony in the Lesser Antilles. Walcott and his twin brother, Roderick, were raised by their mother, Alix, a schoolteacher; their father, a civil servant and amateur artist and writer, died a year after their birth. Walcott's mother imbued her sons with a love of literature and encouraged their involvement in a local theater group. Walcott displayed an early talent for poetry and had work published by the time he was fourteen. Four years later, he self-published his first book, 25 Poems (1948), and sold it on the streets of Castries. At twenty, he wrote and staged Henri Christophe (1950), a play based on the life of the Haitian leader, and cofounded with his brother the Santa Lucia Arts Guild. The guild gave Walcott a means of producing and directing his own plays, such as Robin and Andrea (1950), Three Assassins (1951), and The Price of Mercy (1951). In 1953 he earned a bachelor's degree in English, French, and Latin at the University College of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica, which he attended on a British government scholarship. Upon graduation, he married Fay Moyston, with whom he has a son. In 1954, Walcott staged The Sea at Dauphin, one of his most acclaimed early works, and began teaching in West Indian schools. Over the next four years, he wrote several plays, including The Charlatan (1954), The Wine of the Country (1956), and The Golden Lions (1956). Walcott temporarily suspended his teaching career in 1958 when he accepted a Rockefeller fellowship to study drama in New York City. Walcott's next two plays, Ti-Jean and His Brothers (1957) and Drums and Colours (1958), focus episodes from Caribbean myth and history. In 1959 Walcott divorced Fay and moved to Trinidad, where he started the Little Carib Theatre Workshop; later the Trinidad Theatre Workshop. For several years, he trained amateur actors and wrote poetry, as well as features and criticism for several Trinidadian newspapers. After writing and staging Malcauchon (1959), Walcott shifted his focus to poetry. He published four volumes of poems in 1962, including In a Green Night, which attracted overwhelmingly positive reviews throughout the English-speaking world. During the same year, Walcott married Margaret Ruth Maillard, with whom he has two children; they later divorced. He subsequently entered into a third marriage to Norline Metivier in 1982, which also ended in divorce. In 1967, a year after being named a Fellow in the Royal Society of Literature, Walcott staged Dream on Monkey Island in the United States. Begun in the late 1950s, the play won an Obie award in 1971 and became Walcott's first acknowledged masterpiece. After the success of Another Life in 1973, Walcott accepted a commission from the Royal Shakespeare Academy to rewrite the 1634 classic El burlador de Sevilla by Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina; Walcott fulfilled this task with The Joker of Seville (1974). In 1976 Walcott ended his tenure at the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, citing both professional and personal reasons. He received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1977 and in 1979 was named an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In the early 1980s, Walcott worked as a visiting professor at several universities in the United States, including Columbia, Harvard, and Boston University, where he continued to teach through the 1990s. Walcott began to divide his time between residences in the Caribbean and the United States, a practice that influenced his poetry collection The Fortunate Traveller (1981), which received the Heinemann Award from the Royal Society of Literature in 1983. In 1992 Walcott received the Nobel Prize for literature, making him the first native Caribbean to win this honor.
The central theme of Walcott's oeuvre is the dichotomy between black and white races, subject and ruler, and Caribbean and Western civilization. Walcott's writing deals with the lasting scars—personal, cultural, and political—of British colonialism in his native land and the opposing African and European influences that characterize his West Indian heritage. Integrating the formal structure of English verse with the colorful dialect of St. Lucia, Walcott denounces colonial exploitation and suppression of Caribbean culture, while attempting to reconcile the disparate cultural legacies that inform his literature and Caribbean history in general. Walcott's first major collection of poetry, In a Green Light, contains several early poems, such as “A City's Death by Fire” and “Epitaph for the Young,” that reveal the considerable influence of Dylan Thomas and James Joyce, respectively. The volume also features Walcott's first mature poems, such as “Ruins of a Great House,” in which he examines the decline of colonialism, and “A Far Cry from Africa,” in which he explores his own mixed racial heritage. The Gulf and Other Poems (1969) is a stylistically diverse collection that is thematically unified by repeated examinations of separation and loss, featuring the autobiographical poem “Hic Jacet,” in which Walcott contrasts his fascination with European poetry with his Caribbean roots. Walcott's next major poem, the book-length work Another Life, is autobiographical. The poem's first three sections detail Walcott's youth, adolescence, and first love, while the last section portrays his painful effort to come to terms with not only his own past but the whole of Caribbean history.
The bulk of Walcott's poetic output is found in the five volumes he published between 1976 and 1987: Sea Grapes (1976), The Star-Apple Kingdom (1979), The Fortunate Traveller, Midsummer (1984), and The Arkansas Testament (1987). The first two collections contain lyrical poems largely centered on the Caribbean—though Sea Grapes also includes several poems set in other locales—particularly its history and culture. The title poem of Sea Grapes, in which fishermen are compared to Greek heroes, and “The Schooner Flight” from The Star-Apple Kingdom, in which Walcott blends island patois with formal poetic language, both show his ability to evoke the tenuous ties that bind Caribbean and European culture. Walcott divided The Fortunate Traveller between poems inspired by his experiences in the United States and in the Caribbean. Though the dichotomy of settings is clear, the poems in both sections are an eclectic mix of barbed social criticism and personal confession. Midsummer is a lyrical and introspective collection; in many of the fifty-four poems, Walcott uses his own life as a lens through which to view the intertwining of European and Caribbean culture. The Arkansas Testament again emphasizes the theme of contrasting, yet related, cultures by organizing the poetry into two sections—“Here” and “Elsewhere.” Omeros, like Another Life, is a single book-length poem. In this work—whose title is the Greek word for “Homer”—Walcott pays homage to the ancient poet in an epic poem that substitutes the Antilles for the Homeric Cyclades. Two of the main characters, the West Indian fishermen Achille and Philoctete, set out on a journey to the land of their ancestors on the West African coast. The characters are concerned not with the events of the Trojan War, but rather with an array of civilizations, from African antiquity to frontier America and present-day Boston and London. Structurally, the poem is presented in sixty-four chapters of Dantesque terza rima. Walcott returned to shorter verse in The Bounty (1997), which is distinguished for its title poem, a meditation on the passing of the author's mother. Tiepolo's Hound (2000) is another book-length poem, illustrated with the author's paintings, in which he examines the theme of exile while comparing his own life to that of Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro.
