Derek Walcott Walcott, Derek (Vol. 160) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Derek Walcott 1930-

St. Lucian poet, playwright, and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Walcott's career through 2000. See also Derek Walcott Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 2, 4, 9, 14.

A Nobel laureate and preeminent West Indian literary figure, Walcott is included among the leading contemporary English-language writers of poetry and drama. Born of mixed European and African heritage, he uses literature to explore themes of ethnicity, cultural chauvinism, and political inequality. Moreover, he examines these subjects in a manner that leads to psychological and moral insights pertinent not only to the clash of Western and Caribbean culture, but to the universal human condition. Having learned English as a second language, and acutely aware of its status as the language of colonial power, Walcott has assimilated the bulk of the Western literary canon—from Greek epics to modernism—skillfully employing its techniques and traditions in his works, while never losing sight of his Caribbean identity. Walcott's poetry, particularly in In a Green Night (1962), Another Life (1973), and Omeros (1989), is celebrated for its dazzling use of sophisticated poetic forms, heartfelt self-examination, and evocative descriptions of Caribbean life.

Biographical Information

Walcott was born in Castries, the capital city of the small Caribbean island of St. Lucia, a former British colony in the Lesser Antilles. Walcott and his twin brother, Roderick, were raised by their mother, Alix, a schoolteacher; their father, a civil servant and amateur artist and writer, died a year after their birth. Walcott's mother imbued her sons with a love of literature and encouraged their involvement in a local theater group. Walcott displayed an early talent for poetry and had work published by the time he was fourteen. Four years later, he self-published his first book, 25 Poems (1948), and sold it on the streets of Castries. At twenty, he wrote and staged Henri Christophe (1950), a play based on the life of the Haitian leader, and cofounded with his brother the Santa Lucia Arts Guild. The guild gave Walcott a means of producing and directing his own plays, such as Robin and Andrea (1950), Three Assassins (1951), and The Price of Mercy (1951). In 1953 he earned a bachelor's degree in English, French, and Latin at the University College of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica, which he attended on a British government scholarship. Upon graduation, he married Fay Moyston, with whom he has a son. In 1954, Walcott staged The Sea at Dauphin, one of his most acclaimed early works, and began teaching in West Indian schools. Over the next four years, he wrote several plays, including The Charlatan (1954), The Wine of the Country (1956), and The Golden Lions (1956). Walcott temporarily suspended his teaching career in 1958 when he accepted a Rockefeller fellowship to study drama in New York City. Walcott's next two plays, Ti-Jean and His Brothers (1957) and Drums and Colours (1958), focus episodes from Caribbean myth and history. In 1959 Walcott divorced Fay and moved to Trinidad, where he started the Little Carib Theatre Workshop; later the Trinidad Theatre Workshop. For several years, he trained amateur actors and wrote poetry, as well as features and criticism for several Trinidadian newspapers. After writing and staging Malcauchon (1959), Walcott shifted his focus to poetry. He published four volumes of poems in 1962, including In a Green Night, which attracted overwhelmingly positive reviews throughout the English-speaking world. During the same year, Walcott married Margaret Ruth Maillard, with whom he has two children; they later divorced. He subsequently entered into a third marriage to Norline Metivier in 1982, which also ended in divorce. In 1967, a year after being named a Fellow in the Royal Society of Literature, Walcott staged Dream on Monkey Island in the United States. Begun in the late 1950s, the play won an Obie award in 1971 and became Walcott's first acknowledged masterpiece. After the success of Another Life in 1973, Walcott accepted a commission from the Royal Shakespeare Academy to rewrite the 1634 classic El burlador de Sevilla by Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina; Walcott fulfilled this task with The Joker of Seville (1974). In 1976 Walcott ended his tenure at the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, citing both professional and personal reasons. He received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1977 and in 1979 was named an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In the early 1980s, Walcott worked as a visiting professor at several universities in the United States, including Columbia, Harvard, and Boston University, where he continued to teach through the 1990s. Walcott began to divide his time between residences in the Caribbean and the United States, a practice that influenced his poetry collection The Fortunate Traveller (1981), which received the Heinemann Award from the Royal Society of Literature in 1983. In 1992 Walcott received the Nobel Prize for literature, making him the first native Caribbean to win this honor.

