Derek Walcott

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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.)

Hugo Williams

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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 through as soon as the highly-coloured words become merely parts of speech, employed for sense as much as sound. At his muddiest, Mr. Walcott starts attacking us with a slightly self-pitying volubility rather like the blues. The chords become richer and richer until they melt and we fall into a dreamless sleep. More often the notes are clear and primary and one can tell when this is about to happen from the way the poem begins. First lines are important and revealing. (p. 78)

Last lines are equally important and his ten sonnets called Tales of the Islands are particularly well finished. The various legends make pictures as clear as stained glass and he manages the iambics with a light and versatile touch.

Reaching the end of In a Green Night, I begin to sense that Mr Walcott went through a fairly thorough rehabilitation quite a long time ago and that we have not been spared the poems he wrote before that time: that they have in fact been sprinkled sparsely enough among better and, let us hope, more recent work. The best that remains is the self-willed buoyancy of the natural poet. (p. 79)

Hugo Williams, "Selected Books: 'In A Green Night'," in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1962), Vol. 2, No. 4. July, 1962, pp. 77-9.

CAMERON KING and LOUIS JAMES

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The title poem of [Derek Walcott's] second major collection, The Castaway …, portrays a lone man on a sand-bank looking out to sea for rescue. He is lost. The implications are pessimistic. Yet Walcott's progression has been towards greater self-discovery and achievement. It is this paradox that lies behind the work of the finest Caribbean poet writing in English today.

From his earliest published work Walcott turned a critical eye on the predicament of the West Indian. We may find that his attitudes were a little pretentious, but this is not simply because Walcott was a young man when he wrote them. The critical intelligence he turned on his world he turned also on himself. In the first poem of In a Green Night, 'Prelude', he placed himself in a relationship to his poetry that is in part self-mocking…. This is the stance expected of the young West Indian intellectual. It also has a more serious purpose. Such attitudes are a protective mask, necessary until experience forms deeper reactions to life…. The styles that embody his attitudes are also 'useful'. They are ways by which he may discover his personal voice. Every young poet has to use experiments in style as stalking horses to track down his true poetic medium, but it is particularly important for a West Indian passionately concerned with the craft of words in areas where there is no native poetic tradition. Walcott tries on mask after mask…. But the very consistency and thoroughness of Walcott's early experiment should warn the critic that here is not simply an imitative poet. And as Walcott's experiments continued, gradually but surely, we see his masks shimmering, dissolving, and a face, Walcott's poetic features, appearing through. (pp. 86-8)

Walcott has been accused of turning to the European culture and experience in order to interpret the West Indian and so betraying his own civilization. There are critics who would like to see him pursue his experiments with dialect, or the direct, uncomplicated speech we find, for instance, in 'A Letter from Brooklyn'…. But the West Indies have no definitive and exclusive culture. Its peoples have come to the West Indies as travellers, forced or of their own will from Africa, Asia and Europe. Any claim that there is one West Indian voice, at least as yet, does not bear examination. Secondly, for better or for worse, although the great majority of West Indians have an African background, the peculiar circumstances of Caribbean history, its slavery and its emancipation, its educational and governmental systems, have all been within the European system. Further, the concept that 'European' culture has a nationalist identity in opposition to that of the Caribbean has the dangerous elements of racial mythology. The 'literature of England' reaches backwards and outwards to the cultures of Greece, Rome and medieval France. It touches the thought and civilizations of Europe, the new world, even Asia and Africa. Its preoccupation is with man as a human being, and for this reason a culture that becomes isolationist and inward looking can paradoxically cut itself off from the means of knowing itself. It is not simply chance that the greatest nationalist writers in French and Spanish as well as English, in modern Africa as well as the West Indies, have been those who have been able most fully to come to their own predicaments through mastery of the European literary experience. Walcott is in this tradition and from the reader he demands the same sympathies, at least in his earlier poems. He expects his reader to recognize and expand allusions to the metaphysicals, Shakespeare, Baudelaire and many others.

This 'literary' approach can of course have its dangers, and the early Walcott could fall into them…. [Some of his lines] are pretty but precious. This is not characteristic Walcott. At his best Walcott is lead in his avoidance of the 'kiff-kaff', the loose volubility, of West Indian idiom, to its strength, the heady Elizabethan delight in the sound and potential of words…. Walcott's use of language is exploratory, creative, and a surprisingly large number of his lines have the ring of Shakespearean aphorism. They are coined phrases that do not devalue…. Walcott's first great love in literature was Shakespeare; Walcott has been as much a dramatist as a poet,… and his movement has been away from the lyrical to the dramatic mode of writing. This sounded earlier in his turgid imitations of Dylan Thomas, and has developed into a style that can express experience not as emotion recollected in tranquillity, but as possessing all the continuing tension of drama…. (pp. 89-91)

The same account of weaknesses and strengths can be made with regard to the content of Walcott's verse. Senghor declared 'emotion is negro', but Walcott's early verse was a deliberate attempt to avoid the clichés of passion that invest so many Caribbean literary works. (p. 91)