Like his poetry, Walcott's plays have been stylistically varied, but united by themes of cross-cultural interaction. For instance, in Dream on Monkey Island, Walcott uses highly stylized staging and characterization to evoke a dream world in which an escaped prisoner becomes the leader of an ill-fated religious movement. Many of Walcott's plays, often called folk-dramas, are firmly rooted in the common life and language of the West Indies and frequently incorporate Caribbean dialects and legends. They are also noteworthy for their advanced dramatic techniques, lyrical language, and the psychological depth of their characters. In The Joker of Seville, Walcott employs the refined wit and relaxed pacing of the seventeenth-century classic, El burlador de Sevilla, to examine the Dionysian aspects of social revolution. O Babylon! (1976) is primarily a musical—many of Walcott's plays include instrumental accompaniment—set in Jamaica in 1966, during the weeks surrounding Emperor Haile Selassie's visit to the island. In Remembrance (1977), Walcott focuses on a single character, Albert Jordan, a teacher in colonial Trinidad, and uses his story to examine the role of individual integrity and conviction in changing societies. In Pantomime (1978), which uses only two actors, Walcott offers a revision of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, presented through the eyes of a hotel manager and his assistant. Beef, No Chicken (1982) is a tragicomedy about a small town facing the encroachment of a six-lane highway. Walcott worked on a much broader canvas—both dramatically and thematically—in A Branch of the Blue Nile (1986). The play opens with a group of West Indian actors rehearsing a scene from William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, which Walcott uses as a framework on which to hang several interior monologues concerning the relationship between life and fiction, religion, and a host of other topics. Walcott took on an even larger project in his next play, The Odyssey (1993), a stage version of the classic Greek epic poem. Walcott's production stays meticulously true to the original poem, but with small comic and socially relevant touches, such as Greek servants who speak in Caribbean dialect. Walcott has also collaborated with singer-songwriter Paul Simon to produce the Broadway musical The Capeman (1997), a notorious critical and financial failure. In addition to his poetry and plays, Walcott has also published a significant volume of essays with What the Twilight Says: Essays (1998). This collection brings together a number of Walcott's definitive statements on his aesthetic principles and historical perspective, as presented in the essay, “The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory”—his 1992 Nobel lecture—and critical pieces on a variety of authors.
Walcott has been widely praised as a virtuoso poet and a deeply committed postcolonial artist whose explorations of racial, cultural, and historical consciousness in the contemporary Caribbean have been considered moving, erudite, and technically masterful. While Walcott's dramatic works have been highly regarded, his reputation rests more solidly on his poetry, which is generally considered to have reached a level of excellence that exceeds that of his plays. Among his volumes of poetry, In a Green Night, Another Country, and Omeros have been particularly acclaimed as his most important and successful works. However, Walcott's poetry and drama have not gone without marked criticism. One of the major complaints leveled against Walcott's poetry has been that his language is too refined. Critics have agreed that he is a highly accomplished wordsmith, but some have felt that Walcott's wordplay can obscure his intended meanings, making his verse appear to be a mere exercise in technique. Criticism of this type has appeared fairly consistently throughout Walcott's career, from his earliest major volume, In a Green Night, to Tiepolo's Hound. Similar claims of intellectual excess have harried Walcott's plays. Criticism of Walcott's dramatic works has focused not only on his use of language, but also on his practice of weighing his plays down with expository passages. While this technique has allowed him to explore socially relevant topics, a number of reviewers have argued that it comes at the expense of his plot and character development. Several of Walcott's plays—including Dream on Monkey Island, Remembrance, and O Babylon!—have been characterized by some critics as incoherent, tedious, and glib. There has also been a distinct political aspect to the criticism directed at Walcott's works. Walcott has been vocal about his role as a cross-cultural author who uses largely European forms to express Caribbean concerns. Due to this position, Walcott has drawn criticism from both sides of the sometimes contentious, often acrimonious, cultural divide—considered too Caribbean by some Eurocentric critics, and too European by some Afrocentric critics. Indeed, Walcott's deft use of complex rhyme and meter has been decried by some commentators as a coy affectation and by others as an act of “selling out.” While this type of criticism has abated as Walcott's reputation has grown, his continued insistence on the interdependence of the colonials and the colonized has remained a somewhat controversial position.