Major Works

The central theme of Walcott's oeuvre is the dichotomy between black and white races, subject and ruler, and Caribbean and Western civilization. Walcott's writing deals with the lasting scars—personal, cultural, and political—of British colonialism in his native land and the opposing African and European influences that characterize his West Indian heritage. Integrating the formal structure of English verse with the colorful dialect of St. Lucia, Walcott denounces colonial exploitation and suppression of Caribbean culture, while attempting to reconcile the disparate cultural legacies that inform his literature and Caribbean history in general. Walcott's first major collection of poetry, In a Green Light, contains several early poems, such as “A City's Death by Fire” and “Epitaph for the Young,” that reveal the considerable influence of Dylan Thomas and James Joyce, respectively. The volume also features Walcott's first mature poems, such as “Ruins of a Great House,” in which he examines the decline of colonialism, and “A Far Cry from Africa,” in which he explores his own mixed racial heritage. The Gulf and Other Poems (1969) is a stylistically diverse collection that is thematically unified by repeated examinations of separation and loss, featuring the autobiographical poem “Hic Jacet,” in which Walcott contrasts his fascination with European poetry with his Caribbean roots. Walcott's next major poem, the book-length work Another Life, is autobiographical. The poem's first three sections detail Walcott's youth, adolescence, and first love, while the last section portrays his painful effort to come to terms with not only his own past but the whole of Caribbean history.

The bulk of Walcott's poetic output is found in the five volumes he published between 1976 and 1987: Sea Grapes (1976), The Star-Apple Kingdom (1979), The Fortunate Traveller, Midsummer (1984), and The Arkansas Testament (1987). The first two collections contain lyrical poems largely centered on the Caribbean—though Sea Grapes also includes several poems set in other locales—particularly its history and culture. The title poem of Sea Grapes, in which fishermen are compared to Greek heroes, and “The Schooner Flight” from The Star-Apple Kingdom, in which Walcott blends island patois with formal poetic language, both show his ability to evoke the tenuous ties that bind Caribbean and European culture. Walcott divided The Fortunate Traveller between poems inspired by his experiences in the United States and in the Caribbean. Though the dichotomy of settings is clear, the poems in both sections are an eclectic mix of barbed social criticism and personal confession. Midsummer is a lyrical and introspective collection; in many of the fifty-four poems, Walcott uses his own life as a lens through which to view the intertwining of European and Caribbean culture. The Arkansas Testament again emphasizes the theme of contrasting, yet related, cultures by organizing the poetry into two sections—“Here” and “Elsewhere.” Omeros, like Another Life, is a single book-length poem. In this work—whose title is the Greek word for “Homer”—Walcott pays homage to the ancient poet in an epic poem that substitutes the Antilles for the Homeric Cyclades. Two of the main characters, the West Indian fishermen Achille and Philoctete, set out on a journey to the land of their ancestors on the West African coast. The characters are concerned not with the events of the Trojan War, but rather with an array of civilizations, from African antiquity to frontier America and present-day Boston and London. Structurally, the poem is presented in sixty-four chapters of Dantesque terza rima. Walcott returned to shorter verse in The Bounty (1997), which is distinguished for its title poem, a meditation on the passing of the author's mother. Tiepolo's Hound (2000) is another book-length poem, illustrated with the author's paintings, in which he examines the theme of exile while comparing his own life to that of Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro.

Like his poetry, Walcott's plays have been stylistically varied, but united by themes of cross-cultural interaction. For instance, in Dream on Monkey Island, Walcott uses highly stylized staging and characterization to evoke a dream world in which an escaped prisoner becomes the leader of an ill-fated religious movement. Many of Walcott's plays, often called folk-dramas, are firmly rooted in the common life and language of the West Indies and frequently incorporate Caribbean dialects and legends. They are also noteworthy for their advanced dramatic techniques, lyrical language, and the psychological depth of their characters. In The Joker of Seville, Walcott employs the refined wit and relaxed pacing of the seventeenth-century classic, El burlador de Sevilla, to examine the Dionysian aspects of social revolution. O Babylon! (1976) is primarily a musical—many of Walcott's plays include instrumental accompaniment—set in Jamaica in 1966, during the weeks surrounding Emperor Haile Selassie's visit to the island. In Remembrance (1977), Walcott focuses on a single character, Albert Jordan, a teacher in colonial Trinidad, and uses his story to examine the role of individual integrity and conviction in changing societies. In Pantomime (1978), which uses only two actors, Walcott offers a revision of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, presented through the eyes of a hotel manager and his assistant. Beef, No Chicken (1982) is a tragicomedy about a small town facing the encroachment of a six-lane highway. Walcott worked on a much broader canvas—both dramatically and thematically—in A Branch of the Blue Nile (1986). The play opens with a group of West Indian actors rehearsing a scene from William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, which Walcott uses as a framework on which to hang several interior monologues concerning the relationship between life and fiction, religion, and a host of other topics. Walcott took on an even larger project in his next play, The Odyssey (1993), a stage version of the classic Greek epic poem. Walcott's production stays meticulously true to the original poem, but with small comic and socially relevant touches, such as Greek servants who speak in Caribbean dialect. Walcott has also collaborated with singer-songwriter Paul Simon to produce the Broadway musical The Capeman (1997), a notorious critical and financial failure. In addition to his poetry and plays, Walcott has also published a significant volume of essays with What the Twilight Says: Essays (1998). This collection brings together a number of Walcott's definitive statements on his aesthetic principles and historical perspective, as presented in the essay, “The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory”—his 1992 Nobel lecture—and critical pieces on a variety of authors.

