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.)
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.∗
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.
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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 excellences.
Because his mood is often one of deep chagrin, even despair, it may be his readers have been waiting for the mood to turn to rage, and for the language to become un-beautiful. The rage was there all along for the looking; it is tougher now, in poems like "The Lost Federation" and "Parades, Parades", and the language has been pared down but it still has its abundance….
The long autobiographical poem Another Life followed the lonely, fiery work of The Gulf, and in it Walcott explored his past and his culture, trying to "begin again, from what we have always known, nothing". That "nothing" is humble indeed, coming at the end of a book that has longed so hard to know, and known so much…. The distance between Walcott and the child and youth of Another Life is implied in the title, yet he is re-established (on another island, Trinidad) in the world he left, and a sense of the power he has drawn from his home pervades his work….
The wryness of Naipaul, the stinging, comical irony of Lamming, say, describing the war coming to Barbados in his childhood, are missing from this poem, which attempts something different, the evocation of a paradise. But all is not sweetness: the child's innocence is mixed with presentiments of treachery, and his street in paradise contains an "alphabet of the emaciated."… (p. 8)
Walcott is known as a poet of finish and control, one so controlled that he can dispense with the convention for understatement. Yet one of the interesting things about his poetry is its occasional abandon, when he is suddenly speaking up very emotionally or with a particular guileless susceptibility. You don't expect, after the first ten pages of Sea Grapes, to arrive at "The Cloud", which is about Eden. In it a cloud is passing over the first couple after their lovemaking, and the last line is "and, as it moved, he named it Tenderness". This kind of line, with its capital letter and its woozy hopefulness, is an example of the passivity that can sometimes come over Walcott. It has a funny charm. There are examples of it throughout his work, and sometimes a whole poem is conducted in this mood—a kind of innocence….
"Oddjob, a Bull Terrier" might not have been allowed in by a younger poet. It is in a special English tradition of animal poems…. "Oddjob" is an elegy. The dog's silence is one of its mysteries—and its death that leaves more silence. The poet looks for a reason for his disproportionate grief and finds only that "You prepare for one sorrow / but another comes", and that love can't be put anywhere safe from this silence: "it is the one love, it is the same, / and it is blest / deepest by loss".
Walcott's poems are inhabited by birds, which are what snow was for Delmore Schwartz. When they appear everything pauses. Pigeons, hawks, geese, herons, crows, pelicans—large homely birds without much song that do one thing, fly. When they fly over we should look down, at what they are leaving. Sometimes they officiate, blessing something going on below, or they compensate, rising to counteract the earthward pull of the human events, or … they simply lift off and fly and that is their comment….
His pleasure in the emblematic results in one odd kind of personal poem: the shy one. He likes to show a feeling or an idea for a minute and then move it out of the way before we're tired of it, sometimes before we're sure what it is. "The Fist" and "Endings" in Sea Grapes do this….
He is not always lyrical. Sometimes he sees in "some grey monochrome, much like this metre". Or the lyrical must be fought down: "Haven't you sworn off such poems for this year, / and no more on the moon?"… He is prey to melancholy…. (p. 9)
His descriptive language is sometimes an old one. "The wind, wave-muscled, kept its steady mowing" could come out of Virgil, but "so there are little wires of music / some marron up in the hills, by Aux Lyons, / some christening" could only have come from this island poet, with "candelabra of cocoa" and "the lost, lost valleys / of sugar, the busrides", and "when the morning sunlight / shivered with malaria, / and the night sea grew tepid / with weeds, like a bush-bath"…. Just when you are thinking a particular poem is the best you reread the elegy "The Wind in the Dooryard", or the age-poems, or "The Bridge", or the deceptively slumbrous "Midsummer, England."… (pp. 9-10)
When you come to the end of "Sainte Lucie", the central poem of Sea Grapes, you turn back to the beginning to see how you arrived at the feeling of grace that closes it…. [This] is Walcott's Eden, where the snake may be heavenly too, and the faith spoken of is nearly pantheism, close in spirit to Whitman's "And will never be any more perfection than there is now". (p. 10)
Valerie Trueblood, "On Derek Walcott," in The American Poetry Review (copyright © 1978 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Valerie Trueblood), Vol. 7, No. 3, June, 1978, pp. 7-10.
