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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, Walcott's word is spoken in accents learned from English masters, and from the beginning he learned his lessons well. In 1948 his home town was destroyed by fire. The 18-year-old poet recorded the event in a sonnet, “City's Death by Fire.” It ends:
In town, leaves were paper, but the hills were a flock of faiths; To a boy who walked all day, each leaf was a green breath Rebuilding a love I thought was dead as nails, Blessing the death and the baptism by fire.
When one recalls how poets at that time seemed to fall helplessly for the declamatory cadences and verbal tricks of Dylan Thomas, Walcott's ability to use Thomas feels truly astonishing.
Yet the poem raises a crucial question. What exactly are those “flocks of faiths”? Walcott breathes a commitment to the island of St Lucia and, beyond that, to his West Indian heritage. But it is a complicated heritage, as the “Word” of “A Letter from Brooklyn” makes plain. Unlike other contemporary West Indian poets, Walcott makes very little use of patois or demotic, although when he does, as in “The Spoiler's Return,” he manages it so well as to make you long for more.
Perhaps this is why he doesn't write such poems more often: they come too easily, can seem like parody and thus demeaning of their subject. Still, who'd be without this kind of thing from “The Spoiler's Return”:
Down there, that Hot Boy have a stereo where, whole day, he does blast my caiso; I beg him two weeks' leave and he send me back up, not as no bedbug or no flea, but in this limeskin hat and floccy suit, to sing what I did always sing: the truth.
Spoiler's truth is a painful one, spoken in anger and bitter jest. It's about the graft and corruption of West Indian politics and about feelings of powerlessness, too.
More usually, though, Walcott speaks for his “Origins” (the title of an early poem) in accents he has—literally—cultivated. Among the masters to whom he has been to school are Eliot, Auden, Lowell, Hart Crane, Stevens. What results is not, however, pastiche, but an extraordinarily rich, implicated language and rhetorical largesse, which seem endlessly capable of creating “The Word” of Walcott's imagination. “A Far Cry From Africa” begins:
A wind is ruffling the tawny pelt of Africa. Kikuyu, quick as flies Batten upon the bloodstreams of the veldt. Corpses are scattered through a paradise. Only the worm, colonel of carrion, cries: “Waste no compassion on these separate dead!” Statistics justify and scholars seize The salients of colonial policy.
This then leads to the agonised, “I who have cursed / The drunken officer of British rule, how choose / Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?” As the brilliantly punning title shows, however, Walcott is able to choose both without betraying either.
Nevertheless, “this Africa” gradually recedes in importance as...
(This entire section contains 962 words.)
Walcott's career develops. In his book-length and often magnificent autobiographical poem, “Another Life,” it repeatedly breaks through. But other concerns emerge, centred on the idea of the poet as emigré. Of course, this is itself complicated by bloodties: on the other hand, the very fact of being a poet and of having gone to the United States and then become a world traveller provides material for poetry. Walcott is a very fine poet-as-traveller (in a way that Auden, for example, wasn't.
Considering how much time he spent in the States it's remarkable, to say the least, how rarely Auden has anything to say about it, how little he observes it). Walcott both observes and absorbs. In “Homage to Edward Thomas” he remarks that “topography delineates its verses” and if this alerts us to his unrivalled accounts of Caribbean land—and, still more, sea-scapes (“When the oil green sea glows but doesn't catch / … the water chuckles / and the ribbed boats sleep like children / buoyed on their creases”), it also acts as a pointer to those many successful poems where Walcott is a far from world-besotted traveller.
Yet this said, I have to add that recent poems suggest this is precisely what he may be settling into. Or, if that seems too negative an account of his development, it is true that Walcott is in danger of cutting adrift from the various cross-currents on which “The Word” most securely rode. At all events, I am certain that his two finest volumes are The Star-Apple Kingdom (1979) and Midsummer (1984). In them Walcott's language is at its most receptive. Thus Midsummer contains the miraculous “The Season of Phantasmal Peace,” a vision of how
all the nations of birds lifted together the huge net of the shadows of this earth in multitudinous dialects, twittering tongues, stitching and crossing it.
The poem ends with the revelation that “this season lasted one moment, like the pause / between dusk and darkness, between fury and peace, / but, for such as our earth is now, / it lasted long.” But that came out in 1984 and 1984 has been outlasted as much, perhaps, by the empowering of multitudinous dialects as by anything else. “The Season of Phantasmal Peace” is a good poem to take into the 1990s.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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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 these two events lies what must be one of the great poems of our time.
In a short review it is impossible even to hint at the scope and grandeur of Omeros, but it seems fair to say that it's a poem of epic proportions. The title may indeed suggest that Walcott is self-consciously setting up as epic poet (Omeros is the Greek word for Homer, though Walcott is careful to supply a more fitting genealogy: “O was the conch-shell's invocation, mer was / both mother and sea in our Antillean patois, / os, a grey bone”), and the poem's form and structure strengthen this suggestion.
Omeros's seven books are divided into 64 chapters, each one containing three sections, and, with the exception of one brief couplet section, the poem is throughout written in three-line stanzas, though Walcott eschews Dante's terza rima for a rhyme sequence employed as a narrative device to propel the poem forward. In addition to these formal devices, Walcott makes use of what, in an earlier poem, he called “multitudinous dialects”: “nation language,” plus a kind of Creole patois, then a host of mimicked speech patterns, and finally, and most fully, his own wonderfully rich, implicated language, drenched in metaphor and simile, many of these repeated or echoed or invoked in a manner that feels natural to the epic.
Yet it would be quite wrong to give the impression that Omeros is in any sense riding on the back of earlier epic poems. Its self-consciousness includes an awareness of difference as well as connection. In this poem, Hector and Achille fight over Helen, but Achille doesn't kill Hector, who dies when he crashes the transport van he's taken to driving, having decided to give up the “simple” fisherman's life. Walcott uses episodes from The Iliad,The Odyssey and The Aeneid, but his multiple narratives exploit these and are in no way constricted by them.
In addition to many minor strands, there are three main narratives. One concerns the trio with whom the poem opens, plus Helen, the beautiful woman in the yellow dress who leaves Achille for Hector, and Ma Kilman, the island witch / sibyl who runs the No Pain Café and cures Philoctete of his wound. (It is caused by self-hatred and shame.) In one extraordinary episode, Achille, desperate for treasures to give Helen, has tried plundering a French warship, sunk by an English ship during the Napoleonic wars. But it doesn't work, he can't rob the sea. Then, under the influence of sunstroke, he imagines that he has sailed back across the Atlantic and up the Congo to the village from where his father's family was sold into slavery.
The experience and running sore of slavery are, of course, central to the poem's meaning, but so is the son-father relationship. This is picked up in the second main narrative, about a Major Plunkett and his wife, Maud. They come to St Lucia after the second world war, in which he fought and was wounded. He longs for the son he will never have (though he finds that a Lieutenant Plunkett was killed in the assault on the sunk French warship). By the end of the poem his wife is dead (her death and her husband's mourning for her are harrowingly described) and he is a permanent exile from an England he has grown to dislike. (Walcott provides convincing evidence of why this should be.)
Exile, then, is another thread binding the poem's meanings together, and is crucial to the third narrative strand. At the centre of this is the poet himself, a wanderer from his island, traveller in, among other places, Boston, Ireland, London, but re-visiting, both imaginatively and in fact, the island of his birth, where he tries to talk to his dead father. The father urges him not to betray the island's “green simplicities,” and this releases meditations on the search for a language that will be adequate to his complex sense of separation and identity. (Throughout the poem, the emblem for this is the sea-swift, flashing from continent to continent, its beak a pen's nib or the darting rush of inspiration.) There's a marvellous moment when the poet and the Major talk, just after the death of Maud. The Major says:
“‘Our wanderer's home. Is he?’ I said: ‘For a while, sir.’ Too crisply … ‘Been travellin' a bit, what?’ I forgot the melody of my own accent, but I knew I'd caught him, and he knew he'd been caught,
caught out in the class-war. It stirred my contempt. He knew the ‘what’ was a farce, I knew it was not officer quality, a strutting RSM …”
Poor Plunkett. Yet, in fact, nothing is more moving than Walcott's handling of the relationship between man and wife and the sense of the man's desperate desire to find a form of belonging, a language by means of which he can communicate with others. But then that's true of all of them, as the narratives endlessly reveal.
For the glory of Omeros lies in the manner of its telling, in Walcott's masterly twining of the narrative threads, and also in the poem's seemingly inexhaustible linguistic riches. Walcott has often and rightly been praised for his descriptive ability, especially of the Caribbean seas. Here, where the sea is the grandest of all the poem's protagonists, he achieves the almost impossible task of again and again finding fresh images for it. It's necessary, of course, that he should do so, for “Omeros” himself, the old blind sailor, is also called “Seven Seas,” his tale forever old, forever new.
Nevertheless, Walcott's achievement is cause for wonder. Towards the end of the poem, the endlessly metamorphosing Omeros appears to the poet, like Virgil to Dante, and, in what is perhaps the most astonishing section of the entire work, leads him through a visionary Malebolge, a hellish underworld (based on the sulphur pit of St Lucia's volcano), where he shows him the torments of all those who have harmed the island that he himself praises as “a place of light with luminous valleys / under thunderous clouds.” The island is threatened, however; and, though the poem ends with Achille's great catch of mackerel, we are not allowed to forget the warnings of the sea's being fished out, or of the inevitable changes that those tourists forebode: they, too, are there at the end, still trying to take souls with their cameras.
The mordancy of that pun is typical of the poem's recognition that history is a series of tragic unfoldings. Yet, when Achille leaves the beach, “the sea was still going on.” The sea's narrative is tragic: it ferries slaves across the Atlantic triangle, is the wrecker of ships, the site of wars. But it is also affirming: the source of life and a begetter of this great poem.