One has to compare Walcott's early poetry with other Caribbean verse of the period to realize how unusual was Walcott's formidable intelligence and technical control. But what has been said may have already suggested that in this early period Walcott could be a victim of his intelligence. It could raise a veil between Walcott and his subject. His writing about the Caribbean has little of the area's experienced presence. There is no hint of heat and intense light: they are filtered out in the 'green night' of Walcott's intelligence. (p. 92)

Walcott however is a formidably self-aware poet, and he has consciously developed out of the imprisoning shell of his intelligence. Not intellectual concepts, but the physical environment of the Caribbean, has become more and more the bedrock of his imagination. He accepts and explores the existence that lies beyond the subjective human consciousness. (pp. 93-4)

If Walcott has turned more and more to the Caribbean predicament in all its aspects, he has returned to the themes of his earlier poetry with deeper understanding. Sex, which he earlier attacks as a West Indian preoccupation …, is still seen as a destructive force, but in a poem like 'Goats and Monkeys' he reaches towards the paradox that lies beyond the destructive futilities of sexual passion touched on in the near-perfect but minor 'A Careful Passion'. (p. 96)

As Walcott reaches beyond the immediate context of the Caribbean which is his starting point into metaphysical concepts, so he explores towards the wider predicament of the Negro. We see this in 'The Glory Trumpeter'. Eddie Calvert, in the lonely exultation of his playing, eyes sealed like a 'deacon at his prayer', pours out music created in the alembic of Negro suffering and history. But Walcott does not stand back with the balanced judgment shown in 'Ruins of a Great House'. He shifts still further away from blame of others, to an acceptance in himself of his part in 'all whom race and exile have defeated'…. Only as the percipient, more mature poet does Walcott see the Negro music still appealing for the emancipation of the Caribbean Negroes' less privileged brothers in the States, and incriminating those who do not hear. (pp. 97-8)

But, ultimately, if Walcott escapes from the confines of his intellect in one direction, he only finds himself confronted with yet another coast. The image of 'the castaway' is one which bears deep and continual consideration. The strains inherent in the West Indian situation—where Walcott, unlike most West Indian writers, has insisted on remaining—are intensified for the serious artist. The artist confronts the imperfections and vagaries of life with the absolute standards of art. A writer like A. L. Hendriks can retire into a private world of formal perfection. Walcott refuses to do this, and so a perfect poem contradicts life, the experience of life contradicts the work of art. This is not just a matter of perfection against imperfection, but of the conflict between two different modes of being: the living experience is essentially different to the experienced art. In trying to express the totality of experience the poet finds himself caught, a castaway, against the radius of the possibilities of poetry. He is locked in the self-generated visions of the poet's brain…. Art is inadequate. But, an island within an island, the poet is inadequate even to his art. The craft moves beyond the man, at once more perfect, and infinitely less, than the creative personality. All this lies behind the poem 'The Castaway'. Here Walcott portrays the poet lying isolated…. He does not state that in writing the poem he is in fact rescued; not released from the island predicament, true, but driven in the boat of the poem across the seas of the imagination, where to travel is to arrive. (pp. 98-9)

Cameron King and Louis James, "In Solitude for Company: The Poetry of Derek Walcott," in The Islands in Between: Essays on West Indian Literature, edited by Louis James (© Oxford University Press 1968; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press), Oxford University Press, London, 1968, pp. 86-99.

Edward Baugh

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Derek Walcott has always had, even in his rawest apprenticeship, a head for metaphor. From the merest pastiche, the occasional and wholly original metaphor would burst to signal a talent that would endure. This gift has been one of the chief constants in his development and in his adventures among various styles…. That gift has itself undergone some development. (pp. 47-8)

A few preliminary observations about Walcott are necessary to help establish a context for the discussion of metaphor in his poetry. The first may seem, initially at least, rather trivial. In his first major collection, In a Green Night …, there are only two poems in which he does not follow the old convention of beginning each line with a capital. In The Castaway … only seventeen of the thirty-three poems follow that convention, while in the latest book, The Gulf,… all the poems are in the new convention. These statistics indicate more than a readiness to be in line with typographical fashion. They indicate Walcott's general hankering after a kind of poetic plainness, after a simple, direct, "natural" style. His development in this pursuit of plainness can be seen in a comparison of In a Green Night with The Castaway and The Gulf….