25 Poems (poetry) 1948
Epitaph for the Young: XII Cantos (poetry) 1949
Cry for a Leader (play) 1950
Henri Christophe: A Chronicle in Seven Scenes (play) 1950
Robin and Andrea (play) 1950
Senza Alcum Sospetto [also produced as Paolo and Francesca] (radio play) 1950
Poems (poetry) 1951
The Price of Mercy (play) 1951
Three Assassins (play) 1951
Harry Dernier: A Play for Radio Production (radio play) 1952
The Charlatan (play) 1954
Crossroads (play) 1954
The Sea at Dauphin: A Play in One Act (play) 1954
The Golden Lions (play) 1956
The Wine of the Country (play) 1956
Ione: A Play with Music (play) 1957
Ti-Jean and His Brothers (play) 1957
Drums and Colours: An Epic Drama (play) 1958
Malcauchon; or, The Six in the Rain (play) 1959
Jourmard; or, A Comedy till the Last Minute (play) 1959
In a Green Night: Poems, 1948–1960 (poetry) 1962
Selected Poems (poetry) 1964
Batai (play) 1965
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SOURCE: Lucas, John. “In Multitudinous Dialects.” New Statesman & Society 3, no. 86 (2 February 1990): 33–34.
[In the following review, Lucas offers a positive assessment of Walcott's Collected Poems, though expresses concerns about the quality of Walcott's later verse.]
In “A Letter from Brooklyn,” [from Collected Poems,] a poem written some time after he had left the island of his birth, St Lucia, Derek Walcott tells of an old woman who writes to him about his parents and of how “The strength of one frail hand in a dim room / Somewhere in Brooklyn, patient and assured, / Restores my sacred duty to the Word.” As these lines show, Walcott's word is spoken in accents learned from English masters, and from the beginning he learned his lessons well. In 1948 his home town was destroyed by fire. The 18-year-old poet recorded the event in a sonnet, “City's Death by Fire.” It ends:
In town, leaves were paper, but the hills were a flock of faiths; To a boy who walked all day, each leaf was a green breath Rebuilding a love I thought was dead as nails, Blessing the death and the baptism by fire.
When one recalls how poets at that time seemed to fall helplessly for the declamatory cadences and verbal tricks of Dylan Thomas, Walcott's ability to use Thomas feels truly astonishing.
Yet the poem raises a crucial question....
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SOURCE: Lucas, John. “The Sea, the Sea.” New Statesman & Society 3, no. 121 (5 October 1990): 36.
[In the following review, Lucas evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Walcott's Omeros.]
Omeros begins with Philoctete, an islander of St Lucia, being photographed by tourists who “try taking / his soul with their cameras.” Then he and his friends, Achille and Hector, turn to their work of cutting down trees to make canoes so that the latter two can pursue their trade as fishermen. Some 320 pages later, the poem ends with Achille hauling his canoe called “In God We Trust” up the beach, and taking from it a catch of shining mackerel. In between these two events lies what must be one of the great poems of our time.
In a short review it is impossible even to hint at the scope and grandeur of Omeros, but it seems fair to say that it's a poem of epic proportions. The title may indeed suggest that Walcott is self-consciously setting up as epic poet (Omeros is the Greek word for Homer, though Walcott is careful to supply a more fitting genealogy: “O was the conch-shell's invocation, mer was / both mother and sea in our Antillean patois, / os, a grey bone”), and the poem's form and structure strengthen this suggestion.
Omeros's seven books are divided into 64 chapters, each one containing three sections, and,...
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SOURCE: Benfey, Christopher. “Coming Home.” New Republic 203, no. 18 (29 October 1990): 36–39.
[In the following review, Benfey offers a mixed assessment of Omeros, finding shortcomings in the volume's ineffective “imaginative journeys” and unusual metrical patterns.]
In one of her poems, Emily Dickinson divides the things of the world into those that fly (“Birds—Hours—the Bumblebee”) and those that stay (“Grief—Hills—Eternity”). The division might be applied to poets. Dickinson herself was notoriously a stayer, and so in their different ways were Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and—once he'd found a resting place in New England—Robert Frost. Among the poets of flight, one thinks of Eliot and Pound, and of Elizabeth Bishop, who split her time between Boston and Brazil.
Bishop especially took what she called “questions of travel” as her province, and the same could be said of the sometimes Trinidadian, sometimes Bostonian Derek Walcott. Among his footloose titles are “The Fortunate Traveller,” “The Schooner Flight,” “North and South” (the name, it happens, of one of Bishop's books as well). Travel, its initial release and eventual travail, has been Walcott's theme from the beginning. He has portrayed himself again and again as a poet caught between two worlds. “Between” is perhaps the key word in his poetry. One...
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SOURCE: Everett, Nicholas. “Paradise Lost.” London Review of Books (11 July 1991): 22–23.
[In the following excerpt, Everett compliments the “rich texture” of the verse in Omeros.]
During the 18th and 19th centuries verse surrendered its longer discursive and narrative forms to prose and confined itself more and more to the short lyric and the sequence of short lyrics. Much of this century's verse appears to be continuing the process by avoiding paraphrasable meaning altogether. One need only point to the work of Wallace Stevens or John Ashbery to show how successfully some of its sustains our expectations while ultimately refusing to deliver the semantic goods. Having extracted a poem's point, runs the usual defence of such teasing evasions, readers will have no further use for the poem itself: indeterminacy thus insures a poem against prompt expiry and may even keep it enduringly fresh. Furthermore, if a poem can be paraphrased, it will fail to reflect the radically ‘meaningless,’ indeterminate nature of our experience. Derek Walcott's poems, informed and invigorated as many of them are by a coherent ideology, don't conform to this negative aesthetic. Their ideology, however, is a cultural version of it.
Until recently, as the Barbadan poet Edward Kamau Brathwaite says, West Indians ‘have been unable to afford the luxury of mythology.’ Colonial history offers merely...
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SOURCE: Birkerts, Sven. “Making Blind Birds Sing.” Parnassus 17, no. 2 (February 1993): 361–75.