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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
Crossroads (play) 1954
The Sea at Dauphin: A Play in One Act (play) 1954
The Golden Lions (play) 1956
The Wine of the Country (play) 1956
Ione: A Play with Music (play) 1957
Ti-Jean and His Brothers (play) 1957
Drums and Colours: An Epic Drama (play) 1958
Malcauchon; or, The Six in the Rain (play) 1959
Jourmard; or, A Comedy till the Last Minute (play) 1959
In a Green Night: Poems, 1948–1960 (poetry) 1962
Selected Poems (poetry) 1964
Batai (play) 1965
The Castaway and Other Poems (poetry) 1965
Dream on Monkey Mountain (play) 1967
Franklin: A Tale of the Islands (play) 1969
The Gulf and Other Poems (poetry) 1969
*Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays (plays and essay) 1970
In a Fine Castle (play) 1970
Another Life (poetry) 1973
The Joker of Seville [with music by Galt MacDermot] (play) 1974
O Babylon! [with music by Galt MacDermot] (play) 1976
Sea Grapes (poetry) 1976
Selected Verse (poetry) 1976
Remembrance (play) 1977
Pantomime (play) 1978
Marie Laveau [with music by Galt MacDermot] (play) 1979
The Star-Apple Kingdom (poetry) 1979
The Fortunate Traveller (poetry) 1981
Beef, No Chicken (play) 1982
The Isle Is Full of Noises (play) 1982
The Caribbean Poetry of Derek Walcott and the Art of Romare Bearden (poetry) 1983
Midsummer (poetry) 1984
A Branch of the Blue Nile (play) 1986
Collected Poems, 1948–1984 (poetry) 1986
†Three Plays (plays) 1986
The Arkansas Testament (poetry) 1987
Omeros (poetry) 1989
Steel [with music by Galt MacDermot] (play) 1991
Poems, 1965–1980 (poetry) 1992
Derek Walcott: Selected Poems (poetry) 1993
‡The Odyssey: A Stage Version (play) 1993
The Bounty (poetry) 1997
The Capeman: A Musical [with Paul Simon] (play) 1997
What the Twilight Says: Essays (essays) 1998
Tiepolo's Hound (poetry) 2000
**The Haitian Trilogy (plays) 2001
Walker and Ghost Dance (plays) 2002
*Includes Dream on Monkey Mountain,The Sea at Dauphin,Malcauchon,Ti-Jean and His Brothers, and the essay “What the Twilight Says: An Overture.”
†Includes The Last Carnival,Beef, No Chicken, and A Branch of the Blue Nile.
‡This work is based on Homer's The Odyssey.
**Includes Henri Christophe,Drums and Colours, and The Haytian Earth.
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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 England—Robert Frost. Among the poets of flight, one thinks of Eliot and Pound, and of Elizabeth Bishop, who split her time between Boston and Brazil.
Bishop especially took what she called “questions of travel” as her province, and the same could be said of the sometimes Trinidadian, sometimes Bostonian Derek Walcott. Among his footloose titles are “The Fortunate Traveller,” “The Schooner Flight,” “North and South” (the name, it happens, of one of Bishop's books as well). Travel, its initial release and eventual travail, has been Walcott's theme from the beginning. He has portrayed himself again and again as a poet caught between two worlds. “Between” is perhaps the key word in his poetry. One could make a plausible argument that he is by now as much a poet of the United States as of the Caribbean. His distinctive voice, sardonic and celebratory by turns, has entered the resources of our language and literature.
Walcott and his twin brother were born in 1930 on the island of St. Lucia, in the former British colony of the Windward Islands (Lesser Antilles). Their father was an amateur painter who died before the twins were one year old. Painting was Walcott's first choice of a career (this chapter of the growth of the poet's mind is vividly described in Walcott's long autobiographical poem of 1973, Another Life), and his poetry has always appealed as much to the eye as to the ear. His schoolteacher mother ensured that he got what he called “a sound colonial education.” His religious upbringing was Methodist—“The passionate, pragmatic / Methodism of my infancy.” There has always been a tension in Walcott's poetry between a plain-speaking, lower-church language (he admires such subtle and unemphatic poets as Edward Thomas and Thomas Hardy) and the more flamboyant verbal fireworks of the largely Catholic (and French-speaking) culture he grew up in. Grandson of two white men and two black women, he has written of himself as a “divided child,” nourished on one side by the Caribbean culture of illiterate fishermen and educated on the other by the empire-building British.
As a consequence, Walcott has never ceased asking the barrage of questions that concludes his famous early poem of 1962, with its richly ambiguous title, “A Far Cry from Africa”:
I who am poisoned with the blood of both, Where shall I turn, divided to the vein? I who have cursed The drunken officer of British rule, how choose Between this Africa and the English tongue I love? Betray them both, or give back what they give? How can I face such slaughter and be cool? How can I turn from Africa and live?
By the time Walcott wrote his great poem “The Schooner Flight” in 1979, he had come to see this division as cause for celebration. His narrator, who is cool and African, proclaims in deliberate patois:
I'm just a red nigger who love the sea, I had a sound colonial education, I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me, and either I'm nobody, or I'm a nation.
For Walcott's appropriating imagination, the temptation has been to see his native island in European terms (remembering forgivingly, as he does in an early poem, that “Albion too was once / A colony like ours”), to establish correspondences between a Caribbean present and a classical, European past. Homeric parallels especially intrude early and late, as when, in Another Life, Walcott finds himself comparing his hometown of Castries on St. Lucia to ancient Troy, while Helen becomes a local prostitute:
Janie, the town's one clear-complexioned whore, with two tow-headed children in her tow, she sleeps with sailors only, her black hair electrical as all that trouble over Troy …
In the same poem Walcott wryly defends such attributions of epic importance, claiming the liberties of youth:
Provincialism loves the pseudo-epic, so if these heroes have been given a stature disproportionate to their cramped lives, remember I beheld them at knee-height, and that their thunderous exchanges rumbled like gods about another life …
More recently, however, he has seemed bent on exorcising the epic, as though to purge his birthplace of meanings imposed, like governors, from the outside. In a poem called “Greece” from The Fortunate Traveller (1981), written when he had just turned 50, Walcott imagines the classical corpus of texts as a bleeding body he's carrying to burial:
The body that I had thrown down at my foot was not really a body but a great book still fluttering like chitons on a frieze, till wind worked through the binding of its pages scattering Hector's and Achilles' rages to white, diminishing scraps, like gulls that ease past the gray sphinxes of the crouching islands.
The passage bristles, like many of Walcott's, with implicit puns, on “corpus” and “corpse”; but also between the words “frieze” and “wind” one hears the unspoken “breeze.” The unbound pages opening like birds' wings constitute the sort of textual metaphor that has proliferated in Walcott's recent work. From Omeros: “the calligraphy of swallows” and the “flotilla of swallows memorizing an alphabet.” In a baroque mirroring, birds are books and books are birds.
No poetic gesture, of course, is more American than the banishing of epic. Poe in 1850 denounced what he diagnosed as “the epic mania” in the United States, especially acute in Longfellow and his fellow travelers, and proclaimed that a long poem was “simply a flat contradiction in terms.” Whitman invited the muse to “migrate from Greece and Ionia,” leaving her baggage behind: “Cross out please those immensely overpaid accounts, / That matter of Troy and Achilles' wrath, and Aeneas', Odysseus' wanderings …” While American poets like to make a big show of banishing the epic muse, however, they are just as likely to let her in by the back door. Whitman wanted his muse to put Parnassus up for rent, and take up residence “amid the kitchen ware”—a rather servile position, one might think, though perhaps with its own subversive possibilities. (In Another Life, Walcott wrote that he “had entered the house of literature as a houseboy.”)
In Walcott's new and very long poem Omeros, epic ambitions resurface with a vengeance. The poem was conceived, he informs us, in an erotic encounter between the narrator-poet and a Greek girlfriend who pronounces the name of her national poet in the Greek fashion: “Omeros.” “Homer and Virg are New England farmers,” Walcott counters dismissively, “and the winged horse guards their gas-station.” But the seductive pull of verbal association has him in thrall:
I said, “Omeros,” and O was the conch-shell's invocation, mer was both mother and sea in our Antillean patois, os, a grey bone, and the white surf as it crashes and spreads its sibilant collar on a lace shore.
“I miss my islands,” says the Greek woman, and so does Walcott, who returns to repeople his own with epic characters.
It is precisely “amid the kitchen ware” that the poet finds his Helen: she is the maid in a household of British colonialists called the Plunketts. Like her classical counterpart, Helen is married to one man but sleeps with another. Her husband, Achille, the hero of Omeros, is a fisherman who spends his days in a canoe called “In God We Troust.” Her lover Hector has traded in his canoe for a taxi. While Achille lives in the older world of natural rhythms—wind, sand, surf, and stars—Hector has embraced the new world of tourism and speed. The quarrel between the two fisherman/warriors is also a quarrel between past and present, tradition and modernity, Africa and Europe.
Walcott fills out his cast of characters with a local blind bard called St. Omere, nicknamed (or rather brand-named) “Seven Seas,” and a fisherman called Philoctete whose leg has been scarred by a rusted anchor. (Actually there are two Philoctetes characters in Omeros, for Plunkett is suffering from an ancient head wound. “This wound I have stitched into Plunkett's character,” Walcott's narrator says in a self-conscious and illusion-breaking moment. “He has to be wounded, affliction is one theme / of this work, this fiction …” Stitched, too, are the linked sounds of “stitched … affliction … fiction.”)
To summarize the plot of Omeros would be tedious and misleading, for the life of the poem lies not so much in the amorous intrigues of the characters, who remain rather hypothetical and stereotyped. The book is better read as a sort of fantasy on Homeric themes, a complex instrument by which Walcott can follow freely the associations of name and history that any given character allows him. Some of these imaginative journeys, it seems to me, are misguided—for example, the bathetic trips to the American West and South, when Walcott hammers home the familiar ironies of a nation founded on freedom that indulged in genocide and slavery: “all colonies inherit their empire's sin, / and these, who broke free of the net, enmeshed a race.” I could also have done without the journey to Ireland, as Walcott follows his character Maud Plunkett back to her ancestral County Wicklow, and weaves a medley on Irish themes, including the recent Troubles.