[The] overall impression left by [In a Green Night] is not so much one of "crisp," "clear," "cold" verse, as of an exuberance of language, a delight in the rich music of words, in the grand and sonorous verbal gesture. (p. 48)

[Some] of his strongest early influences came from poets who excelled at sonorous vocables and the histrionic line, at intricate playing with the more obviously musical qualities of words—poets like Dylan Thomas, Hart Crane, the early Stevens, the early Lowell; and there is some of the grandeur of seventeenth-century poetry. I think of poems like "A City's Death by Fire," "Steersman, my Brother," "Castiliane," "En Mi-Careme."… Of course, it isn't just the sound of the words or the rhythm which carries the echoes, but also the imagery and the whole way of using language. This Walcott [is] tipsy on the sweet and heady wine of words…. (pp. 49-50)

Walcott has not abandoned the ringing line, and it would be a pity if he did, but he has come to use it with less prodigality and a greater functional discretion. He has been moving towards sparer yet, in a way, subtler rhythms, more angular perhaps, nearer to normal speech and prose rhythms, and to this extent we may say that he has been developing a more natural, a homelier style. (p. 50)

The verse forms of his later poetry are, on the whole, freer, more open, contributing to the overall effect of comparative directness and plainness. The rhetorical flourish and the rich melody are used now more discreetly, with more specific functional point. The title poem of The Gulf is a model of a firmly controlled blend of eloquence and rhythmic emphasis on the one hand and the plain-sounding and low-keyed on the other…. The three-line stanza pattern, giving a sense of order, seems to want to remember terza rima, but there is no attempt at any regular rhyme-scheme and there is great freedom of movement within the three-line structure…. (p. 51)

What I am talking about is not simply a question of "style." The stylistic obsession is a function of Walcott's relentless tracking of the elusive and perhaps purely imaginary animal the simple truth. He seems to believe sometimes that somewhere there are realities which one can call the essentials of life and which one can, if one is cunning enough, steal upon and transfix, and that they will be characterised by a startling plainness and simplicity. What he is charting is not just a style of writing, but a view of life. (p. 52)

Like many another poet who recognises a "sacred duty to the Word" of poetry, Walcott is stricken by a nagging mistrust of art, of the art of words. There is a fear that poetry is ultimately unsatisfactory as a mode of achieving the kind of being which he covets. (pp. 52-3)

This mistrust of the art of words expresses itself partly in a desire to get beyond metaphor. (p. 53)

Walcott recognises the life-and-death game which he is playing with metaphor. Here we have a poet who moves in metaphor as in his native element, straining after a style, a life past metaphor, past poetry, which is, I suggest, essentially metaphorical. The truth is that any simplicity, any plainness, any lucidity which he achieves must be qualified by an increasing subtlety and centrality of metaphorical language…. Perhaps the plain truths which he seeks are not so plain after all—they involve a kind of complexity—and perhaps, even if they are plain, it is impossible for mortal sight to see them in their plainness. Any declaration by Walcott that his aim is to write "clear," "crisp," "lucent" verse, verse glowing with "the hard coral light," must be taken with reservation. For this is the same Walcott who is fascinated by effects of opacity and of seeing things through glass. And there is no feeling that this state of affairs is simply what he wishes to get away from. On the contrary, he seems to accept it as a permanent condition of being…. (pp. 53-4)

I would say that in Walcott's poetry there is a tension between the ideas of simplicity/lucidity/directness and the ideas of complexity/opacity/obliquity. The true life of the poetry is within the ambience of that tension. The two sets of ideas are in reality inseparable, since truth is at once simple and complex….

Metaphor affords the poet a powerful means of expressing the tension of which I speak. Metaphor simplifies and multiplies at one and the same time. The concentrating force of metaphor is the simplest way of expressing what is to be expressed, but the concentration is liberating rather than limiting. (p. 54)

Throughout Walcott's poetry we will find the memorable and illuminating metaphor…. Very often these metaphors are not essential in respect of the total meaning of the poem as a whole; their force is largely confined to the moment of their use and does not radically affect or modify the poem. The poem develops an idea or an argument by means of a rational logic. The argument can be fairly well paraphrased. Metaphors occur along the way. Their effect on the poem is chiefly cumulative. They do not themselves constitute the basic or essential mode of the poem's existence. I am thinking, for example, of such poems as "Ruins of a Great House," "A Far Cry from Africa" and "A Lesson for this Sunday." Sometimes we can perceive a pattern or interplay of images/metaphors suggesting itself, but that pattern is again largely additive and two-dimensional. (p. 55)

I think we can see that in some of the more recent poems, certain impulses of metaphor struggling for fulfilment in other, usually earlier poems, enjoy a kind of fulfilment. One can almost say that poems like "The Almond Trees," "Crusoe's Island" and "The Gulf" belong to an essentially different mode from poems like "Ruins of a Great House," "A Far Cry from Africa" and "A Lesson for this Sunday," and the difference has to do with metaphor. (This is not to say that the modes are mutually exclusive in respect of these poems.) (p. 56)

Ultimately, and this should be true of any poem, the nature of the poem's structural being determines the quality of the poem as a comment on its chosen subject…. Further, one ought to be able to see that differences in the nature or quality (scope, richness, resilience, viability) of the comment between a poem like "The Almond Trees" and an earlier one like "Ruins of a Great House," which is on a roughly similar theme, are intimately related to such differences as there are in the ways in which the two poems work. By trying in this essay to indicate something of the way in which Walcott makes poems and of his preoccupation with the nature and capacity of poetry, I hope that I have suggested a way of seeing any Walcott poem in its totality, whatever its theme, whether West Indian-ness or suffering or cruelty or beauty or exile or love or lust…. (p. 58)

Edward Baugh, "Metaphor and Plainness in the Poetry of Derek Walcott," in The Literary Half-Yearly (© The Literary Half-Yearly), Vol. XI, No. 2, July, 1970, pp. 47-58.