[In the following review of Omeros, Birkerts praises Walcott's poetic genius, but finds serious shortcomings in the work's overly ambitious epic design.]
When Derek Walcott published his Selected Poems in 1964, Robert Graves wrote: “Derek Walcott handles English with a closer understanding of its inner magic than most (if not any) of his contemporaries.” A generous and astute bit of praise, one that has served the Caribbean-born poet as a kind of career benediction. For it is precisely this sensitivity to the “inner magic” of the language—that mysterious agency through which sounds and their rhythmic arrangement propagate sense—that has kept Walcott's poetry supple and energetic in an era when these qualities are in especially short supply. Indeed, Walcott is one of the very few poets around who keeps getting stronger with age: more inventive, more tolerant of roughness and surprise in his music, and more ambitious in his choice of subject matter. This sense of confident increase could not have been lost on the jurors in Stockholm.
There hovers over Walcott, the man as well as the poet,—a restlessness. He does not sit easily in a chair and when he talks his eyes stay in motion. On the page this comes across as momentum—vitality at every moment straining at...
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SOURCE: Breslow, Stephen. “Derek Walcott: 1992 Nobel Laureate in Literature.” World Literature Today 67, no. 2 (spring 1993): 267–71.
[In the following essay, Breslow provides an overview of Walcott's literary accomplishments and his cross-cultural preoccupations with history, Western culture and myth, postcolonial Caribbean identity, and the legacy of racism.]
I have been suggesting to colleagues and friends since the mid-1980s that someday soon Derek Walcott would be receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature. My prediction has now come true, perhaps much sooner than many people would have thought. My motive here, however, is not to masquerade as a literary prophet. A much more important reflection may emerge from this consideration: what elements in Walcott's work led me, and later the members of the Swedish Academy, to an acknowledgment of Walcott's work as worthy of the Nobel Prize?
If there is any dominant principle for literary prize-giving that influences the Swedish Academy, it is: a strong regional voice that transcends its topical locality, through the depth and breadth of its poetic resonance and through its global human implications. The publication of Walcott's Omeros in 1990 absolutely certified this same long-standing quality of his work. Omeros, a rare modern verse epic, places Walcott's birthplace of St. Lucia at the center of his epic cosmos, builds...
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SOURCE: Breslow, Stephen. Review of The Odyssey, by Derek Walcott. World Literature Today 68, no. 1 (winter 1994): 199–200.
[In the following positive review, Breslow praises Walcott's stage adaptation of Homer's Odyssey.]
Only a talent as prodigious as that of Derek Walcott (who received the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature) should attempt a project as ambitious as rendering Homer's Odyssey into a stage version. Walcott's lifelong immersion in Greek and Latin literary classics, his continual borrowing and interweaving of classical references and themes in his poetry, and his own Odyssean epic poem Omeros, published in 1990, have eminently prepared him for [Odyssey,] this most current work. Some pragmatists might argue well that a staged version of this play made from an epic would be doomed because of the large and unwieldy number of characters and sets employed; yet I would maintain that Walcott's new effort, as a work of literature to be read, is a brilliant success.
True to his profound respect for the ancient Greek classics, Walcott has taken Homer's epic at face value, with its characters, episodes, themes, structure, ethos, and emotional nuances, and “translated” it, with astounding faithfulness to the original. Still, crusty Aristotle would complain, stating that “the poets who have dramatised the sole story of the Fall of Troy … either fail...
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SOURCE: Walcott, Derek, and Marina Benjamin. “The Commonwealth: Pedestal or Pyre?” New Statesman & Society 8, no. 362 (21 July 1995): 30–31.
[In the following interview, Walcott discusses his views on the cultural legacy of the British Commonwealth and defends its continuing importance as a source of shared identity and political ideals.]
[Benjamin:] Having grown up in a Commonwealth state, how would your life have differed from that of a citizen of a non-Commonwealth Antilles?
[Walcott:] Initially, the experience of being brought up in St Lucia was colonial. A parity of status, an equilibrium, an equality of expression between Empire and protectorates, happened much later. Compared to the experiences of other colonies simultaneous to our growth and adolescence, if one goes by the literature or the history one read, the experience was a benign one; there was no sense of being politically persecuted or repressed—though that may have been there subliminally or obliquely. It was certainly not the kind of experience that we read about, say, Martinique, where white French gendarmes represented French metropolitan law. If any repression occurred, it did not come politically or culturally from Britain, it came from the Catholic church, whose sources in the case of St Lucia were particularly French.
I'm curious, was there a two-way cultural...
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SOURCE: Bayley, John. “Living Ghosts.” New York Review of Books 44, no. 5 (27 March 1997): 18–21.
[In the following excerpt, Bayley offers a positive assessment of The Bounty, referring to Walcott as “a poet of singular honesty.”]
What is the nature of the difference between poetry and “the poetical”? The two cannot be clearly separated and yet they do remain distinct: a distinction clearly apparent to a later generation, after the poets in question have themselves departed for the Elysian fields. What is poetical then begins to resemble a period piece. Could anyone have ever been physically thrilled and startled, stirred and electrified, by, for example. Swinburne's Poems and Ballads? And yet they were. Readers—young readers—knew them at once for the true thing—exciting, authentic, and subversive. Today they move the sympathetic reader in another way: as a poetical voice from the past.
The whole question remains ambiguous nonetheless. It is not just a matter of telling the good from the bad, or the deathless from the merely dated. Louis Untermeyer's huge anthology. Modern American Poetry, which went through several editions in the Twenties and Thirties, is just such a period piece today: but to browse through its dense pages is thoroughly absorbing. Hosts of poets from not so very long ago seem to be pleading for our continued attention. …...