More convincing is the evocation of Achille, marooned on an island and hallucinating in the sunlight, who imagines himself retracing the “middle passage” of manacled Africans, walking “for three hundred years / in the silken wake like a ribbon of the galleons.” In a fine Sophoclean hymn to man as maker, Walcott finds the roots of artistic creation in the manacles of enslavement:
The worst crime is to leave a man's hands empty. Men are born makers, with that primal simplicity in every maker since Adam. This is prehistory,
that itching instinct in the criss-crossed net of their palms, its wickerwork. They could not stay idle too long. The chained wrists couldn't forget
the carver for whom antelopes leapt, or the bow-maker the shaft, or the armourer his nail-studs, the shield held up to Hector
that was the hammerer's art.
Walcott's writing is at its tactile best in such passages, the alliterative weaving of “that itching instinct in the criss-crossed net / of their palms, its wickerwork.” The men wait in the hold of the slave ship, each one carrying “the nameless freight of himself to the other world,” until they arrive at “dry sand their soles knew. Sand they could recognize.”
In a pivotal Dantesque scene, Walcott encounters the shade of his father, who points to a line of women carrying baskets of coal on their heads to load onto a ship. Walcott's father finds in this task a metaphor for the writing of poetry:
Kneel to your load, then balance your staggering feet and walk up that coal ladder as they do in time, one bare foot after the next in ancestral rhyme.
Because Rhyme remains the parentheses of palms shielding a candle's tongue, it is the language's desire to enclose the loved world in its arms;
or heft a coal-basket; only by its stages like those groaning women will you achieve that height whose wooden planks in couplets lift your pages
higher than those hills of infernal anthracite.
The son's duty, Walcott père concludes, is “to give those feet a voice.” The scene might be compared, for uncanny power, with Seamus Heaney's central poem in which, watching his father toiling with a spade, he grasps his squat pen and says, “I'll dig with it.”
The “feet” that Walcott has chosen for Omeros have epic ambitions as well. The loose terza rima, borrowed from the Divine Comedy, accommodates a great variety of rhyming—off, near, and the sort of consonantal rhyming so dear to Wilfred Owen. Standing in the printery that was once his house, Walcott has a vision of his mother sewing:
The hum of the wheel's elbow stopped. And there was a figure framed in the quiet window for whom this was home, tracing its dust, rubbing thumb and middle finger, then coming to me, not past, but through the machines.
But Walcott's choice of meter (“Time is the metre, memory the only plot”) is a strange one. There have been many experiments in translating Greek and Latin hexameters into English. Poe himself attacked Longfellow's attempts, and Richmond Lattimore's translation of the Iliad may be the best-known contemporary example. But Walcott has not adopted the familiar practice of adding another stressed foot to an iambic pentameter line. Instead, he has opted for a line of twelve syllables (with occasional fudging) and varying rhythm.
This seems, to my ear, an odd solution. Syllabic verse, in Marianne Moore for example, depends for its effects on variation in line-length, thus playing with the expectations of ear and eye. But it's hard to hear the twelve syllables in line after line without flattening one's sense of their natural emphasis. The invocation, “O open this day with the conch's moan, Omeros,” is wonderful in its five-beat, anapest-decelerating-to-iambic grandeur (amplified by a thirteenth syllable). But how is one meant to hear lines like these, from Achille's African journey?
So loaded with his thoughts, like a net with the clear and tasteless to him river-fish, was Achille—so dark that the fishermen avoided him. They brewed a beer
which they fermented from a familiar bark and got drunk on it …
The rhythm wavers every which way—mimicking drunkenness perhaps?—and is not helped by the awkward adjectival phrase “clear and tasteless to him riverfish.”
I would have welcomed more of the sort of formal variation that Walcott allows himself only rarely in Omeros, for example in the wonderful lyric that follows his description of finding himself shipwrecked in a Brookline “of brick and leaf-shaded lanes.” The bruising trochaic tetrameters begin:
House of umbrage, house of fear, house of multiplying air
House of memories that grow like shadows out of Allan Poe
House where marriages go bust, house of telephone and lust
House of caves, behind whose door a wave is crouching with its roar
House of toothbrush, house of sin, of branches scratching, “Let me in!”
In such passages one detects the lineaments of a different poem, and in some ways a more ambitious one, in which Walcott is less determined to follow every cultural “rhyme” in his Antillean conflict, less intent on playing out its implications in his relentless hexameters. I suspect there will be other readers who find, as I did, that such layered weaving of divergent cultures becomes exasperating after a while. (Walcott associates Creeks—the Indian tribe—with Greeks, Homer's Achilles with Winslow Homer's shark-eluding, Achille-like fisherman in the great painting The Gulf.) I found myself looking forward to those moments in the poem when Walcott speaks, as he does in the Brookline sections, in what one has come to think of as his own voice, the world-weary but still wary voice of his book Midsummer (1984). It is the voice one hears in the epilogue of Omeros:
I sang of quiet Achille, Afolabe's son, who never ascended in an elevator, who had no passport, since the horizon needs none,
never begged nor borrowed, was nobody's waiter, whose end, when it comes, will be a death by water (which is not for this book, which will remain unknown and unread by him). I sang the only slaughter that brought him delight, and that from necessity— of fish, sang the channels of his back in the sun.
I sang our wide country, the Caribbean Sea.
In his sixtieth year Derek Walcott has reached that stage of eminence when his greatest danger is to repeat himself. (If certain cardinals are said to be papabile or “Popeable,” Walcott surely is Nobelable.) Omeros is a poem of great ambition, and yet it lacks the surefootedness and the verve of what remains Walcott's masterpiece, “The Schooner Flight.” In trying to hold all the strands of his art in the palm of his hand, he has allowed some of them to slacken. Yet it's possible that in singling out certain passages for praise, one runs the risk of missing the forest for the pleasure afforded by a few shade trees. (Dante's first readers probably thought that he had managed a few good cantos in the Commedia.) Omeros has the sheer abundance and generosity one has come to expect of Walcott, and that is sufficient cause for celebration.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 709
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, drawing attention to his development and maturation as an artist, the recurring imagery of the sea, and his preoccupation with history, as evident in Another Life, Omeros, and Tiepolo's Hound.
D'Evelyn, Thomas. “Black Homer.” Christian Science Monitor (31 October 1990): 14.
D'Evelyn praises Omeros, calling Walcott one of the “greatest poets now writing in English.”
Figueroa, John J. “Creole in Literature: Beyond Verisimilitude: Derek Walcott.” In The Yearbook of English Studies 25, edited by Andrew Gurr, pp. 156–62. Great Britain: W. S. Maney and Son, 1995.
Figueroa discusses Walcott's fusion of standard English and Creole and his juxtaposition of classical and colloquial diction to create multicultural texture in his poetry.
Gray, Paul. “Islands in the Stream.” Time 155, no. 13 (3 April 2000): 81.
Gray offers a positive assessment of Tiepolo's Hound.
Hamner, Robert D. Epic of the Dispossessed: Derek Walcott's Omeros. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997, 187 p.
Hamner presents a book-length critical study of Omeros.
Hartigan, Patti. “The Passions of Derek Walcott.” American Theatre 10, nos. 5–6 (May–June 1993): 14–19.
Hartigan provides an overview of Walcott's work as a playwright and reports Walcott's comments on his newfound celebrity upon winning the 1992 Nobel Prize, his current theater projects, and his disdain for the literary label “multiculturalism.”
Healy, Patrick. “When a Faculty Star Faces Harassment Charges.” Chronicle of Higher Education (19 April 1996): A23–A24.
Healy examines the accusations of sexual harassment leveled against Walcott by former students at several universities, including legal action taken by one student, and reports the positions of Walcott's detractors and supporters.
Heyward, Michael. “Homer in the New World.” Washington Post Book World (11 November 1990): 1.
Heyward offers a positive assessment of Omeros.
Kanfer, Stefan. “Amateur ‘Noche.’” New Leader (9 February 1998): 22–23.
Kanfer offers a negative assessment of The Capeman.
King, Bruce. Derek Walcott: A Caribbean Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, 714 p.
King presents a book-length critical biography of Walcott.
Martin, Jonathan. “Nightmare History: Derek Walcott's Omeros.” Kenyon Review 14, no. 4 (fall 1992): 197–204.
Martin criticizes Omeros, calling it “a seriously flawed work of art.”
Olaniyan, Tejumola. “Derek Walcott: Liminal Spaces/Substantive Histories.” In Caribbean Romances: The Politics of Regional Representation, edited by Belinda J. Edmondson, pp. 199–214. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999.
Olaniyan examines Walcott's assimilation of Western literary influence and his conception of history as myth rather than a state of backward-looking factual continuity, drawing particular attention to Walcott's play Pantomime as an embodiment of Walcott's critical approach to literary tradition.
Pettingell, Phoebe. “Meanings for the Millennium.” New Leader 83, no. 1 (March–April 2000): 34–36.
Pettingell offers a positive assessment of Tiepolo's Hound.
Spillane, Margaret. Review of The Capeman, by Derek Walcott and Paul Simon. Progressive 62, no. 6 (June 1998): 36–38.
Spillane offers a favorable assessment of The Capeman, citing the unfair and disproportionate influence of New York theater critics for the play's failure.
Thieme, John. “‘I Decompose but I Composing Still’: Derek Walcott and ‘The Spoiler's Return.’” In The Yearbook of English Studies 25, edited by Andrew Gurr, pp. 163–72. Great Britain: W. S. Maney and Son, 1995.
Thieme argues that Walcott's poetry, as exemplified in “The Spoiler's Return,” represents a cross-cultural hybridization of European and Caribbean linguistic expression rather than a binary or strictly adversarial juxtaposition of opposing traditions.
Wiman, Christian. Review of The Bounty, by Derek Walcott. Poetry 172, no. 5 (August 1998): 279–81.
Wiman praises The Bounty “for the evidence it gives of a craft that is wholly mastered and yet still vulnerable to living experience.”
Additional coverage of Walcott's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 3; Black Writers, Ed. 2; Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 89–92; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 26, 47, 75, 80; Contemporary British Dramatists; Contemporary Dramatists, Ed. 5; Contemporary Poets, Ed. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 117; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1981; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-Studied, Multicultural, Poets; Drama Criticism, Vol. 7; Epics for Students, Vol. 1; Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Poetry for Students, Vol. 6; and Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2.