Denis Donoghue

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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 just word….

In diction, Mr. Walcott is striking, but often what he strikes is a hard bargain, practicing usury in the transaction between language and feeling. He writes everything so large that the reader is inclined to deduct something, to keep the situation reasonable. An impression of excess arises from Mr. Walcott's poems, especially when they insist upon converting the natural forms into human terms….

The finest poems are those in which Mr. Walcott's sensibility communes with centuries of historical experience, the long perspective of life in place and time. Perhaps in these poems the venom of his own promises, needs, and aspirations is dispelled; there have been thousands of years before now. My favorite among such poems is "Air."… It is a lovely poem, and there are other poems in the book almost as fine.

Denis Donoghue, "Waiting for the End," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1971 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. 16, No. 8, May 6, 1971, p. 27.∗

Samuel Omo Asein

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Walcott's treatment of the theme of death and the inscrutable ultimate power that governs the universe, and his moral statements on the tussle between the God-head and the Devil in us are various extensions of a central concern with the precariousness of the human condition. The dominant theme in The Sea at Dauphin is the perennial struggle between life and death. The theme recurs in a less obvious form in Ti-Jean and His Brothers, Malcauchon and Dream on Monkey Mountain. In each case Death is presented as a perennial source of anxiety an intractable Force which man is constantly trying to reconcile himself with. (p. 70)

The most intriguing question which Walcott has continued to 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 utter despair because he constantly reminds us of certain possibilities open to man. Man's dignity, he seems to be saying is determined not by the circumstances of his being per se but by the extent to which he succeeds in reconciling himself with his world without compromising the essentials of his being. The significance of his works derives largely from his intense feeling for man in his day to day struggles, and from his sustained exploration of the problem of being. In sum, they amount to a poetic statement of man's struggle for self-fulfilment and his attempt to attain a harmonius existence in nature. It is the profundity of that statement and its universal applicability which ultimately establish the pre-eminent value of his works and have found for him a just place among the ranks of the leading poets and playwrights of our time. (p. 78)

Samuel Omo Asein, "Derek Walcott: The Man and His Ideas," in The Literary Half-Yearly (© The Literary Half-Yearly), Vol. XVII, No. 2, July, 1976, pp. 59-79.

Bruce King

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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)

[Another early volume, Poems, published in Jamaica,] shows a concern with the racial, economic and cultural problems of the region. 'Montego Bay—Travelogue II' contrasts the rich white American tourists with the poor black fishermen and waiters…. While Walcott's early verse reveals a consciousness of racial and social problems, the Jamaica poems are most striking for rhymed verse forms and witty puns that were fashionable in American and British literary circles during the 1940s and '50s.

The distance between such early attitudes of irony and protest and the more fully thought out positions later identified with Walcott can be seen in his Selected Poems…. The now famous 'A Far Cry from Africa' treats of the Mau Mau uprising in terms that mock the usual justifications for and criticisms of colonialism. The ironies are those of compassion in the face of abstractions…. Although the poem attacks 'the drunken officer of British rule' and the 'statistics' that 'justify' colonial policy, the second stanza introduces a more encompassing theme, using religious imagery, in which all forms of violence are seen as part of man's long cruelty towards, and wish to dominate others…. The poem is remarkable for its complexity of emotions. The elaborately rhymed stanzas and regular five-stress lines give formal order to what are essentially confused, irreconcilably opposed feelings: identification with black Africa, disgust with the killing of both white and black innocents, distrust of motives, love of the English language, and dislike of those who remain emotionally uninvolved.

Many of the poems of this period treat of the author's divided heritage in paradoxical celebrations—of compassion towards the dead slave owner, the dead conqueror, or in 'The Train' towards his English grandfather. A recognition of a shared humanity, and more particularly of a common heritage of poetry, changes accusations of guilt to feelings of compassion…. There is, however, an abstract quality to the poetry of this period, as if Walcott were rather thinking about than feeling his subject-matter…. The fusion of races involves a mixture of guilty pasts, but from such a mixture rebirth is possible. (pp. 120-22)

Walcott knows that protest in itself cannot give birth to a vital West Indian society. Many of his poems attack the politicians and intellectuals who have turned protest into demagogy and who mistake expressions of anger for art. The complex rhymes, stanzas and subtle patterns of repetition, allusion and contrast in 'Laventville' show that the best engaged writing results from a commitment to literary craft. But instead of the inherited forms of the early poems, Walcott's style has become much plainer and closer to his own speech patterns…. Walcott's poems in The Castaway … use the myth of Crusoe to suggest that the New World is a new beginning, a new Eden. Both white and black have been shipwrecked and while those of African descent suffer an amnesia of their racial past, it is from such forgetfulness that a new culture began. Walcott sees himself in the line of such poets of the Americas as Whitman, Neruda and St John Perse. Art will give form and self-awareness to this new society. But in 'Crusoe's Island' Walcott admits the limitations of art replacing belief. (p. 124)