Critical Reception

Walcott has been widely praised as a virtuoso poet and a deeply committed postcolonial artist whose explorations of racial, cultural, and historical consciousness in the contemporary Caribbean have been considered moving, erudite, and technically masterful. While Walcott's dramatic works have been highly regarded, his reputation rests more solidly on his poetry, which is generally considered to have reached a level of excellence that exceeds that of his plays. Among his volumes of poetry, In a Green Night, Another Country, and Omeros have been particularly acclaimed as his most important and successful works. However, Walcott's poetry and drama have not gone without marked criticism. One of the major complaints leveled against Walcott's poetry has been that his language is too refined. Critics have agreed that he is a highly accomplished wordsmith, but some have felt that Walcott's wordplay can obscure his intended meanings, making his verse appear to be a mere exercise in technique. Criticism of this type has appeared fairly consistently throughout Walcott's career, from his earliest major volume, In a Green Night, to Tiepolo's Hound. Similar claims of intellectual excess have harried Walcott's plays. Criticism of Walcott's dramatic works has focused not only on his use of language, but also on his practice of weighing his plays down with expository passages. While this technique has allowed him to explore socially relevant topics, a number of reviewers have argued that it comes at the expense of his plot and character development. Several of Walcott's plays—including Dream on Monkey Island, Remembrance, and O Babylon!—have been characterized by some critics as incoherent, tedious, and glib. There has also been a distinct political aspect to the criticism directed at Walcott's works. Walcott has been vocal about his role as a cross-cultural author who uses largely European forms to express Caribbean concerns. Due to this position, Walcott has drawn criticism from both sides of the sometimes contentious, often acrimonious, cultural divide—considered too Caribbean by some Eurocentric critics, and too European by some Afrocentric critics. Indeed, Walcott's deft use of complex rhyme and meter has been decried by some commentators as a coy affectation and by others as an act of “selling out.” While this type of criticism has abated as Walcott's reputation has grown, his continued insistence on the interdependence of the colonials and the colonized has remained a somewhat controversial position.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

25 Poems (poetry) 1948

Epitaph for the Young: XII Cantos (poetry) 1949

Cry for a Leader (play) 1950

Henri Christophe: A Chronicle in Seven Scenes (play) 1950

Robin and Andrea (play) 1950

Senza Alcum Sospetto [also produced as Paolo and Francesca] (radio play) 1950

Poems (poetry) 1951

The Price of Mercy (play) 1951

Three Assassins (play) 1951

Harry Dernier: A Play for Radio Production (radio play) 1952

The Charlatan (play) 1954


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John Lucas (review date 2 February 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lucas, John. “In Multitudinous Dialects.” New Statesman & Society 3, no. 86 (2 February 1990): 33–34.

[In the following review, Lucas offers a positive assessment of Walcott's Collected Poems, though expresses concerns about the quality of Walcott's later verse.]

In “A Letter from Brooklyn,” [from Collected Poems,] a poem written some time after he had left the island of his birth, St Lucia, Derek Walcott tells of an old woman who writes to him about his parents and of how “The strength of one frail hand in a dim room / Somewhere in Brooklyn, patient and assured, / Restores my sacred duty to the Word.” As these lines show,...