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SOURCE: Ramazani, Jahan. “The Wound of History: Walcott's Omeros and the Postcolonial Poetics of Affliction.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 112, no. 3 (May 1997): 405–17.
[In the following essay, Ramazani examines Walcott's metaphorical treatment of New World African slavery and postcolonial Caribbean suffering in Omeros, as signified by Walcott's evocation of physical trauma, unhealed wounds, and aspects of recovery.]
“This wound I have stitched into Plunkett's character,” ventures the poet in Derek Walcott's Caribbean epic, Omeros (1990). Conflating wound and suture, Walcott suggests that the odd surgery of poetry may have to disfigure a character with wounds to repair historical injuries: “He has to be wounded,” continues the poet defensively. Why must the poet stitch some kind of wound into all his major characters, from Philoctete, the emblematic black descendant of slaves, to Plunkett, the representative white colonial; from the lovelorn Achille to Hector, Helen, even himself? Because, the poet explains, “affliction is one theme / of this work, this fiction,” as indeed of black Caribbean literature and much Third World literature in general (28). That the wound trope is central to Omeros suits preconceptions of postcolonial writing as either “victim's literature” or “resistance literature.” But Walcott's use of...
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SOURCE: Walcott, Derek, and Rose Styron. “Derek Walcott: An Interview with Rose Styron.” American Poetry Review 26, no. 3 (May–June 1997): 41–46.
[In the following interview, Walcott discusses his formative experiences and cultural influences on Saint Lucia, his views on the development and multicultural atmosphere of the Caribbean, his work as a playwright, his interest in film, and his approach to the composition and teaching of poetry.]
The author of many plays and books of poetry, Derek Walcott was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992. He lives in Saint Lucia and in Boston. This interview took place January, 1995 at Walcott's studio in Saint Lucia and was broadcast on Voice of America.
[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...
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SOURCE: Greenwell, Bill. “Buried Treasure.” New Statesman 126, no. 4347 (15 August 1997): 46–47.
[In the following review, Greenwell offers a mixed assessment of The Bounty.]
Derek Walcott—whose previous book, the epic and brilliant Omeros, neatly preceded his Nobel Prize for Literature—is by no means always accessible. It's not that he's hard to understand, nor that his genius is not everywhere self-evident. It's just that he writes with such colossal dignity and sonority, that his poems can sometimes wrap an anchor and chain around even dedicated readers. You are dropped to the ocean floor of his imagination, there to be hauled along on his pondering (and occasionally ponderous) voyage of discovery.
Part of the problem is his unyielding choice of line length (nearly always loose hexameters) and his admirable, even remarkable rhyme schemes, usually inventive near-rhymes on alternate lines. This dexterity is made to look effortless, but he frequently runs the risk of writing something close to prose. There are 67 poems in The Bounty and you cannot help desiring more variety.
None of which denies The Bounty its richness, its coherence, the way Walcott moves steadily between the external world of chaos and his own internal world. The collection opens elegiacally, with a reflection on his response to his mother's death, admiring but...
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SOURCE: Pettingell, Phoebe. “Breadfruit, Bach, and Kafka.” New Leader 80, no. 14 (8 September 1997): 13–14.
[In the following review, Pettingell offers a positive assessment of The Bounty.]
Derek Walcott established himself as the Homer of the West Indies in 1990 with Omeros, his Caribbean retelling of The Odyssey. The epic poem describes and reflects on his native island, St. Lucia, where Caribs, African slaves and colonial Europeans created a multilayered society. It earned him the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature.
Walcott, who now divides his time between New York and St. Lucia, feels at home with the literary traditions of Europe and America, as well as the various folk materials and songs of his own culture. His latest book, The Bounty, is an elegiac collection of lyrics, beginning with a combined tribute to his late mother and to the mad English Romantic poet John Clare. But his deepest nostalgia is reserved for memories of his childhood: the lush vegetation growing out of volcanic soil, the brilliant Caribbean colors, the unsurpassed pure blue sea and sky:
In late-afternoon light the tops of the breadfruit leaves are lemon and the lower leaves a waxen viridian with the shaped shadows greenish black over the eaves of the shops and the rust-crusted fences that are Indian red, sepia, and often orange; but by then the light has ripened and...
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SOURCE: Sanger, Richard. “The Apples of This Second Eden.” Times Literary Supplement (19 September 1997): 10–11.
[In the following review, Sanger offers a generally favorable assessment of The Bounty, though notes flaws in what he sees as Walcott's empty phrasing and forced rhyme schemes.]
Derek Walcott ended one of his earliest poems, “As John to Patmos,” with a vow:
As John to Patmos, in each love-leaping air O slave, soldier, worker under red trees sleeping, hear What I swear now, as John did: To praise lovelong, the living and the brown dead.
Almost half a century later, that vow dominates his new book. His first collection of poems since the epic Omeros (1990), The Bounty praises the natural abundance of the poet's native St Lucia, the goodness—la bonté—of life on earth, and the lives of some who have left it. But Walcott gives his title less exalted meanings as well, alluding to Captain Bligh's ship, to the tropical idyll its mutinous sailors found in the South Seas, and to the rewards of his own 1992 Nobel Prize: “Awaking to gratitude in this generous Eden / … my debt, in Yeats's phrase, to ‘the bounty of Sweden’ / that has built this house facing white combers. …” Filled with gorgeous language, with flashes of brilliance as well as flaws, these poems are ripe fruit, and a bounty in themselves.
