A poet of extraordinary achievement, Derek Walcott uses the essay form to communicate both his enthusiasms and reservations about writers as diverse as Robert Lowell, Ernest Hemingway, C. L. R. James, V. S. Naipaul, Joseph Brodsky, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, Les Murray, and Robert Frost. Although Walcott clearly has his favorites, he is remarkably open to many different kinds of writing and points of view. His main criterion is that the writing is good. With a good—or, better, a great—writer, Walcott can forgive much, even the racism he is dismayed to find in Frost, Naipaul, and Joseph Conrad. In other words, Walcott has no patience with making writers hew to an ideological line. He is disturbed when he finds a racist statement in one of Frost’s letters, for example, and he admits that his enthusiasm for the poet dims—but only temporarily, for Walcott deems Frost, along with William Butler Yeats, the best poet of rhythm and design in the twentieth century. In his Frost essay, Walcott strikes just the right balance between his personal feelings and his passion for poetry. If he is bound to condemn racism, he cannot help but praise fine art in the same writer. Literature—above all poetry—has a life of its own, Walcott implies: “There is a memory of imagination in literature which has nothing to do with actual experience, which is, in fact, another life, and that experience of the imagination will continue to make actual the quest of a medieval knight or the bulk of a white whale, because of the power of a shared imagination.” Literature is, in a sense, greater than the writer who produces it. If Frost and Naipaul have contributed greatness to the English language, Walcott cannot deny them their high place, no matter their personal shortcomings. If he believes the racism mars the writer’s work, as in Naipaul’s case, Walcott is eloquent on why that is so. Walcott’s belief is that Naipaul demeans himself by pretending to be sui generis, as though the Caribbean nurtured no other writer. Yet Walcott also concedes that many writers want to reject their origins and to sever ties to environments they consider part of their lesser selves.
A reverse case for Walcott is C. L. R. James, the great Caribbean writer, a historian of slavery and the Black Jacobins who overthrew it in Haiti, and also something of an Anglophile, a black man besotted with the game of cricket. Walcott is fascinated with James’s love of the English sport. How does a Marxist like James reconcile his political principles with his sporting instincts? For Walcott, this is almost no problem at all. James was a gentleman, and he took easily to those aspects of the English that epitomized civilization. That he admired certain English institutions did not negate James’s criticisms of imperialism and racism. Quite the contrary, James’s complexity makes him a more appealing writer and man to Walcott.
Walcott, a native of St. Lucia, identifies with writers who come from colonial lands and islands and who write in English or French, the predominant languages of the Caribbean. Like James and Naipaul, Walcott has identified with the English tradition in literature. If he has not become a kind of English gentleman and settled in England—as Naipaul has done—Walcott has nevertheless spent much of his time among white imperialist culture, and he has taught for many years, first at Harvard University and then at Boston University. He masterfully shows how writers such as James and Naipaul have enriched the English tradition, but he also turns to other writers—such as Australian Les Murray—to show that colonials can continue to write from their own experience and express an indigenous culture.
Not that Walcott does not feel an enormous sense of loss because of the depredations of colonialism—including what it has done to his own sensibility: “I am only one-eighth the writer I might have been had I contained all the fragmented languages of Trinidad.” His powerful love for his broken heritage is expressed in this poetic sentence: “Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was...