Derek Walcott Walcott, Derek (Vol. 4) - Essay

Walcott, Derek (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Walcott, Derek 1930–

Walcott is a West Indian playwright and poet. The relationships between men and God and men and society have been the principal themes of his intelligent and sophisticated poems and plays.

Derek Walcott's … plays range through myth and folklore, against backgrounds as much allegorical as they are Caribbean. The laments of superstitious fishermen, charcoal-burners and prisoners are quirkily counter-pointed by talking crickets, frogs and birds. Demons are raised, dreams take actual shape, supernatural voices mingle with the natural lilting elliptical speech rhythms of downtrodden natives. Mr Walcott … is a social commentator who conceals his messages in elaborate poetic wrappers not always easy to unfold, but he is a powerful visionary as well as a compassionate observer of misfits lost in a world they never made.

Romilly Cavan, in Books and Bookmen, April, 1972, pp. 59-61.

Publication of the seminal West Indian works of literature in English is a fairly recent development in the United States. Derek Walcott is one of the few whose names may be familiar. His plays, "Ti-Jean and His Brothers" and "Dream on Monkey Mountain," have already earned him a certain distinction in the New York theater. "Another Life" is his fourth book of verse, a single poem which extends over some 4,000 lines of self-inquiry and cultural assessment in the context of a Caribbean life. It is the history of an imagination….

[The] increasing pressures of race and politics in Caribbean society always threaten to put such a writer on trial. Walcott is not popular among a later generation of cultural nationalists who, in his view, have sought to turn white mythology on its head by discovering in blackness a new aristocracy of skin. This is an argument which increases in intensity. If the Caribbean House is to be designated black and African, what human or national status is to be given (and by whom) to the numerous descendants of those grandfathers who crossed the water from other continents? Moreover, the cultural inheritance does not allow for any precision of ancestral bond. The society's sinews reach out to Africa and Asia. It announces its wishes through a European alphabet. How truly to name what it really sees is the intricate task of the creative artists. This is the burden of Walcott's turbulent meditation on the dilemma of his time. The result is a formidable achievement.

George Lamming, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 6, 1973, pp. 36-7.

Because this autobiographical poem [Another Life] suffers from a metaphor glut, it will hold the attention in a way a leaner work will not. Every four lines or so a fresh assault is made on the sensibilities, setting up a queer anticipation in the reader. One might wince after several baroque passages of Corelli or gape in amazement at the gingerbread excesses of certain German cathedrals, yet the mind adjusts, uneasily, to this aesthetic of irritation. In Derek Walcott's case I adjusted, but did not enjoy it. I was fascinated by his ingenuity but somewhat put off by the dazzling images and diction. The attention is violated in poetry like this rather than held as it should be.

Granted that one must write as one is able to write, yet in "Another Life" the plan of the poem and its artistic philosophy probably account for its density as much as the tumors in Mr. Walcott's style. As an epigraph to the poem's first section, he uses this statement by Malraux: "What makes the artist is the circumstance that in his youth he was more deeply moved by the sight of works of art than by that of the things which they portray." Fair enough. This explains the continued invocation of VanGogh, Cezanne, Verocchio, Vermeer, Gauguin and other paraphernalia of the "bookish." The past, and eventually the present, is valued as artifact. The creative source becomes the invention, the fabrication, instead of the natural and the temporal. Now this choice has often been made; when it produces a rich scaffolding of language with little substance behind it and too little air and space then, understandably, we feel cheated. When it extends over 150 pages or so we feel worn out….

[Because] Mr. Walcott is a gifted poet he quite often constructs memorable set pieces…. These are damaged in the long run by their engraftment to a tenuous narrative line that includes tendrils and undergrowth and a rhetoric too ponderous for storytelling. Poetry of this sort is best read in separate chunks and perhaps should have been published, after judicious editing, as a collection of independent lyrics in one volume. I don't doubt for a moment Mr. Walcott's abilities, but "Another Life" doesn't work as a long poem.

T. O'Hara, in Best Sellers, June 15, 1973, p. 134.

Derek Walcott is a poet of enormous talent laboring under an enormous burden of obligation. Another Life is his third volume of poetry, and is the testament of a West Indian "AfroSaxon". It tells the truths Mr. Walcott has sworn an oath to tell, the truth of the West Indies: its landscape; its people and their aspirations, defeats, and victories; their religion and history; their harbors and towns; all of it down to "every neglected, self-pitying inlet." Interwoven is a personal testament of Mr. Walcott's crucial relationships: with Harry, a painter who commits suicide; with Anna, the lover with whom the poet shares an aching, deep, doomed passion; with art, especially poetry and painting; with the West Indies. Another Life is a big book, over 150 pages, over four thousand lines. It is a restless mixture of lyric and narrative, of the local and the European, of the evocative and the didactic; ultimately, its elements don't cohere or reconcile, and most readers will probably seek, according to preference, their own favored poetry-within-the-poem….

The quality of the lyric moments of Another Life seems to me far superior to the narrative and didactic two-thirds. There are many exceptions, of course, for Mr. Walcott's immense talent never really quits, and the descriptions of the landscape and—especially—of the people are often wonderful…. But, overall, it is the intense lyric moments which hold the reader in awe and substantially deepen his understanding of the world….