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John Lucas (review date 5 October 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lucas, John. “The Sea, the Sea.” New Statesman & Society 3, no. 121 (5 October 1990): 36.

[In the following review, Lucas evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Walcott's Omeros.]

Omeros begins with Philoctete, an islander of St Lucia, being photographed by tourists who “try taking / his soul with their cameras.” Then he and his friends, Achille and Hector, turn to their work of cutting down trees to make canoes so that the latter two can pursue their trade as fishermen. Some 320 pages later, the poem ends with Achille hauling his canoe called “In God We Trust” up the beach, and taking from it a catch of shining mackerel. In between...

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Christopher Benfey (review date 29 October 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Benfey, Christopher. “Coming Home.” New Republic 203, no. 18 (29 October 1990): 36–39.

[In the following review, Benfey offers a mixed assessment of Omeros, finding shortcomings in the volume's ineffective “imaginative journeys” and unusual metrical patterns.]

In one of her poems, Emily Dickinson divides the things of the world into those that fly (“Birds—Hours—the Bumblebee”) and those that stay (“Grief—Hills—Eternity”). The division might be applied to poets. Dickinson herself was notoriously a stayer, and so in their different ways were Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and—once he'd found a resting place in New...

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Nicholas Everett (review date 11 July 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Everett, Nicholas. “Paradise Lost.” London Review of Books (11 July 1991): 22–23.

[In the following excerpt, Everett compliments the “rich texture” of the verse in Omeros.]

During the 18th and 19th centuries verse surrendered its longer discursive and narrative forms to prose and confined itself more and more to the short lyric and the sequence of short lyrics. Much of this century's verse appears to be continuing the process by avoiding paraphrasable meaning altogether. One need only point to the work of Wallace Stevens or John Ashbery to show how successfully some of its sustains our expectations while ultimately refusing to deliver the semantic...

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Sven Birkerts (review date February 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Birkerts, Sven. “Making Blind Birds Sing.” Parnassus 17, no. 2 (February 1993): 361–75.

[In the following review of Omeros, Birkerts praises Walcott's poetic genius, but finds serious shortcomings in the work's overly ambitious epic design.]

When Derek Walcott published his Selected Poems in 1964, Robert Graves wrote: “Derek Walcott handles English with a closer understanding of its inner magic than most (if not any) of his contemporaries.” A generous and astute bit of praise, one that has served the Caribbean-born poet as a kind of career benediction. For it is precisely this sensitivity to the “inner magic” of the language—that...

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Stephen Breslow (essay date spring 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Breslow, Stephen. “Derek Walcott: 1992 Nobel Laureate in Literature.” World Literature Today 67, no. 2 (spring 1993): 267–71.

[In the following essay, Breslow provides an overview of Walcott's literary accomplishments and his cross-cultural preoccupations with history, Western culture and myth, postcolonial Caribbean identity, and the legacy of racism.]

I have been suggesting to colleagues and friends since the mid-1980s that someday soon Derek Walcott would be receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature. My prediction has now come true, perhaps much sooner than many people would have thought. My motive here, however, is not to masquerade as a literary...

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Stephen Breslow (review date winter 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Breslow, Stephen. Review of The Odyssey, by Derek Walcott. World Literature Today 68, no. 1 (winter 1994): 199–200.

[In the following positive review, Breslow praises Walcott's stage adaptation of Homer's Odyssey.]

Only a talent as prodigious as that of Derek Walcott (who received the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature) should attempt a project as ambitious as rendering Homer's Odyssey into a stage version. Walcott's lifelong immersion in Greek and Latin literary classics, his continual borrowing and interweaving of classical references and themes in his poetry, and his own Odyssean epic poem Omeros, published in 1990, have eminently prepared...

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Derek Walcott and Marina Benjamin (interview date 21 July 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Walcott, Derek, and Marina Benjamin. “The Commonwealth: Pedestal or Pyre?” New Statesman & Society 8, no. 362 (21 July 1995): 30–31.

[In the following interview, Walcott discusses his views on the cultural legacy of the British Commonwealth and defends its continuing importance as a source of shared identity and political ideals.]

[Benjamin:] Having grown up in a Commonwealth state, how would your life have differed from that of a citizen of a non-Commonwealth Antilles?

[Walcott:] Initially, the experience of being brought up in St Lucia was colonial. A parity of status, an equilibrium, an equality of expression between...