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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 goods. Having extracted a poem's point, runs the usual defence of such teasing evasions, readers will have no further use for the poem itself: indeterminacy thus insures a poem against prompt expiry and may even keep it enduringly fresh. Furthermore, if a poem can be paraphrased, it will fail to reflect the radically ‘meaningless,’ indeterminate nature of our experience. Derek Walcott's poems, informed and invigorated as many of them are by a coherent ideology, don't conform to this negative aesthetic. Their ideology, however, is a cultural version of it.
Until recently, as the Barbadan poet Edward Kamau Brathwaite says, West Indians ‘have been unable to afford the luxury of mythology.’ Colonial history offers merely divisive images which can only provoke nostalgia, remorse, shame or rancour. Hence many West Indian writers have sought to re-align themselves with the cultural traditions of their various continents of origin. Brathwaite himself, for example, found an authentic West Indian identity in Ghana, where he lived and taught for eight years. His long poem The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy (1973) satirises the continuing attachment of the West Indian middle class to the European religious and social legacy, suggesting West African—and in particular Akan—culture as a preferable alternative. Walcott wouldn't deny his African or his European ancestry: but, having been born and brought up in St Lucia, and spent most of his life in the Caribbean, he has reservations about forcing links with ancestral traditions. ‘It would be equally abhorrent to me to say “I wish we were English again,”’ he told an interviewer in 1979, ‘as to say “I wish we were African again.” The reality is that one has to build in the West Indies.’ The African revival, as he sees it, may provide a ‘starling access of self-respect,’ but can't help West Indians to root themselves more firmly in the Caribbean.
For Walcott, then, the first step towards creating a West Indian identity is to resist the meanings conferred by history or mythology since the histories and myths in question are based elsewhere. In cadences as Emersonian as its sentiments, his essay ‘The Muse of History’ celebrates the ‘great poets of the New World, from Whitman to Neruda,’ whose ‘truly tough aesthetic … neither explains nor forgives history’ but ‘refuses to recognise it as a creative or culpable force’:
Their vision of man in the New World is Adamic In their exuberance he is still capable of enormous wonder. Yet he has paid his accounts to Greece and Rome and walks in a world without monuments and ruins. They exhort him against the fearful magnet of older civilisations …
Walcott's meditative poetic persona can rarely be mistaken for the vatic and declamatory voices of the poets he praises (Cesaire and Perse are also included). If their focus is a clamorous ‘Adamic’ man, his is the Edenic scene. In poems like ‘Crusoe's Journal’ and ‘The Muse of History at Rampanalgas’ (which later became Chapter 22 of his verse künstlerroman,Another Life, 1973), he seeks refuge in Caribbean landscapes which have never been marked by history or named by literature: ‘a green world, one without metaphors,’ where the historian goes ‘mad … from thirst’ and ‘the only epics’ are ‘the leaves.’ Watching the urban world, he conjures a similar restless repose. His favourite time in town would appear to be midday on a midsummer Sunday, when his subjects are stilled by heat and resting from work, and history seems to pause. Midsummer gives its name and moment to the sequence of hexameters (published in 1984) evoking the menace and boredom stirred in ‘oven alleys’ where ‘heat staggers the drifting mongrels’; and Sundays, ‘idling from the thought in things,’ recur with extraordinary frequency throughout his work, getting at least a passing mention in five successive poems in In a Green Night (1962). In the Caribbean the ‘past is an infinite Sunday,’ says the narrator of Omeros, and ‘better forgotten than fixed with stony regret.’
The ‘Adamic’ or ‘elemental’ vision, Walcott insists, is a ‘social necessity’ (a necessary response to the displacement and dispossession in every West Indian's past), and correspondingly determined, vigorous, optimistic (if also optative) and even elated. Where Walcott directly confronts the emptiness of the Caribbean natural or social scene, however, elation is always qualified, and sometimes overwhelmed, by pathos and anger. Elsewhere he expels such feelings by paying his ‘accounts to Greece and Rome’ and wandering through the ‘monuments and ruins’ of the Old World before turning, with considerable relief, to establish his Eden in the New. History and mythology are turned against themselves, invoked and then dismissed.
Walcott's many transpositions of Classical and especially Homeric themes from the Aegean to the Antillean satisfy his ‘fever for heroic examples.’ Yet they also link the Antillean to an idea of origin, pushing the intervening eras of Western history and literature into parenthesis. They end, more often than not, in contrast rather than similarity: his Caribbean characters fall short of their heroic counterparts, while, more poignantly, modern Caribbean life simply can't be realised in images from the ancient Mediterranean. ‘This is not the grape-purple Aegean,’ the speaker of ‘Gros-Ilet’ tells Elpenor in Walcott's last collection, The Arkansas Testament (1987). ‘The classics can console,’ concludes the title-poem of Sea Grapes (1976). ‘But not enough.’
Gros-Ilet, a small village on the St Lucian coast, is the main setting for Omeros, Walcott's most extended and schematic exorcism of history and mythology. The poem is—to borrow Paul Zweig's phrase for ‘Song of Myself’—a ‘therapeutic epic.’ Each of its main characters represents an unfortunate aspect of the West Indian inheritance which, as the poem progresses, is either cured or comfortably accommodated. Philoctete, for instance, is unable to fish because of a festering leg-wound from an anchor. Both the wound and the racial bitterness and self-hatred with which it is closely associated (‘ancestral wound’) are cured by Ma Kilman, the village obeah-woman and widowed proprietor of the ‘NO PAIN CAFE.’ Major Plunkett, British expatriate, wounded veteran of the Second World War and now St Lucian pig farmer, is obsessed with Helen, the proud and beautiful young woman who used to work as his wife Maud's maid. He identifies her with her island and tries to discover its ‘true place’ in imperial history. Together, his obsession and research make him neglect Maud and at her death, filled with remorse, he gives them both up. The female characters either provoke—or at least catalyse—the male characters' misguided attitudes or play a decisive part in their cure.
The narrator, who but for the fictional cast around him is Walcott himself, and Achille, simple fisherman, exemplary St Lucian and the poem's epic hero, are special cases. They alone are granted extended journeys, in the poem's central section (Books Three to Five), to treat their particular cultural deprivations. Having questioned ‘his name and its origin’ for the first time, Achille is led by the cruciform shadow of a sea-swift back ‘home’ to the African river village of his forefathers. Here he's forced to accept the discontinuities (language, livelihood) and the continuities (music, dance) between the cultures of his West Indian present and his ancestral past. He also witnesses the primal scene of dispossession, the capture of 15 villagers by slave-traders. The narrator's affliction—which provides both title and basis for the poem—is to see St Lucian life through the lens of Homeric mythology. He conceives his Homeric metaphors when a Greek woman shows him a small bust of Homer and tells him the modern Greek for the ancient Greek's name: Omeros. The bust reminds him of Seven Seas, a blind St Lucian storyteller; and the name summons images of the St Lucian shoreline. By way of treatment, he roves in an almost disembodied state through Lisbon (Ulissibona: ‘a mud-caked settlement founded by Ulysses’), London and Dublin, reflecting on the imperial fallacy—repeated and excused by each crumbling fountain and commemorative statue—that ‘power / and art’ are ‘the same.’
Tell that to a slave from the outer regions of their fraying empires, what power lay in the work of forgiving fountains with naiads and lions.
Omeros is divided into seven books but its narrative falls substantially into three parts. The first two books, in which the various cultural ills are presented and diagnosed, are also a kind of double Iliad. Achille and fellow fisherman Hector are competing for the affections of Helen. Meanwhile, or rather two hundred years earlier, the British and French are fighting over St Lucia, which, as Sir Frederick Treves wrote in The Cradle of the Deep (1910), ‘is the Helen of the West Indies and has been the cause of more blood-shedding than was ever provoked by Helen of Troy. Seven times was it held by the English and seven times by the French …’ Determined to consolidate this comparison, Plunkett looks for coincidences between the Battle of the Saints (the 1782 sea-battle in which the British fleet, under Admiral Rodney, finally wrested St Lucia from the French) and the Trojan Wars. After the double Odyssey with its European and African ordeals, the poem's concluding books return to present-day St Lucia. The narrator, relieved of his ‘wrong love’ for the mysterious Greek woman, dismantles his Homeric metaphor and releases his characters:
There, in her head of ebony, there was no real need for the historian's remorse, nor for literature's. Why not see Helen
as the sun saw her, with no Homeric shadow, swinging her plastic sandals on that beach alone, as fresh as the sea-wind? Why make the smoke a door?
St Lucia itself now stands clear both of Greek mythology and of its own colonial history.
But only to face the problem of the present—tourism—and invite comparisons with the modern Aegean. Its beaches now look ‘just like everywhere else, / Greece or Hawaii.’ The terms of dispossession applied to the past also find a bathetic echo in the descriptions of the present. In Africa, Achille ‘was his own memory’; the African slaves carried ‘the nameless freight of themselves’ across the Atlantic: now, Gros-Ilet is a ‘souvenir of itself.’ At this point the poem turns for its narrative model from Homeric epic to Dantean allegory (already invoked by the loosely hexametric terza rima used—with one brief interruption by some Audenesque couples—throughout). A figure alternately resembling the bust of Omeros and Seven Seas appears to the narrator in a dream-vision and—a Virgil to his Dante—leads him around St Lucia to its volcanic crater, Soufrière. In the ‘lava of the Malebolge’ he's shown the ‘traitors’
who, in elected office, saw the land as views for hotels and elevated into waiters the sons of others, while their own learnt something else.
He narrowly escapes joining the poets ‘in their pit,’ but sinks into the mud when asked ‘whether a love of poverty helped’ him ‘use other eyes, like those of that sightless stone.’