What is needed is the acceptance of being West Indian…. In contrast the governments of the islands promoted a folk art which has become sterile and artificial. The folk culture of the past cannot be resurrected. The Black Power intellectuals mimic foreign revolutions in urging the people 'to acquire pride which meant abandoning their individual dignity'; even the fury of the intellectual was 'artificially generated' by an imitation of foreign 'metropolitan anger'. Thus Walcott angrily attacks politicians and intellectuals in The Gulf [and Sea Grapes]…. (p. 125)

Part of the power of Walcott's long autobiographical poem, Another Life,… results from the setting of the author's life within his community, the sensitivity with which his childhood is shown, and the way the verse universalises the particularities of St Lucian society without sentimentalising or claiming a false dignity. Dialect and patois sit comfortably alongside Latin, rhyming prayers in French, and a variety of complex verse forms and rhythms which seem necessary to the range of experiences being expressed. Since the nineteenth century the confessional autobiography has replaced the epic; the author's spiritual development and relationship to his culture have taken the role formerly given to the warrior or exploring hero. Autobiography is particularly relevant to those in an emerging nation or rapidly changing society and has resulted in some of the best West Indian and African literature. Walcott's examination of the divided consciousness of the mulatto in a mixed community—the evocations of childhood, the stages of maturation, middle-class life, family, individuals in the community, school, the priest, local merchants, friendships, early loves—recreates a world of which the narrator is a product and in which he is still involved. By using the confessional mode which Robert Lowell made popular, Walcott has produced a classic of West Indian literature which celebrates the local landscape, the many races, mixed culture and languages of the islands. (p. 129)

Bruce King, "West Indies II: Walcott, Brathwaite and Authenticity," in his The New English Literatures: Cultural Nationalism in a Changing World (© Bruce King 1980; reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press, Inc.; in Canada by Macmillan London and Basingstoke), St. Martin's Press, 1980, pp. 118-39.∗

Robert D. Hamner

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[The] study of Walcott's career as a dramatist must begin with the play he regards as his first, Henri Christophe—and it is written in verse. (p. 52)

The plot unfolds in Haiti and concerns black characters for the most part but there is little besides to mark the play as West Indian. A quotation from Hamlet and one from Richard III, heading respectively each of the two parts of the play, are in keeping with the language Walcott puts into the mouths of illiterate ex-slaves…. The major problem is with the Jacobean polish on words and images that seems inconsistent with the rough-hewn dignity of the characters being portrayed. When Christophe utters fine poetic lines about his 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 unidentifiable location. (p. 54)

Walcott's themes and attitudes in the plays, as in his early poetry, are predominantly weighty and somber, probing psychological motivations and philosophical questions. It is as though he skirts the middle ground, feeling comfortable only with the high seriousness of Jacobean English or the wry intellectualism of more recent European writers. The spelling puns with words and names in Harry Dernier, for example, have to be seen and contemplated rather than heard to be appreciated. There is an emotional restraint, an abstract dryness, about Henri Christophe and Harry Dernier that prevents their taking on a full-bodied life. (p. 55)

By comparison, Walcott's third drama, The Sea at Dauphin,… is vibrant with the sounds of life. The Sea at Dauphin is Walcott's first folk play and it is also the most perfectly executed of his early dramas. It would be tempting to assume that the effectiveness derives from his turning to the setting of St. Lucia and to the language he has heard spoken since childhood. These are important factors; but far more crucial to him during this apprenticeship phase was his discovery of a precedent-setting model in the work of Irish writer John Millington Synge. Walcott has admitted his debt to Riders to the Sea, and he could hardly have found a more instructive example to follow…. In the West Indies, as in Synge's Ireland, the folk idiom and imagination continue to thrive. There is a current in plays like Riders to the Sea and The Sea at Dauphin that is elemental, close to the sources of life.

In these plays the sea represents the unpredictable forces of nature with which men have to contend for their lives. Theirs is a daily battle which, if unspectacular, is still no less heroic than the Promethean theft of fire from the gods. Such a comparison is not as unwarranted as it sounds on the surface. Walcott's Afa, a fisherman, works hard and receives little return; he recounts the litany of his failures and of the fishermen who have died, but even in the face of inevitable defeat he defies the sea and the God who ignores his prayers. (pp. 55-6)

[Ione] moves deeper into St. Lucian folk tradition with the introduction of a greater number of characters, including an old prophetess, Theresine. Passions run high in this play…. The central conflict is between two mountain families over land. Their uneasy peace turns to violence because of marital infidelity, pride, and the thirst for revenge….