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John Bayley (review date 27 March 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bayley, John. “Living Ghosts.” New York Review of Books 44, no. 5 (27 March 1997): 18–21.

[In the following excerpt, Bayley offers a positive assessment of The Bounty, referring to Walcott as “a poet of singular honesty.”]

What is the nature of the difference between poetry and “the poetical”? The two cannot be clearly separated and yet they do remain distinct: a distinction clearly apparent to a later generation, after the poets in question have themselves departed for the Elysian fields. What is poetical then begins to resemble a period piece. Could anyone have ever been physically thrilled and startled, stirred and electrified, by, for...

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Jahan Ramazani (essay date May 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ramazani, Jahan. “The Wound of History: Walcott's Omeros and the Postcolonial Poetics of Affliction.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 112, no. 3 (May 1997): 405–17.

[In the following essay, Ramazani examines Walcott's metaphorical treatment of New World African slavery and postcolonial Caribbean suffering in Omeros, as signified by Walcott's evocation of physical trauma, unhealed wounds, and aspects of recovery.]

“This wound I have stitched into Plunkett's character,” ventures the poet in Derek Walcott's Caribbean epic, Omeros (1990). Conflating wound and suture, Walcott suggests that the odd...

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Derek Walcott and Rose Styron (interview date May–June 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Walcott, Derek, and Rose Styron. “Derek Walcott: An Interview with Rose Styron.” American Poetry Review 26, no. 3 (May–June 1997): 41–46.

[In the following interview, Walcott discusses his formative experiences and cultural influences on Saint Lucia, his views on the development and multicultural atmosphere of the Caribbean, his work as a playwright, his interest in film, and his approach to the composition and teaching of poetry.]

The author of many plays and books of poetry, Derek Walcott was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992. He lives in Saint Lucia and in Boston. This interview took place January, 1995 at Walcott's studio in Saint Lucia...

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Bill Greenwell (review date 15 August 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Greenwell, Bill. “Buried Treasure.” New Statesman 126, no. 4347 (15 August 1997): 46–47.

[In the following review, Greenwell offers a mixed assessment of The Bounty.]

Derek Walcott—whose previous book, the epic and brilliant Omeros, neatly preceded his Nobel Prize for Literature—is by no means always accessible. It's not that he's hard to understand, nor that his genius is not everywhere self-evident. It's just that he writes with such colossal dignity and sonority, that his poems can sometimes wrap an anchor and chain around even dedicated readers. You are dropped to the ocean floor of his imagination, there to be hauled along on his pondering...

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Phoebe Pettingell (review date 8 September 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Pettingell, Phoebe. “Breadfruit, Bach, and Kafka.” New Leader 80, no. 14 (8 September 1997): 13–14.

[In the following review, Pettingell offers a positive assessment of The Bounty.]

Derek Walcott established himself as the Homer of the West Indies in 1990 with Omeros, his Caribbean retelling of The Odyssey. The epic poem describes and reflects on his native island, St. Lucia, where Caribs, African slaves and colonial Europeans created a multilayered society. It earned him the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Walcott, who now divides his time between New York and St. Lucia, feels at home with the literary traditions of Europe...

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Richard Sanger (review date 19 September 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sanger, Richard. “The Apples of This Second Eden.” Times Literary Supplement (19 September 1997): 10–11.

[In the following review, Sanger offers a generally favorable assessment of The Bounty, though notes flaws in what he sees as Walcott's empty phrasing and forced rhyme schemes.]

Derek Walcott ended one of his earliest poems, “As John to Patmos,” with a vow:

As John to Patmos, in each love-leaping air
O slave, soldier, worker under red trees
sleeping, hear
What I swear now, as John did:
To praise lovelong, the living and the brown dead.

Almost half a century later, that vow dominates his new book. His first...

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Ian Sansom (review date 11 December 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sansom, Ian. “Fanfares.” London Review of Books (11 December 1997): 29.

[In the following review of The Bounty, Sansom criticizes Walcott's tendency toward poetic ostentation, verbosity, and excessive exultation.]

They call him Mister Bombastic: ‘Because he is well capable of rhetoric and flourish, he too often allows these two-edged gifts to deflect him from a real, vivid self into a bombastic stance’ (Eavan Boland); ‘I have found Walcott's extravagance of poetic diction and tendency to verbosity off-putting in the past’ (Peter Porter); ‘I feel that the fuss and the language are not quite justified by the donné’ (Roy Fuller). Derek...