Whether he's condemned here for not loving poverty—that is, for not being poor (as, in one account at least, Homer supposedly was)—or for wanting St Lucians to remain poor rather than grow wealthy from the tourists, is not made clear, and the poem ends in stalemate between the exploitation of the islanders by the tourist industry and the narrator's idealistic nostalgia for their agrarian, uncommercial way of life (‘Hadn't I made their poverty my paradise?’). Walcott often acknowledges that the process of development is unlikely to be reversed, but plots his ideals all the same. Hector leaves the sea to drive tourists from the airport to the seaside hotels and ends up dying in a crash. Achille, meanwhile, though forced further and further from Gros-Ilet's new marina to find fish, remains alive and afloat.
Despite its epic properties—invocations, supernatural agents and military heroism among them—and its occasional novelistic dialogues, Omeros is essentially an allegorical poem. One man one feature: the narrator apart, its characters aren't presented in any convincing depth. They're not caricatures, however, but emblems occupying clearly defined positions in a narrative which in its turn contains none of the innocent detail so necessary to realism and has a wholly discursive thrust. Details dominate (and often obscure) the events and actions they attend; though at first apparently innocent, they reproduce the poem's larger meanings in miniature. The sea and the sea-swift preside over almost every page: the one, ‘a wide page without metaphors,’ swallowing history and drenching every West Indian ‘survivor with blessing,’ the other mediating between the Old and New Worlds. Other images shadow the narrative and reinforce its allegorical progression. The struggle for supremacy between lizard and cannon, for example, spans the entire poem. The original St Lucians, the Aruacs, as we learn at the start, are supposed to have called the island lounalao, or ‘where the iguana is found.’ When history invades, in the Battle of the Saints, the cannon is ‘an iron lizard … fixed toward the French sails.’ Plunkett, the battle's historian, is at once disarmed and enraged by the sight of an iguana and the threat of the Aruac name (‘History was fact, History was a cannon not a lizard’). But his bluster's in vain since finally ‘lizards emerge like tongues from the mouths of cannons’—only they can endure the metal's heat.
During the course of Omeros the narrator is instructed by his various muses in the responsibilities of his art. From a reader's point of view, however, social responsibility is the poem's foundation rather than its destination. The rich texture of its poetry seems to be sustained and underwritten by the strength of its commitments, its declaration of cultural independence. Indeed, craft and conviction are mutually protective. As Kenneth Clarke wrote in Landscape into Art (1949), the ‘less an artefact interests our eye as imitation, the more it must delight our eye as pattern, and an art of symbols always evolves an art of decoration.’ Walcott embellishes the bare semantic framework of his narrative with lots of devices, including personifications, inventories (most notably, a wonderful list of colonial memorabilia unearthed from Plunkett's tea-chest), and constant alliterative and assonantal effects. There's an uninhibited and vigorous figurative language, its variant metaphors often stretching sentences across several stanzas.
The roar of famous cities entered the sea-almond's branches and then tightened
into silence, and my crab's hand came out to write— and down the January beach as it brightened came bent sibyls sweeping the sand, then a hermit
waist-high in the empty bay, still splashing his face in that immeasurable emptiness whose war was between the clouds only.
Omeros's characteristic qualities are perhaps thrown into sharpest relief when set beside a deeply uncommitted, agonistic poetry—the best of Stevens, say. For a start, its art is rooted confidently in, rather than groping hesitantly towards, a ‘supreme fiction.’ An art of uncertainty inevitably enlists very different ways of keeping us interested, which include, in Stevens's case, enough of a thought process to convince us that it's looking for certainty and worth trying to follow; a stoical wit and humour to protect itself against the failure of its search; and what the art critic Robert Hughes calls (in a different context) a ‘prophylactic irony’ to obscure the poet's exact attitude to his statements, making his own uncertainty itself uncertain. Such games, and indeed such rigours, are quite unnecessary to a work like Omeros whose first concern is to discharge its meanings without losing its life. When Stevens's poems work, decoration and substance are indistinguishable. Omeros works so well because decorations are added freely, layer upon layer, to the groundplan. Of course, the fact that Walcott's certainty is cultural while Stevens's uncertainty is metaphysical means that they're not substantially—only technically—at odds. And though their methods differ, their aims are in a sense comparable. Stevens tried to capture an ‘anti-mythological myth’ (as Auden put it) in words, and consistently succeeded in expressing his failure to do so. For Walcott, having the strength to live the anti-mythological, and anti-historical, myth is our greatest hope of transcending cultural differences. His may be the less convincing reality but it's certainly the more compelling dream.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5168
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 mysterious agency through which sounds and their rhythmic arrangement propagate sense—that has kept Walcott's poetry supple and energetic in an era when these qualities are in especially short supply. Indeed, Walcott is one of the very few poets around who keeps getting stronger with age: more inventive, more tolerant of roughness and surprise in his music, and more ambitious in his choice of subject matter. This sense of confident increase could not have been lost on the jurors in Stockholm.
There hovers over Walcott, the man as well as the poet,—a restlessness. He does not sit easily in a chair and when he talks his eyes stay in motion. On the page this comes across as momentum—vitality at every moment straining at the harness. Certainly he is one of our most prolific poets and playwrights (not to mention a watercolorist of some distinction). And certainly the work is forever changing its subjects and forms. It's hardly surprising that Walcott should have come around in the full flush of maturity to try his hand at a verse epic. Omeros is that work: seven books of terza rima stanzas performing the tensions of contemporary Caribbean experience against an overtly Homeric backdrop. An enormous challenge, really, and Walcott has let that challenge elicit some of his finest poetry. Long passages of Omeros are ravishing, possessed both of lyric precision and larger thematic resonance. The poem compels involvement and provokes contemplation; the reader is drawn deeply into an alternative world. As with epics of old, we are moved to view our own experience sub specie aeternitatis. And yet—one must say it—considered as an epic Omeros has its flaws. The center does not hold; the structural artifice strains at the joints. It is a testimony to Walcott's lyric talent, his way of infusing his lines with grave or startling beauty, that the reader can look past the problems and savor the achievement.
The narrative of Omeros is complex, riddled with subplots and thematic pavannes and divagations, so that summary is difficult. The main strand, the support tale, centers upon a group of islanders on present-day Saint Lucia, Walcott's own home. There is Achille, a poor fisherman, a poetic relation to Shabine the sailor in Walcott's “The Schooner Flight”; his rival, Hector, who begins as a fisherman, but who, after a confrontation with Achille, ends up driving an island taxi. Between them, Helen—a sauntering and imperious beauty; she is Achille's woman until Hector steals her away. Then there is Philoctete, a fisherman who has been sidelined by a suppurating leg wound; and Seven Seas, a blind seer who takes on the identity, at times, of the cryptic and mutable Omeros (Homer) figure; and Ma Kilman, an old woman with obeah leanings who runs the local cafe, the No Pain. The Homeric nomenclature could easily seem forced, but Walcott claims the prerogative so forthrightly and implements it so loosely (there are few point-for-point correspondences with the Homeric legend) that he pulls it off. From the very first page the reader is drawn into a narrative of exfoliating analogies and never pauses to question the deeper logic of the usurpation.
Athwart the Achille/Hector/Helen tale, which is essentially that of a romantic triangle, Walcott lays the more discursive account of one Major Plunkett, a veteran of the Allied African campaign in World War II who has retired to the island with his Irish-born wife, Maud. Plunkett farms pigs and delves into the minutiae of local history; Maud embroiders, cultivates flowers, and dreams of life back home. She has in the past employed Helen as a domestic. Indeed, Helen's visual trademark is the bright yellow dress she long ago filched from her employer.
Presiding over this contained world in his imagination, as its creator, but also writing himself in as both visitor and self-exiled son, is the poet himself. Walcott avails himself of a marvelous freedom. He can report upon his invented characters as if he were an observant onlooker and he can invent and embroider their lives as he sees fit—and he can take a step back in order to comment upon the process of invention. Thus, he can in one section imagine himself into the life of one of Plunkett's ancestors, a young sailor who dies in a naval engagement with the French; in another he can shape Achille's sun-stroke vision of the African past; and elsewhere he can write in the first person about his present-day life in Boston. The layers are many. On one page the poet is nursing the wound of a failed relationship, on the next he is urging himself more deeply into the world he is creating: The sufferings of Achille at the hands of the faithless Helen acquire a new resonance. The work gains in suggestiveness, but the price is a certain blurring of the design.
Here are levels and complications enough, it would seem. But Walcott instigates further developments. At one point he introduces a strange vagrant-figure in present-day London (an Omeros incarnation, we later learn) whose function seems to be to meditate morosely on the consequences of empire. And soon after, the narrative is for a time inexplicably refracted through the persona of an American homesteader named Catherine Weldon; she retails certain tragic episodes from the Indian massacres. Taken all together, these counterpoint passages mount an indictment against European colonialism and the dirty work of capitalist greed. They open the central narrative, forcing it to accommodate still other suppressed vantages. If Omeros does not finally cohere, it is in part because Walcott has rehearsed his righteous grievances too variously.
Walcott begins Omeros in full stride, establishing place, character, and a sense of historic origins, as well as making it clear that his idiom will be rooted in the folk speech patterns of his island natives and will draw freely on the metamorphic possibilities of metaphor:
“This is how, one sunrise, we cut down them canoes.” Philoctete smiles for the tourists, who try taking his soul with their cameras. “Once wind bring the news
to the laurier-cannelles, their leaves start shaking the minute the axe of sunlight hit the cedars, because they could see the axes in our own eyes.”
Wind lift the ferns. They sound like the sea that feed us fishermen all our life, and the ferns nodded ‘Yes, the trees have to die.’ So, fists jam in our jacket,
cause the heights was cold and our breath making feathers like the mist, we pass the rum. When it came back, it give us the spirit to turn into murderers. …
Philoctete gives a brisk account of the making of the first fishing boats. Within pages we are up to date, immersed in the daily lives of the fishermen. We meet Achille and Hector—hero and antagonist—and witness their first tense face-off. Achille has borrowed a tin from Hector's canoe; a seemingly innocent act becomes a causus belli. Blades flash:
And now the villagers emerged from the green shade of the almonds and wax-leaved manchineels, for the face-off that Hector wanted. Achille walked off and waited
at the warm shallows' edge. Hector strode towards him. The villagers followed, as the surf abated its sound, its fear cowering at the beach's rim.