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SOURCE: Sansom, Ian. “Fanfares.” London Review of Books (11 December 1997): 29.
[In the following review of The Bounty, Sansom criticizes Walcott's tendency toward poetic ostentation, verbosity, and excessive exultation.]
They call him Mister Bombastic: ‘Because he is well capable of rhetoric and flourish, he too often allows these two-edged gifts to deflect him from a real, vivid self into a bombastic stance’ (Eavan Boland); ‘I have found Walcott's extravagance of poetic diction and tendency to verbosity off-putting in the past’ (Peter Porter); ‘I feel that the fuss and the language are not quite justified by the donné’ (Roy Fuller). Derek Walcott has suffered, perhaps more than any other contemporary poet writing in English, from accusations that his work is too showy. Some of the accusations stick.
Much of Walcott's early work—‘Prelude,’ for example, and ‘A Far Cry from Africa’—is like the early, glam Auden:
my life, too early of course for the profound cigarette, The turned doorhandle, the knife turning In the bowels of the hours.
Again brutish necessity wipes its hands Upon the napkin of a dirty cause, again A waste of our compassion, as with Spain
It's a strain that still runs like a band of fool's gold through his new collection, apparent in the pompy, sequinned Sea and the Mirror-style...
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SOURCE: Kirsch, Adam. “Unphantasmal Peace.” New Republic 217, no. 24 (15 December 1997): 42–45.
[In the following review, Kirsch evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of The Bounty, complimenting Walcott for addressing “the largest themes without self-consciousness or hesitation.”]
In 1759, Edward Young offered some “Conjectures on Original Composition” in a letter to his friend Samuel Richardson. Young recognized that his contemporaries often suffered from a sense of having come too late—after history, as it were—and thus being incapable of rivaling the classical writers, who wrote when history was young and vital. But he denied that modern men really had come too late for greatness:
But why are originals so few [today]? Not because the writer's harvest is over, the great reapers of antiquity having left nothing to be gleaned after them; nor because the human mind's teeming time is past. … Tread in [Homer's] steps to the sole fountain of immortality; drink where he drank. …
Young's optimistic advice proved hard to follow; and English-speaking poets (and critics) have only grown more obsessed with the sense of their belatedness. In much of the English and American poetry of the last two centuries, there is a growing sense that history is getting farther and farther away, that experience is contracting...
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SOURCE: King, Bruce. Review of The Bounty, by Derek Walcott. World Literature Today 72, no. 1 (winter 1998): 191–92.
[In the following positive review, King praises Walcott's imagery and verse in The Bounty.]
In recent volumes of Derek Walcott's poetry “light” is an encompassing term for the light of the creation, the light that illuminates the world, the light that illuminates art (especially painting), and the inner light of the divine in the artist and all humans. Here the “bounty” includes all gifts from God: daybreak, each day, light, the natural world and its creatures, the beauty of St. Lucia and Trinidad, being a writer, the gift of poetry, even Walcott's having been taught by his mother to respect the bounty and being taught to work to use it. The bounty is the gift of life in its varied aspects, including the ship The Bounty which brought the breadfruit from the Pacific to the Caribbean; the breadfruit itself becomes a surprising analogy to the tree of life.
These poems are filled with unexpected analogies, the making of analogies being part of the bounty as all creation is linked, as can be seen by the ant that will eventually help turn the dead into bread. Walcott's vision here is at times Jacobean in that the ingenuity of analogy can, as in his early master Andrew Marvell, be sardonic. There are echoes of Marvell among others, but the acknowledged...
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SOURCE: Tillinghast, Richard. “Poetry Chronicle.” Hudson Review 50, no. 4 (winter 1998): 681–88.
[In the following excerpt, Tillinghast offers a generally positive assessment of The Bounty.]
While perusing some thirty new books in preparation for writing this chronicle, and narrowing the selection to five, I have been struck by the vitality of new voices, the hardy persistence of veteran poets whose presence is all too easy to take for granted, the continuing vigor of the metrical tradition, and by the variety of what is being written and published. The pervasiveness of irony in many of these poems has also led me to ask questions about this double-sided approach to rhetoric.
Another question, in addition to wondering about irony, that engaged my attention while reading these books was whether poets chose to write what might be called the “situated” poem, or the “statement” poem. Both have long histories. An example of the statement poem might be Philip Larkin's “This Be the Verse,” which begins “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do.” The mum and dad are generic parents, the “you” is everyone. A situated poem in the same Freudian mode is Robert Lowell's “Man and Wife,” which begins, “Tamed by Miltown, we lie on Mother's bed; / the rising sun in war paint dyes us red.” The mum here is Charlotte Winslow Lowell of...
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SOURCE: Thieme, John. “Critical Overview and Conclusion.” In Derek Walcott, pp. 198–205. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, Thieme provides an overview of the critical reaction to Walcott's work over a period of five decades, including a discussion of notable publications that have contributed to the critical study of Walcott's oeuvre.]
This chapter provides a brief summary of some of the main strands in Walcott criticism, with a particular emphasis on books and monographs about his work; it also attempts to locate the present study in relation to some of these strands. Criticism of Walcott's writing has moved through various phases during the fifty years of his writing career to date. Initially, reflecting the locations in which it was published or performed, responses came almost exclusively from within the Caribbean region; after his poetry was published in Britain and the United States, it increasingly attracted the attention of metropolitan critics; and the award of the Nobel Prize in 1992 substantially augmented the critical output on his work, particularly his poetry.1
From the outset, criticism of Walcott's writing has been dominated by discussions of its cultural politics. Early on, it was often reductively characterized as Eurocentric in orientation; more recently it has been embraced by post-colonial theorists, who have seen...
