Derek Walcott Walcott, Derek (Vol. 14) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Walcott, Derek 1930–

Walcott is a West Indian poet and playwright. With the publication in 1962 of In a Green Night, he was hailed as the first outstanding Caribbean poet. A recurring theme in Walcott's verse is the isolation of man, and in particular the isolation of the artist. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 89-92.)

James Dickey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Derek Walcott is a Negro from the Caribbean, and most of his poems are related to this fact…. Mr. Walcott's Africa obsesses him, and in several fine poems [in "Selected Poems"] it undergoes a powerful and painful transmutation into symbolic ground, the better known for having never been seen. "How can I turn from Africa and live?" the poet asks, but live he does, walking through his Antillean world and speaking with anger and imagination of what he sees.

One is left, finally, with a complex, troubling sense of the Caribbean Islands, their reality and unreality, their "filth and foam," their curious and fateful role as the ex-slave's place of dislocation and now, strangely—and often wonderfully—his spectacular home ground. And Mr. Walcott's book, doubly welcome in a time of timidity and correctness, is very much there as well.

James Dickey, "Different Voices, Different Tones," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1964 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 13, 1964, p. 44.∗

Valerie Trueblood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The West Indian poet Derek Walcott published his first book of poetry in 1949, when he was still in his teens. His second, In a Green Night, came out in 1962, and since that time he has given us five more (as well as numerous plays) and a world. "World" has lost its punch from being applied to the districts of too many writers; I wish it could be reclaimed for Walcott's poetry, which keeps an axis and has size, and sometimes has a grand, planetary movement carrying the movement on its surface. When I read The Gulf I thought of the three-year-old next door who called the white end-papers of his book "sky". This very largeness, of subject and of feeling, has seemed a flaw to some critics, and it is true that Walcott's poems run the risk of the impersonal and the rhetorical. It seems to me they defeat these enemies and in doing so many of them move up and away from the common run of poems and close to the best ones.

Of course, affinity with the best can be seen as a flaw, when much poetry is code, or tender hallooing to the self. Walcott is a balanced, meditative poet; he regards, thinks, looks for resolution, blames angrily but specifically, and does not single himself out as the last sane man in bedlam, nor yet as the most burdened, the prisoner or the victim. First and last he praises. He makes his reader work, but what we find out is something more than how complex he is….

[When Walcott] looks at Nature it doesn't come apart into components, it enlarges, and includes him. The heat of the "unsubtle, unequivocal sun" comes down on all confusion and sometimes "the wind smells of salt / and a certain breeze lifts / the sprigs of the coralita / as if, like us, / lifting our heads, at our happiest, / it too smells the freshness of life." In "Sainte Lucie", the long poem at the center of Sea Grapes, the secret "for which the dolphins kept diving / that should have rounded the day" seems to be reality, the "something always being missed" that eludes him until he finds it by means of the poem.

Sea Grapes starts on an island and goes everywhere, always coming back, as Walcott has done, to islands. Many of his themes sound in the title poem … the wanderer, home, "the ancient war between obsession and responsibility", the possible consolation of art….

He has absorbed so many influences that picking them out of his poetry is like saying aha, baking powder! when you taste a cake. If the image of people as harvest in "The Bright Field" "derives" from Auden's "As I Walked out one Evening" it also derives from the Bible and from collective perception…. His alternating anger and pacifism have their roots in Caribbean life and in the traits and gifts that make him a poet. His struggle with his history and circumstances is part of the struggle to be truthful as well as to be ready for signal moments like the one in "The Bright Field", of release from history. (p. 7)

His political poems are notable for their lack of satisfaction and their sense of responsibility. There is no poet sitting in them with all the right ideas. Still, some of them have such authority that it seems there must be self-righteousness too, lurking somewhere; there isn't….

Walcott has been criticized at home for not making the break with the great tradition of English literature and writing in "the language of the tribe". He has written and talked about this subject; he knows the times "a bush would turn in the wind / with a toothless giggle, / and certain roots refused English". His way is to find what we didn't know was there is English, while keeping its...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Derek Walcott's superb new collection ["The Star-Apple Kingdom"] is described by its publishers as an "odyssey," and justly. The book opens with a long narrative about a poor mulatto sailor in flight northward from Trinidad, closes with the title poem, which dramatizes revolutionary movements of mind and feeling in Jamaica, and includes several shorter pieces set in island villages in St. Croix and elsewhere. The only items remote from the Caribbean circuit are a salute to Joseph Brodsky and a memorial to Robert Lowell.