Then, far out at sea, in a sparkling shower arrows of rain arched from the emerald breakwater of the reef, the shafts travelling with clear power
in the sun, and behind them, ranged for the slaughter, stood villagers, shouting, with a sound like the shoal, and hoisting arms to the light, Hector ran, splashing
in shallows mixed with the drizzle, towards Achille, his cutlass lifted. The surf, in anger, gnashing its tail like a foaming dogfight. Men can kill
their own brothers in rage, but the madman who tore Achille's undershirt from one shoulder also tore at his heart. The rage that he felt against Hector
was shame. To go crazy for an old bailing tin crusted with rust! The duel of these fishermen was over a shadow and its name was Helen.
Here Omeros takes the first of its departures from the Homeric script: there is no bloodshed; emotions subside and the rituals of work supervene.
As these passages illustrate, Walcott's loping terza rima is well suited to the narrative task he has undertaken. The form imposes just enough constraint to stimulate verbal inventiveness, and at the same time it allows the poet to stage his action in quick increments. But we should also note his bold way of personifying nature, having the leaves of the laurier-cannelles “see” the axes in the eyes of the woodcutters, and attributing fear and anger to the surf. Throughout the poem, Walcott imbues the natural surroundings with a kind of magical responsiveness. He creates an atmosphere in which the uncanny can flourish. The mood, at times, recalls that of Prospero's kingdom. Here is a world unto itself, a world charged and (keeping in mind the etymology) insular. This peculiarity of atmosphere is what allows Walcott to cross repeatedly the line between the naturalistic and the uncanny, whether he is rendering Achille's vision of his African roots, or Ma Kilman's finding a miraculous herbal cure for Philoctete's wound, or the poet himself dreaming a Dantean journey at the close of the work. None of these pivotal events would have the power or narrative credibility they do without our prior acceptance of a poeticized environment.
While I cannot possibly recapitulate the full trajectory of Omeros, I can give some sense of its components by pointing out how Walcott adapts the terza rima form to diverse purposes. Major Plunkett's researches, for instance, which tend to be of the historically musty sort, are deftly played against descriptions of Maud's domestic activities. Nothing could be less dramatic than these two people working in tandem at their respective hobbies, but Walcott is able to charge his verse with a dense interior consequence:
An evening with the Plunketts: he marking cannons by their Type, Trunions, Bore, Condition, Size, Weight, in a marbled ledger, by order of Ordnance,
Cipher—GR. III, GR. IV, Site, Silhouette, Date, nib scratching the page, beaking the well for a word, Maud with her needle, embroidering a silhouette
from Bond's Ornithology, their quiet mirrored in an antique frame. Needlepoint constellations on a clear night had prompted this intricate thing,
this immense quilt, which, with her typical patience, she'd started years ago, making its blind birds sing, beaks parted like nibs from their brown branch and cover
What is remarkable is not just the craft that allows these materials to cohabit without too much straining against the formal confines, but also the facility with which Walcott can evoke the subliminal impression of their togetherness. Their pursuits are different, yes, but on the verbal level they are seen to share words and images: the cannon's silhouette and that of the bird from Bond's, and the “beaking” of Plunkett's nib in near proximity to Maud's birds with “beaks parted like nibs.” Perhaps this is what Graves had in mind when he wrote of Walcott's grasp of the “inner magic” of the language—this way the poet has of cross-pollinating words, creating new strains of sense from the manifold possibilities of association. Every line of the work argues implicitly for the fecundity of the language. The reference to The Tempest was not misplaced; at least in this one way Walcott has the Shakespearean gift.
Walcott's terza rima serves quite another set of functions in the crucial episode of Achille's vision at the end of Book II and throughout Book III. What starts as an ordinary day's work becomes a visionary passage that forms the thematic core of the work. Achille and his mate are out fishing. Achille stews morosely over Helen's betrayal; the sun climbs the heavens, scorching the sails. Suddenly, in the haze of midday, a swift appears, first flashing in front of the boat, then appearing to tow it:
Outrunner of flying fish, under the geometry of the hidden stars, her wire flashed and faded taut as a catch, this mite of the sky-touching sea
towing a pirogue a thousand times her own weight with a hummingbird's electric wings, this engine that shot ahead of each question like an answer,
As Book III opens the bird has guided the boat out of local waters and into the past: Achille has landed on the West African coast in the time of the slavers. In time-honored epic tradition, Achille will make contact with his ancestors. God himself authorizes the breach of all natural obstacles:
And a light inside him wakes, skipping centuries, ocean and river, and Time itself.
And God said to Achille, “Look, I giving you permission to come home. Is I send the sea-swift as a pilot, the swift whose wings is the sign of my crucifixion.
And thou shalt have no God should in case you forget my commandments.” And Achille felt the homesick shame and pain of his Africa.
How readily the form yields to the Biblical idiom, and how naturally God speaks a patois! Nor does Walcott indulge in any sophisticated hedging about: Here is the flash of light, the abrupt seizure of the divine. Later, of course, we will see that it has all been a hallucination brought on by sun-stroke.
Achille rapidly finds his way to a village, and then, in the quick-lapse progress that characterizes visions, comes face to face with his father, Afolabe. The two straightaway have a loaded exchange about names and naming. Achille confesses that he does not know what his name means (“In the world I come from / we accept the sounds we were given”) and Afolabe retorts: “then I am not Afolabe, your father, and you look through / my body as the light looks through a leaf.” The forgetful son is made to watch a processional, a phantasmic recapitulation of his origins:
Achille climbed a ridge. He counted the chain of men linked by their wrists with vines; he watched until the line was a line of ants. He let out a soft moan
as the last ant disappeared. Then he went downhill. He paused at the thorn barrier surrounding the village. Then he entered it. Dust hazed the path. A mongrel
and a child sat in the street, the child with a clay bowl in its hands, squatting in the dust. The fanged growl backed away from his shadow. Achille turned away
down another street. Then another, to more and more silence. There were arrow shafts lying in the dust around the thatched houses. He creaked open a door.
Achille saw Seven Seas foaming with grief.
And in time Achille is granted his insight—into the tribal sorrow and the claim it still lays upon the generations of descendants. Of the slaves borne away in the holds of ships, Walcott writes:
Yet they felt the sea-wind tying them into one nation of eyes and shadows and groans, in the one pain that is inconsolable, the loss of one's shore
with its crooked footpath. They had wept, not for their wives only, their fading children, but for strange, ordinary things. This one, who was a hunter,
wept for a sapling lance whose absent heft sang in his palm's hollow. One a fisherman, for an ochre river encircling his calves; one a weaver, for the straw
fishpot he had meant to repair, wilting in water.
Achille eventually awakens, and when he does he is a man renewed. The pirogue turns home to harbor, and Achille to his life. But he is shot through with the incommunicable gravity of the vision: He has become a fit figure of witness. Achille will henceforth grasp his experience not just in private, but also in archetypal terms. He will see his island in the harsh perspective of history, as a colonial pawn; he will comprehend from within the meaning of the battles and depredations that Plunkett charts from his history texts.
Walcott's poetic intelligence, as I have suggested, is characterized by analogy-making; it also favors symmetries and techniques of doubling, which are themselves rooted in analogy. (Walcott is, incidentally, a twin, a fact which may or may not have some bearing on this tendency). An energetic scholar could find striking as well as subtle instances, doubtless even patterns. Walcott matches the contemporary to the mythic; he looks for mirrorings and inversions of events between hemispheres; he even allows elements of his own experience to double over into the lives of his created characters. In Book III, for instance, the poet reports on visiting his mother in a home for the aged on Saint Lucia. Her amnesia not only echoes that of Achille when he converses with Afolabe, but further informs on Walcott's relation to his subject matter:
I left her on the verandah with her white hair, to buckets clanging in the African twilight where two girls at the standpipe collected water,
and children with bat-like cries seemed trapped behind bright galvanized fences, and down the thickening road as bulbs came on behind curtains, the shadows crossed
me, signing their black language. I felt transported, past shops smelling of cod to a place I had lost in the open book of the street, and could not find.
It was another country, whose excitable gestures I knew but could not connect with my mind, like my mother's amnesia; untranslatable
answers accompanied these actual spirits who had forgotten me as much as I, too, had forgotten a continent in the narrow streets.
Now, in night's unsettling noises, what I heard enclosed my skin with an older darkness. I stood in a village whose fires flickered in my head
with tongues of a speech I no longer understood, but where my flesh did not need to be translated; then I heard patois again, as my ears unclogged.
In Book IV, Walcott first introduces the counter-narrative of the Native American massacres. A number of the sections are given in the voice of Catherine Weldon, a white woman from the east who has migrated West and who reports (like Achille, in visionary terms) on what she witnesses. There is no chance that the reader will miss the connection between the deeds of the cavalry and those of the slavers. Writes Weldon:
I saw a chain of men linked by wrists to our cavalry. I watched until
they were a line of red ants. I let out a moan as the last ant disappeared. Then I rode downhill away from the Parkin farm to the Indian camp.
She then sees the traces of a massacre, a terrible desolation, in the midst of which suddenly appears the Omeros figure—white-eyed, blind—who addresses her:
‘We galloped towards death swept by the exaltation of meeting ourselves in a place just like this one: The Ghost Dance has tied the tribes into one nation.
As the salmon grows tired of its ladder of stone, so have we of fighting the claws of the White Bear, dripping red beads on the snow. Whiteness is everywhere.’
The passage, near the end of Book V, expresses ultimate resignation in the face of what the winning side would call historical necessity; it is the last entry in the archive of destructions, the nadir of the book. From Book VI on begins a momentum towards redemption. Indeed, a good part of that book retails Ma Kilman's journey into the island wilderness to find the flower that has the power to cure Philoctete's wound. The woman believes that the forest ants are communicating to her, signalling the whereabouts of the healing plant. And when she finds it, the result is quite miraculous: “the foul flower / on his shin whitened and puckered, the corolla / closed its thorns like the sea egg.” Philoctete's cure seems to instigate a deeper symbolic reversal of the island's misfortunes:
The bow leapt back to the palm of the warrior. The yoke of the wrong name lifted from his shoulders. His muscles loosened like those of a brown river
that was dammed with silt, and then silkens its boulders with refreshing strength.