[In] spite of the concreteness of local setting, character, and idiom, there are also elements which generate a pervasive tone reminiscent of Grecian classics—the inevitability of brooding fate (personified in the oracle Theresine), the chorus of women, and the Greek names of several of the characters. Like Teiresias, Theresine can foresee but is helpless to prevent impending doom. (p. 57)

Walcott treats marital infidelity, familial strife, and personal pride within a remote mountain settlement with the same tragic high seriousness he accords Christophe…. Walcott ventures beneath the external simplicity of lives narrowly circumscribed by accidents of birth and history to explore their potential for great drama. The actions of despotic slave-kings and of downtrodden fishermen may be disparate in the impact of their influence on history, but they are equal in what they reveal about the dimensions of human behavior.

[Drums and Colours], Walcott's fifth play, exploits these dimensions by presenting characters of legendary proportion side by side with representatives of countless little men whose legacy is their ability to survive. The juxtaposition is subtle but effective, and quite revealing. (p. 58)

Drums and Colours, which marks Walcott's departure from the earlier apprenticeship plays, is a West Indian historical pageant commissioned for the opening of the First Federal Parliament of the West Indies in 1958. Because of the requirements of spanning 400 years of history, the play ranges too broadly to be well unified. To aid continuity, Walcott utilizes for the first time an element of West Indian life that has never entered into his earlier plays. In addition to the coin as a linking device and the character names that recur, he frames the episodic action of the basic plot and provides interludes between scenes with a band of carnival dancers. The songs, dances, and antics of these celebrants exemplify the panache of West Indian life that rises above the brutal history of the islands. By including fundamental properties of Carnival—music, dance, masking, pageantry, mime, and parody—Walcott moves significantly nearer to the kind of drama that is adequate to the rich diversity of his cultural experience.

Walcott's next play, Ti-Jean and His Brothers, was conceived in the same year with Drums and Colours, but except for their closeness in time and certain technical similarities the two plays belong to separate stages of Walcott's career. Drums and Colours is a loosely constructed, somewhat didactic pageant. In spite of good character studies and convincing scenes, it lacks the kind of concentration that is desirable in drama. Such weaknesses may be unavoidable, considering the purpose for which the play was written. It is important in Walcott's career for two reasons: for the first time he opens his stage to a vast array of visual and audile experiences; second, he brings together his most prevalent character types. (pp. 60-1)

Ti-Jean and His Brothers is based on a St. Lucian folktale, and Walcott succeeded well with his dramatized version in retaining the storyteller's simple, narrative force. At the same time the play is, as Walcott described it, "stylized." (p. 68)

No prose summation does justice to the color and movement, the dance, music, and humor of Ti-Jean and His Brothers. Since its message and manner of presentation are so uniquely West Indian in flavor, this play stands as Walcott's first technically integrated West Indian drama. It incorporates the major ingredients of his varied culture, including the prominent figures from Walcott's emerging gallery of character types…. [In] Ti-Jean himself is the character of the trickster hero, one of the most popular figures in West Indian stories. Unable to overcome by force of knowledge or physical might, he can endure like his enslaved ancestors by outwitting those who have power. Overall, the play exemplifies the kind of foot-, life-, and earth-asserting force that Walcott called for in "Meanings." It is perhaps his best play between The Sea at Dauphin and Dream on Monkey Mountain. (pp. 71-2)

[Walcott has said that Dream on Monkey Mountain] was about the West Indian search for identity, and about the damage that colonialism does to the soul. He felt that the situation he described was true not only in the Third World, but in any society where men have been reduced to a meaningless, purposeless existence. He feared that some people in attempting to find a way out of their predicament might end up escaping from reality itself. Such was the danger he saw in the movement popular among many Negroes of returning spiritually or physically to Africa. In another discussion …, he expressed the opinion that his countrymen were mistaken in diluting "… our real power, a human thing, with the hallucination of sharing it, either with Africa or America." His solution: to find a truly West Indian sense of belonging. "We must look inside."

Dream on Monkey Mountain dramatizes that philosophy. It reappears five years later in … O Babylon! Walcott could hardly have selected a group that is farther removed than the Rastafarians are from the mainstream of modern Western culture. The sect practices abstention from the material trappings of civilization, making a virtue of poverty, until they can escape Babylonian exile and return to Africa. (p. 116)

In the triumphant finale, stress is placed on a heavenly Zion—perhaps too much stress, in light of Walcott's expressed concern about the hallucination of escaping from the real world. There are, however, explicit passages within the play where he makes it clear that Aaron's strength is in his growing sense of belonging. Aaron spends two days walking in the clear air of the mountains and he comes to love that part of his native Jamaica. At the moment when it seems that he has lost everything, he finds peace inside—where Walcott insists man must look to find his authentic identity.

In spite of the leveling influence of that central theme, and the revisions for more unified structure, O Babylon! is still an unsatisfying, somewhat romantic play…. Walcott would have done well to have developed those forces in Aaron's life that give him the strength to believe, rather than trail off into a nebulous vision of future rewards in Zion. There are fine poetic passages and moments of good theater, but in O Babylon! Walcott seems to be refining formal techniques and reworking old themes rather than exploring in any particular new direction. (p. 121)

[Remembrance] exhibits in its title the general tendency of Walcott's writing in the middle and late 1970s to conjure up the past. While he seems to be settling into a more concentrated form, he shows less diversity and a calmer, more measured pace.