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Adam Kirsch (review date 15 December 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kirsch, Adam. “Unphantasmal Peace.” New Republic 217, no. 24 (15 December 1997): 42–45.

[In the following review, Kirsch evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of The Bounty, complimenting Walcott for addressing “the largest themes without self-consciousness or hesitation.”]

In 1759, Edward Young offered some “Conjectures on Original Composition” in a letter to his friend Samuel Richardson. Young recognized that his contemporaries often suffered from a sense of having come too late—after history, as it were—and thus being incapable of rivaling the classical writers, who wrote when history was young and vital. But he denied that modern...

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Bruce King (review date winter 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: King, Bruce. Review of The Bounty, by Derek Walcott. World Literature Today 72, no. 1 (winter 1998): 191–92.

[In the following positive review, King praises Walcott's imagery and verse in The Bounty.]

In recent volumes of Derek Walcott's poetry “light” is an encompassing term for the light of the creation, the light that illuminates the world, the light that illuminates art (especially painting), and the inner light of the divine in the artist and all humans. Here the “bounty” includes all gifts from God: daybreak, each day, light, the natural world and its creatures, the beauty of St. Lucia and Trinidad, being a writer, the gift of poetry,...

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Richard Tillinghast (review date winter 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Tillinghast, Richard. “Poetry Chronicle.” Hudson Review 50, no. 4 (winter 1998): 681–88.

[In the following excerpt, Tillinghast offers a generally positive assessment of The Bounty.]

While perusing some thirty new books in preparation for writing this chronicle, and narrowing the selection to five, I have been struck by the vitality of new voices, the hardy persistence of veteran poets whose presence is all too easy to take for granted, the continuing vigor of the metrical tradition, and by the variety of what is being written and published. The pervasiveness of irony in many of these poems has also led me to ask questions about this double-sided approach...

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John Thieme (essay date 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Thieme, John. “Critical Overview and Conclusion.” In Derek Walcott, pp. 198–205. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Thieme provides an overview of the critical reaction to Walcott's work over a period of five decades, including a discussion of notable publications that have contributed to the critical study of Walcott's oeuvre.]

This chapter provides a brief summary of some of the main strands in Walcott criticism, with a particular emphasis on books and monographs about his work; it also attempts to locate the present study in relation to some of these strands. Criticism of Walcott's writing has moved through various...

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Bruce King (review date winter 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: King, Bruce. Review of What the Twilight Says, by Derek Walcott. Sewanee Review 107, no. 1 (winter 1999): xxv-xxvii.

[In the following positive review, King praises Walcott's essays in What the Twilight Says.]

Writing about Robert Lowell, Derek Walcott warns against the way biography imposes plot, incident, symmetry, on inarticulate feelings and gestures, losing the reality. “On Robert Lowell” (1984) offers remembrances of Lowell as a mentor, fellow poet, and friend in contrast to the biographer's reduction of Lowell to a story of failed marriages and times of madness. Yet, in selecting certain moments, ranging from his first meeting with Lowell in...

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Ronny Noor (review date spring 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Noor, Ronny. Review of What the Twilight Says, by Derek Walcott. World Literature Today 73, no. 2 (spring 1999): 339–40.

[In the following review, Noor offers a positive assessment of What the Twilight Says, though expresses concern over Walcott's failure to challenge the vocabulary and prejudices of European imperialism.]

Derek Walcott, the 1992 Nobel laureate from St. Lucia, is arguably the preeminent poet in the English language. This celebrated winner of numerous awards for poetry turns out to be an excellent critic in the collection of essays, reviews, and one story titled What the Twilight Says. All these previously published pieces...

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Iain Bamforth (review date 1 October 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bamforth, Iain. “Playing the Roman.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5035 (1 October 1999): 25.

[In the following review, Bamforth offers a generally positive assessment of What the Twilight Says.]

Commenting on Joseph Brodsky's poems in this, his first collection of critical prose—considerations of writers such as Frost, Naipaul, Hughes and Heaney, along with more meditative pieces best described by the subtitle given one of them as “fragments of epic memory”—Derek Walcott declares that “every poet has a particular twilight in his soul.” Hackneyed it may sound, but Walcott's twilight shifts a lot of symbolic freight. It is a “metaphor for...