The poet feels it, too. His lingering heartache begins to abate:
And I felt the wrong love leaving me where I stood on the cafe balcony facing the small square and the tower with its banyan. I heard my blood
echoing the lifted leaves of the hills, and fear leaving them like rain;
The swerve is unaccountable, an access of pure grace. It fills the poet with a new sense of mission. The transcription of island life into mythic terms now appears to have been a kind of imposed penance. He is not done with it yet, not quite, but he has finally discerned where his freedom might lie. Looking at the island's Helen, he has an epiphany of sorts:
There, in her head of ebony, there was no real need for the historian's remorse, nor for literature's. Why not see Helen
as the sun saw her, with no Homeric shadow, swinging her plastic sandals on that beach alone, as fresh as the sea-wind? Why make the smoke a door?
The poet is almost liberated from his creative imperative. There remains only the Dantean journey of the final book, a journey that begins when the marbled Omeros figure rises from the surf as the poet is walking the island beach. Omeros guides him along a goat track, then to a black canoe; together they cross waters that are at once those of Saint Lucia and, mythically, those dividing the living from the dead. Omeros—who is also the blind visionary Seven Seas—instructs the poet that there are “two journeys / in every odyssey, one on worried water,
the other crouched and motionless, without noise. For both, the ‘I’ is a mast; a desk is a raft for one, foaming with paper, and dipping the beak
of a pen in its foam, while an actual craft carries the other to cities where people speak a different language, or look at him differently,
while the sun rises from the other direction with its unsettling shadows, but the right journey is motionless; as the sea moves round an island
that appears to be moving, love moves round the heart— with encircling salt, and the slowly travelling hand knows it returns to the port from which it must start.
Therefore, this is what this island has meant to you, why my bust spoke, why the sea-swift was sent to you: to encircle yourself and your island with this art.”
Only a few more resolving strokes are required. After Omeros leads the poet through an abridged inferno, showing him there how the sinners, the corrupt destroyers and traders, are faring, he wakens. Once again, the vision has come in the garb of a dream. The poet then has his Achille sail off with his mates in search of a less trammelled, less despoiled place. But where Dante's Ulysses passes through the Gates of Horn, Achille finds that he cannot elude the nets of home; he and his men return. He finds Helen again. Since Hector's death in a flaming accident, his beloved is alone. After a funeral for Maud (who has died of cancer), she tells Achille that she will come back home with him. All's well that ends well. The very last section of the work has Achille reentering the prosaic element—except that it is not prosaic at all. The ordinary, non-epical dailiness has a deep, even archetypal rightness. Walcott concludes his Omeros with a celebration of humble physicality:
In the standpipe's sandy trough aching Achilles washed sand from his heels, then tightened the brass spigot
to its last drop. An immense lilac emptiness settled the sea. He sniffed his name in one armpit. He scraped dry scales off his hands. He liked the odours
of the sea in him. Night was fanning its coalpot from one catching star. The No Pain lit its doors in the village. Achille put the wedge of dolphin
that he'd saved for Helen in Hector's rusty tin. A full moon shone like a slice of raw onion. When he left the beach the sea was still going on.
These concluding lines show Walcott at his best. He commands specific detail with great suggestiveness and summary power. The mention of Achille washing his heels is placed so naturally that it very nearly slips by. It is the last reminder of the book's great—and oblique—pattern of echoes. The Homeric reference, here as elsewhere, is used to establish resonance; there is no concrete correspondence to the mythic sequence, unless it be a correspondence rendered as inverse: This Achilles has escaped intact.
The other echoes in the passage have been placed to tighten the webbing of the text. That Achille sniffs his name in one armpit recalls to us his former namelessness and the accusation levelled by Afolabe. The detail of the wedge of dolphin carried in Hector's tin draws our recollection of the whole unfolding triangle into the span of a simple image. And the last line—“When he left the beach the sea was still going on.”—recalls for us the grand perspective in which the story of these characters, archetypal as it may be, is also but one more slice of humanity seen sub specie aeternitatis.
Poetically, in the reach of its vision and the creative exertions of its language, Omeros is a magnificent accomplishment. Walcott has kneaded and stretched his terza rima, demonstrating, if demonstration is wanted, that the form has life outside the museum walls. He has speeded and slowed its momentum, and staggered the rhythms; he has injected it with patois syncopations. I could go on at great length showcasing instances of lyric inventiveness and noting as well the myriad ways in which the work both summons up its epic predecessors and stakes out its own independent claims. Indeed, this quasi-mythic positioning of the poem is a subject unto itself, one which bears importantly on the peculiar situation of so-called “marginalized” cultures and their relation to the dominant Western tradition.
Having said so much in praise of the undertaking, I must now make a different—contrary—judgment: that succeed as it may poetically, Omeros has serious structural problems. The work suffers from its own ambitiousness. Walcott would not only have it be an archive of poetic initiatives, but he would pack it with themes and subjects as well. The poem sets out the story of Achille, Hector, and Helen, but it also tries, via Plunkett, to encode the vast legacy of colonialism; and to further give, through Achille's “vision,” a synoptic rendering of the slave trade. And if this were not enough, Walcott has superimposed the narrative of the North American Indian massacres, as well as his own autobiographical circumstance, playing images of his Brookline solitude against his depictions of these island lives. Finally it is all too much. Though Walcott's great gift for metaphoric compression is everywhere in evidence, and though the systems of echoes and analogies do yield moments of triumph, the fact is that Omeros, taken whole, does not convey the sense of tragic necessity upon which the epic depends.
There are practical explanations for this. For one thing, the poet puts too many other narratives athwart the Achille-Hector-Helen story and thereby cuts himself off from a deeper exploration of their fundamental conflict. We are forced to take the opposition of Hector and Achille on faith; Walcott is asking the Homeric reference to do his work for him. But without a clear sense of their rivalry, its roots, we are unable to engage the basis of their enmity. Similarly, we have no clear sense of Helen, except that she is an iconic beauty. The true nature of her bonds to her two suitors is left to our surmise.
But even if these relations were fleshed out, I'm not sure that Walcott would have everything necessary to stage an epic. The original rivalry over Helen was only the precipitant of the Trojan War; it was not the core subject of either the Iliad or Odyssey. Homer's epics were reared on the grand themes of war and journeying. Achille's ventures out to sea cannot begin to rival Odysseus's exploits. Omeros could have epic-sized subjects, but Walcott has not connected with them frontally. The turbulent background of colonial wars and impositions is rendered only by way of Plunkett's summary notations. And the other full-scale subject, the pillaging of Africa by the slavers, is condensed into relatively short visionary sequences. There is, alas, no core epic narrative here.
Walcott has worked mightily to overcome that problem. He has introduced the correspondences with the plight of the Native Americans, and he has devised an architecture of narratives within narratives that reflects great ingenuity, but these expedients do not suffice. One finishes Omeros much moved by its separate solo performances, but not swayed by the symphonic whole.
There are two ways to explain this. One is that the project itself is impossible—that contemporary materials cannot be made to yield a work of epic stature because the struggles do not offer sufficient purchase to the imagination. The characters of Achille, Hector, and Helen do not carry adequate archetypal force, except insofar as they recall archetypes that have already been used as a basis for epic works. The second would be that even if the subject did have epic potential, the nature of Walcott's poetic gift might not be quite suited to its expression. Walcott is fundamentally a lyric poet; he has full command over descriptive and situational renderings. He also works from within the language, weaving verbal, rhythmic, and image-based connections. He is a poet of proliferations, and Omeros shows this clearly at every turn. Walcott has more trouble sustaining a narrative line at the pitch required for a work of these dimensions. His trademark is not tragic inevitability, but possibility. Omeros is finally a testament to diversity, to the complex fecundity of the human. His verse lacks the dark and deterministic pessimism of his Greek antecedents.
Omeros may not be an epic in the full sense of the word. But if it fails on those terms, it succeeds on a great many others. It is searching and abundant, an open-ended score for the New World. Its heterogeneous materials may not fit neatly in a classic form, but considered in themselves they are triumphant expressions of the imagination.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3816
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 prophet. A much more important reflection may emerge from this consideration: what elements in Walcott's work led me, and later the members of the Swedish Academy, to an acknowledgment of Walcott's work as worthy of the Nobel Prize?
If there is any dominant principle for literary prize-giving that influences the Swedish Academy, it is: a strong regional voice that transcends its topical locality, through the depth and breadth of its poetic resonance and through its global human implications. The publication of Walcott's Omeros in 1990 absolutely certified this same long-standing quality of his work. Omeros, a rare modern verse epic, places Walcott's birthplace of St. Lucia at the center of his epic cosmos, builds its local islanders into epic heroes, magnifies their conflicts into epic battles, visits the exotic shores of Africa, North America, and Europe on Odyssean journeys, and gives voice (in a lyric mode that departs from traditional epic form) to the epic writer himself, Walcott as the lonely, exiled “Homer.” In the manner of Joyce and Yeats, Walcott has merged a profound, rhapsodic reverie upon his remote birthplace—its people, its landscape, and its history—with the central, classical tradition of Western civilization. We can trace back this grand method through his entire oeuvre and locate it as early as his first published works: “… where / Canoes brace the sun's strength, as John, in that bleak air / So am I welcomed richer by these blue scapes, Greek there, / So I shall voyage no more from home; may I speak here” (“As John to Patmos,” from In a Green Night, 1962).
From this, one of Walcott's earliest poems, the poet quickly discovered his lifelong course: the retracing of the Caribbean experience over the essential Judeo-Christian and ancient Greek and Roman mythologies. Such a project may not seem particularly revelational, except that Walcott's intercultural “meld” appears absolutely natural and flawless, with hardly a trace of artificiality or pretension. His sense of the “right image” is so finely tuned that his classical allusions chime as truly as if it were Aeschylus himself writing. The geological affinities between the two archipelagoes—the Antilles and the Greek islands—further add to an intrinsic consonance between Walcott's real and imagined worlds.