There is in this book, too, a stunning though sometimes obstructive erudition. Often an apt allusion seems to arrive in a packing crate, from a source far from the poem's center—the allusions are gracefully made, but the unwieldy crates remain. As we know that deep obligations to country and race are being fulfilled here, we sense also that Mr. Walcott feels the need to establish himself as a citizen of a world larger than the West Indies. He displays impeccable intellectual credentials, stamped in many countries, many centuries; but the poetry is so often so remarkable that all this seems a gross waste of paper, paper on which he could and should write lyrics with the power to change his readers' lives.

I urge everyone who cares for the wonders of fresh metaphor in the service of deep thought and feeling to sift Another Life for its triumphs.

Paul Smyth, "Less Tit Than Tat," in Poetry (© 1973 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), December, 1973, pp. 171-72.

Another Life should make it clear, if it was ever in doubt, that Derek Walcott's superlative descriptions are far more than description, that they are the only feasible expression of his situation. They have rather the function that Ian Hamilton defined for the visual images in Lowell's For The Union Dead: they are 'felt to be profoundly ingrained elements of the poet's morality, and untranslatable; they press upon him as in some way an important aspect and perhaps the source of his present desolation but they will not surrender to the explicating intelligence'—except that, as Walcott hasn't the history of Boston and the Lowell family to draw on, only a history snapped at the root, the sense of his puzzlement before these images is considerably greater. He sometimes seems stunned, almost inhibited by them.

Here, again, Another Life may have an essential role to play: it is a work of making sense, of bringing the puzzlement into shape. Not one image in this long poem is casual in its role. That images should enter so casually and recur so naturally is merely a tribute to the fluency with which this impressive work conceals its organization: as each of the motifs recurs, its meaning is altered or accentuated to reflect the poet's changing experience of the island, the constant features of which, cumulatively, they define. This is autobiography in the best sense, not a memoir but an exploration into the past, a work of rediscovery and reconciliation; as such, it may well mark a new phase in the development of this lucid but essentially complex poet.

Roger Garfitt, "Poetry: The Domestic Age," in London Magazine, December, 1973–January, 1974, pp. 123-29.

Reading the West Indian poet's long autobiographical poem [Another Life] with its North American counterparts inevitably in mind, one is struck, first, by the lavishness of metaphor and figurative language; second, by the lack of obsession with structure. The straightforward, and yet rambling, narration allows a great deal of the life around the poet to crowd into the picture. The poem is uneven; the accumulation of metaphors can be artificial and confusing as well as breath-taking. Some parts of the plot are treated hastily and obscurely; others at too great length, the set-pieces of the Artist's Progress—though Walcott's concern with the contradictions of the colonial imagination gives them a special, tragic tinge. In sum, "Another Life" is a large-spirited book with passages of extraordinary beauty; everyone interested in poetry should read it.

Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 50, No. 1 (Winter, 1974), p. xiv.

There is a lot in [Derek Walcott's long poem Another Life] that I do not like and much that I do not understand. It seems to me too long, too choked with people, places, and things, and there is too much foreign talk and far too much British style. Even as the poet repudiates the intrusion of European "culture" into Black West Indian life, he proves at the same time that he can write a poem in which very little that is recognizably Black West Indian survives.

Perhaps this is unfair. Perhaps there is no such thing as a Black West Indian sensibility, that quality of difference that, in the United States, informs the work of even the most academic black poets. I do not know. What I do know is that Walcott writes an English line that can at times rise to perfection, and that his mastery of language and expression—though occasionally rendered with a 19th century twist—is complete and beautiful to see. He is a fine, mature, often brilliant and moving poet, which makes it harder than ever to determine exactly what it is that is missing. What it is, I think for me, is a view of Mr. Walcott's West Indies that escapes the camouflage of an essentially European interpretation. Eager to know Mr. Walcott's West Indies, his island, his people, his greenness, his sea, I am disappointed that what he chooses to tell me comes hidden behind names from Greek myths I only half remember, or written in Latin I never studied, or so sprinkled with the "glories" of English empire days that I, finally, can recognize nothing without a debilitating struggle; but must pick my way laboriously from page to page, choosing bits and pieces that speak to me and leaving the rest for the dons of Oxford.

Alice Walker, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; © 1974 by The Village Voice, Inc.), April 11, 1974, p. 26.

[Walcott's long autobiographical poem, Another Life,] is a poetry that doesn't conceal its influences (here mostly Pound, I should think). Walcott is a cultivated cosmopolitan poet who is black, and as such he risks irrelevant praise as well as blame, whites finding it clever of him to be able to sound so much like other sophisticated poets, blacks feeling that he's sold his soul by practicing white arts. Whatever hardships this situation may create for Walcott, its difficulty is at least poetically profitable….

The sense of having to live and work, however masterfully, within a culture never quite to be felt as one's own is a predicament that any provincial writer or artist has to cope with, one (for example) from which white American writers haven't yet escaped, and it does lend a fine authentic nervousness to provincial art at its best, Walcott's included….

[This] is a finished poem of deep and complex self-awareness, one that preserves the distinction between the elegiac and the merely sentimental … firmly…. Derek Walcott tells me about as much about being both black and human as I feel I have any reasonable right to know.

Thomas R. Edwards, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1974 by NYREV, Inc.), June 13, 1974, p. 39.