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Jeff Gundy (review date spring 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gundy, Jeff. “Position, Connection, Conviction.” Georgia Review 54, no. 1 (spring 2000): 142–56.

[In the following excerpt, Gundy compliments Walcott's prose in What the Twilight Says, praising the work's “sharp and stimulating analyses.”]

At a mundane banquet long ago I sat near an older man who was new in town; he had come alone. Partway through the meal I overheard him telling his story to the woman across the table: “People have been my life,” he said to her, and then again, “People have been my life.” He seemed to be insisting on something that he wanted badly to believe. As he went on, giving names and places, I found myself...

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Judith Kitchen (review date spring 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kitchen, Judith. “In Pursuit of Elegance.” Georgia Review 54, no. 1 (spring 2000): 763–80.

[In the following excerpt, Kitchen praises Walcott's elegance in Tiepolo's Hound, but finds the volume overly analytical and academic.]

Bertolucci called me when I was about to start shooting, and he said, “Have you learned that everything is form and form is emptiness?” No, I'm always the last to know.

—Martin Scorsese

I've always suspected there was an affinity between soccer, mathematics, and poetry. For twenty-five years, I've watched soccer whenever I could. I've lost two...

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Charles Lock (essay date spring 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lock, Charles. “Derek Walcott's Omeros: Echoes from a White-Throated Vase.” Massachusetts Review 41, no. 1 (spring 2000): 9–31.

[In the following essay, Lock discusses the problematic aesthetic representation of the female subject in Western literary tradition and in Walcott's evocation of Helen in Omeros.]

In reading Omeros we are struck, as we are in the Iliad, by the silence of Helen. What is this silence, and how in a poem is silence to be figured? To depict the woman, without representing her voice, is for the poet to exercise his (specifically his) descriptive powers, and to render the woman an object, whose silence is...

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A. Alvarez (review date 11 May 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Alvarez, A. “Visions of Light.” New York Review of Books 47, no. 8 (11 May 2000): 27–28.

[In the following review, Alvarez offers a positive assessment of Tiepolo's Hound.]

When Derek Walcott's first book of poems was published in London in 1962, it came with the blessing of Robert Graves, one of the twentieth century's finest and most underrated poets, and a title from Andrew Marvell—In a Green Night. The title was a muted gesture toward Modernism, since T. S. Eliot had been the major force behind the rediscovery of Marvell after two and a half centuries of neglect. But Eliot had cosmopolitan tastes and initially he had been drawn to the...

(The entire section is 2293 words.)

Adam Kirsch (review date 15 September 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kirsch, Adam. “Singing the Griot's Song.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5085 (15 September 2000): 10–11.

[In the following review, Kirsch provides an overview of Walcott's life and writing through a discussion of Bruce King's biography, Derek Walcott: A Caribbean Life, and offers a positive assessment of Walcott's Tiepolo's Hound.]

Every poet begins as a provincial, dreaming of emigration to the city of the honoured dead. “I think I shall be among the English poets after my death,” wrote Keats, and the ambiguity is moving; he wants to be remembered as one of them, but also actually to walk and talk with them, like Dante with Virgil. To live on...

(The entire section is 3055 words.)

Jim Hannan (review date autumn 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hannan, Jim. Review of Tiepolo's Hound, by Derek Walcott. World Literature Today 74, no. 4 (autumn 2000): 797–98.

[In the following positive review, Hannan praises Tiepolo's Hound, complimenting Walcott's “calm and devastating clarity.”]

Derek Walcott's long poem on the congruence between art, art history, and the state of one's soul abounds with his singular ability to combine passion with elegance, historical rumination with arresting images, and social consciousness with minute observations of texture, sound, and color. Walcott revisits themes from his previous poetry, including exchanges between Europe and the Caribbean, the power...

(The entire section is 578 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Anderson, Jervis. “Derek Walcott's Odyssey.” New Yorker (21 December 1992): 71–74, 76–79.

Anderson provides an overview of Walcott's life, literary career, and artistic concerns.

Breslin, Paul. “Tracking Tiepolo's Hound.Poetry 178, no. 1 (April 2001): 38–40.

Breslin offers a positive assessment of Tiepolo's Hound, calling the work “strikingly beautiful.”

Cribb, T. J. “Walcott, Poet and Painter.” Kenyon Review 23, no. 2 (spring 2001): 176–84.

Cribb examines the interrelationship between Walcott's poetry and painting,...

(The entire section is 709 words.)