Compared with most of his previous plays, there is not much physical action in Remembrance. The little music that occurs is primarily for supporting mood. Although the opening scene is a drawing room in contemporary Port-of-Spain, Walcott employs a flashback technique to start the main story many years earlier, before Trinidad became independent. His protagonist, Albert Jordan, has been induced after many requests from the editor of the Belmont Bugle to confide his thoughts to a tape recorder. Since Jordan—a retired, locally prominent schoolmaster and poet—was involved more or less inadvertently in the country's independence and Black Power movements, the Bugle wants a record of his views. With this convenient framework, Walcott accomplishes seamless traditions in time and place. (pp. 127-28)

Walcott manages to include a great deal of rhetoric and exposition in this play by having Jordan disclaim the philosophical tenets that he had lived by. The primary vehicle for drawing his essential ideas together is Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." In several brief sequences, Jordan is shown back in his classroom declaiming the virtues of Gray's message. Jordan's theme (Gray's and Walcott's as well) is that the individual human being is of worth despite his humble birth and provincial surroundings. (pp. 128-29)

Another play from this period which recalls the past, in a way slightly different from Remembrance, is Pantomime…. It is not retrospective in the sense of looking back at the past, but it revives once more Walcott's familiar Robinson Crusoe theme.

On the surface Pantomime appears inconsequential. The plot involves a running argument between Harry, English manager of a second-rate tourist hotel, and his black assistant Jackson, an erstwhile calypsonian. Their ostensible point of contention is the artistic propriety of a nightclub pantomime that Harry, who is a retired actor, wishes to perform for his seasonal patrons. In spite of its limited cast of two and its apparently light plot, however, the play comes close to delivering more than it promises at first. The narrative takes an ironic turn and quickly becomes seriously involved when Jackson suggests that they switch roles in their Crusoe skit, he becoming the master and Harry assuming Friday's place. (p. 130)

Pantomime appears to rely rather heavily on exposition and it seems too ambivalent in intention. (p. 131)

Remembrance and Pantomime are compact dramas and they ring true to life. They have a sure touch, but they lack the unified force of Walcott's best work—they do not fare well in comparison with Ti-Jean and His Brothers, Dream on Monkey Mountain, and The Joker of Seville. There is an air of stillness, if not of complacency, about these two plays that contributes to a general impression that Walcott might have been rounding off a certain phase of his career. (pp. 136-37)

Robert D. Hamner, in his Derek Walcott (copyright © 1981 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1981, 175 p.

Helen Vendler

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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 work….

Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas, Pound, Eliot, and Auden followed Yeats in Walcott's ventriloquism. It seemed that his learnedness might be the death of him, especially since he so prized it….

Walcott's agenda gradually shaped itself. He would not give up the paternal island patois; he would not give up patois to write only in formal English. He would not give up his topic—his geographical place, his historical time, and his mixed blood; neither would he give up aesthetic balance…. He was in all things "a divided child," loyal to both "the stuffed dark nightingale of Keats" and the "virginal unpainted world" of the islands…. Walcott has written of "the inevitable problem of all island artists: the choice of home or exile, self-realization or spiritual betrayal of one's country. Travelling widens this breach."

And yet Walcott's new book is called, not entirely ironically, The Fortunate Traveller. The degree to which Walcott is able to realize a poem still varies. He is still, even as a fully developed writer, peculiarly at the mercy of influence, this time the influence of Robert Lowell, as in the poem "Old New England."…

This represents Walcott's new apprenticeship to the American vernacular…. But no one can take on a new idiom overnight, and Walcott's pentameters stubbornly retain their British cadences. It is American words, and not yet American rhythms, that find their way unevenly into these new poems. They ruin some lines and enliven others. Since the only point of using colloquialisms is to have them sound colloquial, Walcott loses momentum when his Americanisms ring ill on the ear. (p. 23)

This sort of uncertainty in diction is disconcerting in Walcott, since he has many virtues: he is always thinking, he does not write sterile exercises in verse, he is working out a genuine spiritual history from his first volume to his current one, he keeps enlarging his range of style and the reaches of his subject. And when he errs, he often errs in a humanly admirable direction, the direction of literal truth. The trouble is, literal truth is often the enemy of poetic truth….

The Fortunate Traveller is divided into portions called North, South, North, and the division is a symbolic one, putting the two terms into a continual dialectic rather than a sullen opposition. The patois poems in this new volume still seem to me unconvincing…. The experiment is worth trying (and Walcott has used patois in every phase of his play-writing, too) but, once again, however much it reflects the truth of Walcott's own divided mind and inheritance, it has not yet found a conclusive and satisfying aesthetic relation to his "high" diction….