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SOURCE: King, Bruce. Review of What the Twilight Says, by Derek Walcott. Sewanee Review 107, no. 1 (winter 1999): xxv-xxvii.
[In the following positive review, King praises Walcott's essays in What the Twilight Says.]
Writing about Robert Lowell, Derek Walcott warns against the way biography imposes plot, incident, symmetry, on inarticulate feelings and gestures, losing the reality. “On Robert Lowell” (1984) offers remembrances of Lowell as a mentor, fellow poet, and friend in contrast to the biographer's reduction of Lowell to a story of failed marriages and times of madness. Yet, in selecting certain moments, ranging from his first meeting with Lowell in Trinidad to telling of Lowell's death in a taxi when returning to New York, Walcott is himself constructing a history, although of the kind found in Pasternak's autobiography, moments of memory presented nonchronologically.
This is the method of a modernist poet writing prose. It is best to read this book of republished essays on the model of the Lowell essay, a crafted prose poem in which the parts imply more than they say. The ordering of essays in the book is similar to Walcott's methods of building a sequence of poems or his assembling a new volume of poetry; the sections are arranged subtly to pick up echoes and distant harmonies of their motifs. The movement back and forth, tensions between, and simultaneous presence...
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SOURCE: Noor, Ronny. Review of What the Twilight Says, by Derek Walcott. World Literature Today 73, no. 2 (spring 1999): 339–40.
[In the following review, Noor offers a positive assessment of What the Twilight Says, though expresses concern over Walcott's failure to challenge the vocabulary and prejudices of European imperialism.]
Derek Walcott, the 1992 Nobel laureate from St. Lucia, is arguably the preeminent poet in the English language. This celebrated winner of numerous awards for poetry turns out to be an excellent critic in the collection of essays, reviews, and one story titled What the Twilight Says. All these previously published pieces reflecting twenty-seven years (1970–97) of critical study have been grouped into three sections.
The first section contains the title piece, “What the Twilight Says,” which encapsulates Walcott's conception of the postcolonial or New World, as he calls it. The inheritance of the Caribbean man, he says, is both African and European. He cannot go back to Africa, and he cannot be European or “white,” so he must become a new man who will create literature from the fusion of African and European heritages. Walcott elaborates on this thesis in “The Muse of History.” He claims that the slaves were not converted to Christianity against their will. They converted themselves, adapting not only their masters' religion...
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SOURCE: Bamforth, Iain. “Playing the Roman.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5035 (1 October 1999): 25.
[In the following review, Bamforth offers a generally positive assessment of What the Twilight Says.]
Commenting on Joseph Brodsky's poems in this, his first collection of critical prose—considerations of writers such as Frost, Naipaul, Hughes and Heaney, along with more meditative pieces best described by the subtitle given one of them as “fragments of epic memory”—Derek Walcott declares that “every poet has a particular twilight in his soul.” Hackneyed it may sound, but Walcott's twilight shifts a lot of symbolic freight. It is a “metaphor for withdrawal of Empire and the beginning of our doubt” it is Baudelaire's crépuscule—“the tropic bug in the Paris fog”; it is the poet's mixed heritage, antithesis and ambivalence, “the pause / between dusk and darkness, between fury and peace” it is the spirit-level of the races, languages and cultures that have colonized, settled or been forcibly or otherwise transported to the archipelago so pointedly known to Europe as the West Indies—“a twilight eager to complete itself.”
Above all, it is an oracle as old as literature; and Walcott has never been afraid to listen for what it might say through the Bible, Homer, Ovid and a whole pantheon of recent poets whose voices he has echoed until relatively...
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SOURCE: Gundy, Jeff. “Position, Connection, Conviction.” Georgia Review 54, no. 1 (spring 2000): 142–56.
[In the following excerpt, Gundy compliments Walcott's prose in What the Twilight Says, praising the work's “sharp and stimulating analyses.”]
At a mundane banquet long ago I sat near an older man who was new in town; he had come alone. Partway through the meal I overheard him telling his story to the woman across the table: “People have been my life,” he said to her, and then again, “People have been my life.” He seemed to be insisting on something that he wanted badly to believe. As he went on, giving names and places, I found myself thinking, in the arrogance of my youth, that if such dull people had been his life, he could barely claim to have had one. I don't think I ever saw him again or spoke to him directly. But I still remember his nearly haunted voice and what it carried: how precarious and how precious our connections with others are.
Before I lapse into Streisandish rhapsodies about people who need people, let me turn to the subjects of this review: five books of prose by poets, two of them deliberate memoirs and all including at least some implicit autobiography. We learn a good deal about the authors of these texts, much of it fascinating and even valuable. Yet equally fascinating is what these books offer about the people around the...
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SOURCE: Kitchen, Judith. “In Pursuit of Elegance.” Georgia Review 54, no. 1 (spring 2000): 763–80.
[In the following excerpt, Kitchen praises Walcott's elegance in Tiepolo's Hound, but finds the volume overly analytical and academic.]
Bertolucci called me when I was about to start shooting, and he said, “Have you learned that everything is form and form is emptiness?” No, I'm always the last to know.