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 invariably smutched by highmindedness, phony commitment and detachable sentiment. But "The Star-Apple Kingdom" seems to me utterly free of such pollutions. In skies this high, with contexts of thought and feeling this rich, self-righteousness is a flea—it wouldn't be noticed if it were there. Nor does the poet's embattlement ever come across as a matter of contentious opinion; it is first of all a charge on the language, a stirring muscularity in the verse. Walcott's struggle with the dominating mad masters who pack it in in these poems packs his line with fury. A ceaseless energy conversion is in process, seemingly—larger-than-life physical force becoming verbal force and producing in the end verse which, while densely particularized and personally accented, is also spacious as a tide, irresistible, Elizabethan.
And, far more important than any of this, the poet's conception of himself as spokesman is accompanied by an ability to imagine believably comprehensive voices, tuned to bottom dog and visionary alike….
"The Star-Apple Kingdom" marks … the return, after an absence, of a moving public speech to poetry in English. And that places it with the headiest and rarest kinds of poetic experience—fruitful to people who practice the art and to all the rest of us, too. (p. 30)
Benjamin DeMott, "Poems of Caribbean Wounds," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 13, 1979, pp. 11, 30.
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.∗
[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.∗
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.
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.
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 historical, is of course a natural part of the Walcott strategy. And no more so than in one of the new book's most successful pieces, the long opening poem, "The Schooner Flight," a threnody of conflict and survival during a bedeviled Caribbean voyage, set in the idiom of a knockabout Trinidadian sailor…. A dramatic monologue in bold iambs, it is unique, I think, to contemporary verse, reminiscent of some of the tales of Conrad, Youth and Typhoon, in particular, and of Peter Matthiessen's Far Tortuga—and here and there on a par with them. The sailor's voice, despite occasional awkwardness in colloquial expression, is nevertheless strikingly modulated, alternately roughened and grand, unassuming in its ironies, its appraisal of "the white man" and "the nigger":
The first chain my hands and apologize, "History"; the next said I wasn't black enough for their pride….
Conrad is the memorialist of the colonial experience, sees in its triumph its own defeat; this gives his work its magnificent "sense of finality."…
Walcott's position as a "Third World" poet, an exemplar of the neocolonial experience, is culturally more difficult—hence more ambiguous. He learned the drama of his situation early enough, defining himself as both the artist educated in the "English tongue I love,"… and as the native who is mute, whose tale he will tell. But most of In a Green Night: Poems 1948–60 seemed potent largely as travelogue, even the vatic or visionary strains in bondage to the guile of local color. It was only much later, when he was perhaps following the example of Lowell, opening himself to existential or confessional motifs, the quarrels of public and private life, the burning of the city of Castries or the Biafran invasion, that his negotiations with reality began—first with The Gulf in 1970, then continuing through the autobiographical Another Life of 1973 and Sea Grapes of 1976. In these works, Walcott's own frustrated sense of tribal culture, the lure of the primitive, his debates with Sartrean concepts of "bourgeois culture" or "revolutionary culture," created poems of great individual merit—"Frederiksted Nights," "Sainte Lucie," "Negatives." Yet others were somehow beset with a fugitive or assaultive air.
What's notable, though, about much of The Star-Apple Kingdom is its ecumenical balance. Speech is still touchstone, but no longer so declamatory, no longer seduced by the epical. The old nagging, inventive anger has become the simpler, blunter "anger of love."…
Walcott has found an almost spontaneous way of speaking about History or "the pain of history words contain," as if it were the hero or anti-hero of his world. Often he seems less a witness to the times, a chronicler of upheavals and renewals, than to the landscapes and seascapes themselves over which emerge the faces of generations, or reveries of childhood in his "star-apple kingdom" that is now "a tree of grenades," or the travail of the sea that can bring its own sort of balm….
Of course throughout his career Walcott's leitmotif has always been the natural embrace of adversity—that, and a certain nobility of spirit or elevation of tone. It is not for nothing that the flights of birds—the pelicans and men-o'war and buzzards—form a familiar presence in his panoramas. I did not much care for his early work. Then the "nobility" seemed too ceremonious or portentous, ultimately an affectation. But happily Walcott is no longer a grand seigneur of the tropics. Most of the poems are buoyant with fact, grim with experience; yet also salutary, I think even celebratory in the older Walcott's sardonic way. He is a poet who is now in his late forties, and even in what he elsewhere calls "the bleak modesty of middle age" there is every reason to believe he is at the threshold of his best work.
Robert Mazzocco, "Embracing Adversity," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1979 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVI, No. 9, May 31, 1979, p. 34.