The chief preoccupation, though, isn't peregrination, but power—or rather power and its undoings, actual and imagined, temporary and permanent. And contemporary political realities—the developed nations versus the third world—are frequently in sight….

The exploitative masters who populate these poems are a various lot—slave-ship captains and kingpin admirals, as well as capitalist tycoons and representatives of the classic 19th-century imperialist cultures…. And the causes of the masters' undoings are as various as the characters themselves. (p. 11)

[Throughout] "The Star-Apple Kingdom," the impression is of a subject known to its marrow, explored in microcosm and macrocosm, past and present, both for its political bearings and for the light it casts on the moral development of our kind….

It is scripture nowadays that political poetry is almost...

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G. E. Murray

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the past decade, Derek Walcott has established himself as one of the very best English poets. The Star-Apple Kingdom enhances that reputation.

Walcott's special strength … is in the narrative, which depends on an accumulation of effects. Shifting from island patois to burlap idiom to eloquent statement, Walcott follows the miracles of the Caribbean and other "forlorn stations," achieving a respect for and harmony with nature. Even when he means to be strident, as with his description of a mysterious woman as "a black umbrella blown inside out / by the wind of revolution," he assumes a classical stance, Elizabethan airs. Not that archaism or direct influence are involved. Rather a particular skill and emotion has survived the centuries and found in Walcott an exceptional modern-day host.

G. E. Murray, "Six Poets," in The Nation (copyright 1979 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 228, No. 19, May 19, 1979, pp. 578, 580.∗

John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Remembrance] is typical poet's theater. Using the hoary framing device of the interview, it has A. P. Jordan, an aging schoolteacher, relive episodes from his past. Most of these focus on two set-pieces (probably short stories by Walcott) about an untalented painter son and an interracial romance of Jordan's…. Despite an occasional felicitous turn of phrase, this is all choppy, fragmented going, lacking character development or true propulsive energy—it would do as well or better as declamation from a dais…. This is a play that only buffs of poetry readings could love. (p. 78)

John Simon, "Folie à deux," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1979 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 12, No. 21, May 21, 1979, pp. 76-8.∗

Edith Oliver

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A retired Trinidadian teacher, Albert Jordan, in Port of Spain, is the hero of Derek Walcott's "Remembrance."… He is a sardonic, humorous old man, bored and fed up, an "anachronism" in independent Trinidad, his head (and heart) crammed with English poetry, and still grief-stricken at the death of his elder son in a riot years before, when a British policeman's gun went off accidentally. A black man unable to feel a part of the black world, Jordan is yet too wise to feel at home in the British tradition. (p. 105)

"Remembrance" is a loosely constructed play (and none the worse for that), slowing and darkening as it proceeds. Its chief pleasures lie in its details and its lines. Mr. Walcott is a poet, and his writing is of a quality we seldom hear in the theatre. (p. 106)

Edith Oliver, "Displaced Person," in The New Yorker (© 1979 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LV, No. 14, May 21, 1979, pp. 105-06.

Selden Rodman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Since the death of Robert Lowell, there has been no poet writing in English who combines vernacular and the grand manner so successfully as Derek Walcott…. What Shakespeare did without any strain, modern poets like Lowell, Walcott, and Neruda do with heroic effort, and the resulting styles are not always as easy to follow as these poets with a passion to communicate must have hoped. In the first and longest of the poems in [The Star-Apple Kingdom], for example, Walcott uses a device that doesn't work—speaking through the tongue of a protagonist whose bad grammar (in dialect) is a jarring counterpoint to his high-flown rhetoric…. [In] the rest of the poems there is no such tonal switching, no gap between brutal content and stylistic sublimity, as Walcott unfurls his anti-colonialist flag….

Selden Rodman, "Books in Brief: 'The Star-Apple Kingdom'," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1979; 150 East 35th St., New York, NY 10016), Vol. XXXI, No. 21, May 25, 1979, p. 694.

Robert Mazzocco

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Derek Walcott has both a seafarer's resourcefulness, appropriate to a West Indian, and a moralist's eye for character and commitment. In this powerful new book [The Star-Apple Kingdom] he mediates again the "ancient war between obsession and responsibility" or reflects on the current of history as it afflicts the forfeited beauty of his troubled Antillean world. "The sea is History," he says in one poem, and presents a panoply of Genesis and Exodus and Babylonian Captivity through images of the ocean continually "turning blank pages / looking for History."

And in The Star-Apple Kingdom that search for history remains a constant theme….

Dislocation, both emotional and...

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