I've always suspected there was an affinity between soccer, mathematics, and poetry. For twenty-five years, I've watched soccer whenever I could. I've lost two whole summers to the World Cup. I was once a hopeless fan for the hapless Lancers (who were in the same league as the moneyed Cosmos) and now I'm a raging fan of their successors, the Rochester Raging Rhinos (who won the 1999 US Open Cup). In the old days, as we sat on the bleachers, we could hear at least five separate languages spoken by our neighbors. Italian, Spanish, Russian, I could recognize. The others were what? Greek, Serbo-Croatian, Ukranian? Who knows. The Lancers' game was not beautiful to watch; they were not good enough for that. But sometimes an individual play would stand out: the ball placed perfectly, the players imagining the ball—no, becoming the ball—in order to let it find its way into the net. The crowd would rise of...
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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 discusses the problematic aesthetic representation of the female subject in Western literary tradition and in Walcott's evocation of Helen in 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...
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SOURCE: Alvarez, A. “Visions of Light.” New York Review of Books 47, no. 8 (11 May 2000): 27–28.
[In the following review, Alvarez offers a positive assessment of Tiepolo's Hound.]
When Derek Walcott's first book of poems was published in London in 1962, it came with the blessing of Robert Graves, one of the twentieth century's finest and most underrated poets, and a title from Andrew Marvell—In a Green Night. The title was a muted gesture toward Modernism, since T. S. Eliot had been the major force behind the rediscovery of Marvell after two and a half centuries of neglect. But Eliot had cosmopolitan tastes and initially he had been drawn to the Metaphysical poets because they reminded him of Laforgue and Corbière.
Graves, on the other hand, was linked to Marvell as though by natural right, as direct inheritor of a peculiarly English lyric tradition: classical, witty, idiosyncratic, pure. It was this tradition that Walcott had absorbed as a student in the British West Indies: “Like any colonial child,” he wrote in his essay “The Muse of History,” “I was taught English literature as my natural inheritance. Forget the snow and daffodils. They were real, more real than the heat and oleander, perhaps, because they lived on the page, in imagination, and therefore in memory.”
The British Empire may have had many failings, but in its glory days no...
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SOURCE: Kirsch, Adam. “Singing the Griot's Song.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5085 (15 September 2000): 10–11.
[In the following review, Kirsch provides an overview of Walcott's life and writing through a discussion of Bruce King's biography, Derek Walcott: A Caribbean Life, and offers a positive assessment of Walcott's Tiepolo's Hound.]
Every poet begins as a provincial, dreaming of emigration to the city of the honoured dead. “I think I shall be among the English poets after my death,” wrote Keats, and the ambiguity is moving; he wants to be remembered as one of them, but also actually to walk and talk with them, like Dante with Virgil. To live on the fringes of literary society may, then, be an advantage to a poet's literary culture. He sees no reason not to converse directly with the authors he knows only from books, he does not need his passport stamped by London or New York. This is the freedom that allowed Keats, the Cockney poet, to be the most direct heir of Shakespeare; and the freedom that drove Derek Walcott, as a child on Saint Lucia, to envy a blind neighbour, thinking of “Homer and Milton in their owl-blind towers.”
Walcott's continual theme, from his first poems to his very latest, has been the struggle to reconcile that freedom with the bonds of race and history. He has seldom seemed to doubt his powers; his is an enormous gift, perhaps the...
(The entire section is 3055 words.)
SOURCE: Hannan, Jim. Review of Tiepolo's Hound, by Derek Walcott. World Literature Today 74, no. 4 (autumn 2000): 797–98.
[In the following positive review, Hannan praises Tiepolo's Hound, complimenting Walcott's “calm and devastating clarity.”]
Derek Walcott's long poem on the congruence between art, art history, and the state of one's soul abounds with his singular ability to combine passion with elegance, historical rumination with arresting images, and social consciousness with minute observations of texture, sound, and color. Walcott revisits themes from his previous poetry, including exchanges between Europe and the Caribbean, the power inherent in language and naming, the artist as exile, and the role of culture in contemporary life. Like much of his poetry, this poem excels when craft and vision coalesce with resonant exactitude, as when Walcott describes the painter Camille Pissarro's desire to leave the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, where his family had settled from Europe: “He dreaded the nightmare of remaining forever / in his uncle's odorous shed, keeping ledgers straight; / its African torpor with spasms of endeavour; / the sea's blue door locked at the end of the street.” Replete with couplets to savor, Tiepolo's Hound brilliantly encompasses narrative and lyric, impersonal history and intimate examination of the personal life.
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Anderson, Jervis. “Derek Walcott's Odyssey.” New Yorker (21 December 1992): 71–74, 76–79.
Anderson provides an overview of Walcott's life, literary career, and artistic concerns.
Breslin, Paul. “Tracking Tiepolo's Hound.” Poetry 178, no. 1 (April 2001): 38–40.
Breslin offers a positive assessment of Tiepolo's Hound, calling the work “strikingly beautiful.”
Cribb, T. J. “Walcott, Poet and Painter.” Kenyon Review 23, no. 2 (spring 2001): 176–84.
Cribb examines the interrelationship between Walcott's poetry and painting, drawing attention to his development and maturation as an artist, the recurring imagery of the sea, and his preoccupation with history, as evident in Another Life, Omeros, and Tiepolo's Hound.
D'Evelyn, Thomas. “Black Homer.” Christian Science Monitor (31 October 1990): 14.
D'Evelyn praises Omeros, calling Walcott one of the “greatest poets now writing in English.”
Figueroa, John J. “Creole in Literature: Beyond Verisimilitude: Derek Walcott.” In The Yearbook of English Studies 25, edited by Andrew Gurr, pp. 156–62. Great Britain: W. S. Maney and Son, 1995.
Figueroa discusses Walcott's fusion of standard English and...
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