When Walcott's lines fall effortlessly and well, as in a remarkable poem of exile called "The Hotel Normandie Pool," he seems the master of both social topic and personal memory…. This seems to me Walcott at his most natural, worldly, and accomplished…. [No] labored effects of unnatural diction mar the lines. (p. 26)

Walcott's steady ironies and his cultivated detachment in the midst of a personal plight make him an observer to be reckoned with; he will remain for this century one of its most candid narrators of the complicated and even desperate destiny of the man of great sensibility and talent born in a small colonial outpost, educated far beyond the standard of his countrymen, and pitched—by sensibility, talent, and education—into an isolation that deepens with every word he writes (regardless of the multitude by whom he is read). This is in part the story of many writers—it could be said to be the story of Beckett. But in Walcott's case the story is deepened by the added element of mixed blood, an unconcealable and inescapable social identity. This has driven Walcott to the theater, and to his tidal efforts against solitude. But these efforts recede, and the writer finds himself where he was, alone, with the brief moment of community and coherence dissipated by time and the dispersal of companions.

The wars between races and nations now seem permanent to Walcott as personal isolation is permanent; but just as a momentary incandescence of joint effort is possible, so, in a time of wars, there can be a merciful respite of quiet, a "season of phantasmal peace." It is, one could say, the lyric season when a hush falls on the epic conflict, and a chorus can be heard in the polyphony of song. And though one may quicken to the Walcott of observant sharpness, brusque speaking, and social passion, voiced in patois, it is the lyric Walcott who silences commentary. The best poem in this new collection is the poem Walcott placed last, "The Season of Phantasmal Peace."… The poem says nothing explicit about Empire and the oppression of colonies, about dialects of white English and island English, about the power to rise above the immediate that is conferred on a poet by his allegiance to song, about the social identification that a black poet especially feels for those who share dark holes in houses, or about the betrayals and desertions entailed in a life lived between black and white, empire and outpost, island and mainland. But the poem is the transcendent clarification of all that darkness; and it holds the darkness back for its own instant of phantasmal peace. It is unashamed in its debt to Shakespeare, Keats, and the Bible; but it has assimilated them all into its own fabric. (pp. 26-7)

Helen Vendler, "Poet of Two Worlds," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1982 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXIX, No. 3, March 4, 1982, pp. 23, 26-7.

Nicholas Bromell

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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, nationality, and calling all raise practical and worldly problems. They are susceptible, moreover, to description and analysis. Unlike many of us, Walcott doesn't have to languish in hopelessly vague perplexities about the meaning of self. For him, the issues are starkly drawn—in "black and white," as he would say, in the contrasting colors of skin and in the look of a printed page.

This concern with race, however, raises one difficulty many Americans will have with Walcott's work. We've been brought up, at least in the liberal culture, to regard race as something superficial, an accident of inconsequential genes…. The first step in understanding a poet like Walcott is to shed the presumption that race is a pseudo-problem, a convention or a metaphor. For when Walcott writes about race, as he does in almost every poem, he makes clear that he [is] writing about one of the fundamental mysteries of human culture.

Of course, it would have been much easier for Walcott to pass over this mystery by merely dramatizing the contrast between black and white. Walcott could have defined himself purely in opposition to white culture. By thinking of himself as everything that is "not white" or "not capitalist" or "not north," he could have created a soul out of negatives. Instead, Walcott painstakingly attends to every trace of each race and culture in himself. He does not exclude. He incorporates. And at the same time, he records and preserves. (pp. 12-13)

Walcott's remarkable range of voice and mood is what enables him to embrace so much experience without destroying it. He can write with a tropical abundance of imagery and rhythm that recalls the prose of Garcia Marquez. He can compose lines of a chiselled coolness that make us think of Yeats. He can write Caribbean and New England dialects. He can do a fair imitation of Georges Seferis, and he can echo the very sound of Latin, with its flat fields of vowels and its sharp, dark cypresses of consonants.

But although Walcott easily speaks in a variety of voices, his underlying tone throughout this book is grave, elegiac, Roman. He stands at the margin of a great, dying empire, one whose armies have for centuries washed like surf across distant islands…. Though he may widen his own soul and strive to assimilate both the good and the evil of this dominant culture, he fears that he has been swallowed himself. The course of empire has gathered all the scattered islands of the world into its own destiny. There may no longer be a place "outside." (p. 13)

Nicholas Bromell, "Having to Ask: The Loss of Self in Contemporary Culture," in Boston Review (copyright © 1982 by the Boston Critic, Inc.), Vol. VII, No. 2, April, 1982, pp. 9-13.∗

Kenneth Funsten

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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.

Peter Bland

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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)

Peter Bland, "Pale Assassin," in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1982), Vol. 22, No. 3, June, 1982, pp. 73-6 [the excerpt of Walcott's poetry used here was originally published in his The Fortunate Traveller (reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1980, 1981 by Derek Walcott), Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981, pp. 73-6].

Blake Morrison

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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.∗

Alan Jenkins

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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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