However, profound ironies quickly mount up within Walcott's intertextual matrix. Most critically, how does he juxtapose the Caribbean history of transmigration, slavery, and degradation with the Olympian majesty of Greek culture? The poet must eschew a pure-blooded, largely noble, mythic past (such as in Yeats's Celtic world) for a more complex, ironic mode reminiscent of Joyce, Eliot, and Auden. His multiple mythologies begin to cross one another like antipodal harmonies in a majestic fugue, not with a single strain but with multiple cadences, voices, and nuances, the full articulation of which is radically new and ultimately has become Walcott's central contribution to world literature. As early as his poem “Origins” (from Selected Poems, 1964) Walcott manifested an intense multicultural consciousness and displayed his central paradox of being a man of letters schooled in the major European traditions while living on islands populated largely by former slaves and where the indigenous population has been almost completely eliminated.
I learnt your annals of ocean, Of Hector, bridler of horses, Achilles, Aeneas, Ulysses, But “Of that fine race of people which came off the mainland To greet Christobal as he rounded Icacos,” Blank pages turn in the wind.
This treacherous irony of Walcott's classical Western education and poetic predilection, in view of his place of origin, has been a thematic and formal knot for him to unravel on a continuing basis, while it has also formed perhaps the richest fabric of meaning that stretches throughout his work. Critics have attacked him on this very subject,1 and perhaps some of them would continue to protest even his receipt of the Nobel Prize. If Walcott were not so committed to the exploration of so many purely regional Caribbean themes, of racism and discrimination, of the lowest as well as the highest strata of society, and of the bounteous physical beauties of the islands, then his critics might secure more merit for their arguments. It has been said that he has done nothing for “building [the] image” of a new Caribbean literature and culture,2 or that he has in some sense abandoned his duty to rage as an angry black man from an impoverished, formerly enslaved (and still perhaps economically controlled) colony, and instead that he has embraced the dominant culture of the European imperialists.3 Nevertheless, his historical themes of the African diaspora, his colorful St. Lucian characters, and the epic largesse of Omeros appear to render most of these arguments moot.
Throughout his career Walcott's critics have often missed his passionate and unswerving dedication to his homeland. The vast majority of his lyric verse forms a long and detailed meditation on sea, sand, the mangroves and the fish of the islands. From “The sound of water gnawing at bright stone” (“Brise Marine,” from In a Green Night, 1962), to “the coconut lances of the inlet” (Another Life, 1973), to “the splayed hands of grape-leaves” (Omeros, 1990), his imagination has been perennially saturated with figures of the islands' natural beauty. His increasingly crisp, precise natural imagery forms a major part of the essential core of his poetic diction. The language of the coral, of the dreamlike undersea life, of the multiple faces of the sea in seemingly infinite moods, of the brilliant tropical foliage of the rain forests and mountain valleys, is thoroughly interwoven with his cultural and historical concepts, his purely formal lyric and narrative aims, and his unceasing desire to secure portrait-perfect accuracy in his rendering of the visual world.4 Walcott has for many years practiced as a painter, mostly creating watercolor landscapes of island life and habitats.5 His preoccupation with the subtle nuances of the physical world has given his poetic diction perhaps its most enduring and vivid ingredient. So precise, intense, and prevailing has been his visual instinct that Walcott can claim without affectation in Omeros that it suffuses his other senses: “I smelt with my eyes, I could see with my nostrils” (6.44).
Unlike the Antillean natural paradise, the urban “places” in Walcott's Caribbean setting are not inspirational locations for the poet. Port of Spain, Trinidad, and Castries, St. Lucia, form Walcott's central “cityscapes.” The latter is his birthplace (1930), and the former was his residence and workplace for many years when he formed and directed the Trinidad Theater Workshop (1959–77). Although Port of Spain is the most important city in the southern Caribbean island region, it holds little charm or mystery for visitors. Its urban sprawl and the “ghettoization” of its poorer inhabitants find sharp expression in Walcott's poem “Laventille” (from The Castaway and Other Poems, 1965), named for one of Port of Spain's slums, “where lank electric / lines and tension cables linked its raw brick / hovels like a complex feud.” In “The Spoiler's Return” (The Fortunate Traveller, 1981) Walcott makes his disgust for the physical and political putrefaction of the city even more explicit: “all Frederick Street stinking like a closed drain / Hell is a city much like Port of Spain.”
The poet reserves a softer, more nostalgic attitude for his hometown, Castries. Smaller than Port of Spain, and not as congested or polluted, Castries is certainly no shining metropolis; rather it is a quiet, overgrown village—discreetly poor yet nevertheless picturesque. Like most people contemplating the “overdevelopment” of their childhood abodes, however, Walcott regrets the “lowland poplars / now, levelled, bulldozed and metalled for an airstrip” (Another Life, 1973).
Throughout his career Walcott has been equally as poignant in his observation of people as in his observation of the natural world. His sense of character, human psychology, and the idiosyncratic inflections of personal speech patterns is displayed most explicitly in his dramas, although closely drawn characters also appear in his two epic-length poems, Another Life and Omeros, and here and there in his longer lyric verse as well. The epic mode allows him space to develop more generalized human typologies which can blend easily into larger and universal themes. Monsieur Auguste Manoir, for example (in Another Life), becomes the emblem for the greedy, mean-spirited, decadent merchant: “His hands still smelled of fish, of his beginnings, / hands that he'd ringed with gold, to hide their smell, / sometimes he'd hold them out, / puckered with lotions, powdered, to his wife, / a peasant's hands, a butcher's / their acrid odour of saltfish and lard.” The other main characters in the autobiographical Another Life, Gregorias and Anna, are based on Walcott's real-life relationships with a young painter friend and with his first important lover; their thoughts and actions are drawn with detailed, lyric complexity epitomizing youthful friendship and romantic love.
“Ma Kilman,” the proprietor of the village rum shop in Omeros, was developed as a character from a St. Lucian conte or narrative Creole song recorded in the earlier poem “Sainte Lucie” (from Sea Grapes, 1976). She is a superstitious, uneducated, but kind-hearted matron who, through her witchlike manipulations of mysterious, potent herbs and weeds, carries on a dialogue with the spirit world. She indulges her animistic beliefs through pilgrimages into the rain forest to seek out natural remedies, and she becomes the sad repository of the unfulfilled, truncated native religions of the Afro-Caribbean sundered from ancient African traditions—from Erzulie, Shango, and Ogun, who were “subdued in the rivers of her blood.”
The wild, wire-haired, and generously featured apotheosis of the caverned prophetess began. Ma Kilman unpinned the black, red-berried
straw-hat with its false beads, lifted the press of the henna wig, made of horsehair, from the mark on her forehead. Carefully, she set both aside
on the coiled green follicles of moss in the dark wood. Her hair sprung free as the moss. Ants scurried through the wiry curls, barring, then passing each other
the same message with scribbling fingers and forehead touching forehead. Ma Kilman bent hers forward, and as her lips moved with the ants, her mossed skull heard
the ants talking the language of her great-grandmother, the gossip of a distant market, and she understood, the way we follow our thoughts without any language,
why the ants sent her this message to come to the wood where the wound of the flower, its gangrene, its rage festering for centuries, reeked with corrupted blood. …
Ma Kilman, in her passionate enactment of white magic, the practice of Obeah, attempts to erase not only the flesh wound of her fellow villager Philoctetes but also the terrible wound of a whole people's centuries-long forced separation from their ancestral, spiritual roots.
The grand, larger-than-life persona of Ma Kilman is matched in mythic proportion by many of the characters from Walcott's early dramas. Particularly Makak, the wild, divinely inspired charcoal-burner in Dream on Monkey Mountain (1967), and his antagonist, Corporal Lestrade, resonate with hemispheral magnitude as twin representatives of black consciousness in the New World: the inchoate longing for freedom, self-empowerment, and economic independence on the one hand, and obsequious, even righteous acceptance of and subjugation to the codes and manners of imperial Eurocentric society on the other. Dream on Monkey Mountain, a paean to emerging black and postcolonial identity that burst forth during the 1960s, forms the culmination of Walcott's early mythic/musical dramas, including Henri Christophe (1950), The Sea at Dauphin (1954), Ione (1957), Drums and Colours (1958), Ti-Jean and His Brothers (1958), and Malcochon (1959). All these early dramas are mythopoeic efforts to express the essence of select cultural representatives, individuals and communities, from the Caribbean, and primarily from St. Lucia. Walcott wrote most of these in verse or song-lyric form; if their parts are in prose dialogue form, as is most of Dream on Monkey Mountain, Walcott tells us their “source is metaphor, and it is best treated as a physical poem with all the subconscious and deliberate borrowings of poetry.”6
In O Babylon! (1976) Walcott's exploration of Rastafarian culture in Jamaica, many of the dialogue lines appear as reggae lyrics, but this function of the musical drama remains largely a realistic attempt to capture the essence of the song/speech manner of Rastafarian dialogue and of the lilting, songlike quality of Jamaican speech in general. Rufus Johnson, or “Brother Aaron,” the Rastafarian “hero” of O Babylon!, symbolizes the strong, proud defiance of the Rastafarian cult, and the partially romanticized stereotyping common to the musical form does not diminish the memorable peculiarities of his “outcast philosopher” personality. O Babylon! forms the transition point between Walcott's early poetic and musical drama and his more recent realistic plays. Where Walcott's epic/mythic characters radiate with necessarily blurred edges, projecting wide, powerful circles of symbolic meaning, his more recent dramatis personae etch highly concrete portraits of a variety of island characters and subcultures.
Nearly all the characters in Walcott's plays since Remembrance (1977) have been vivid portraits drawn from his experience and knowledge of Trinidad and the drastic cultural changes that have taken place there since the end of World War II. He illustrates the recurrent themes of the painful, awkward emergence from colonialism with a brilliant mastery of multiple texts, or “heteroglottic speech genres,” if one applies the conceptualizations of the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bahktin.7 Drawing also upon the technique of the picong, the satiric “song-duels” common to the Calypso fests, Walcott has created a series of intertextual dialogues and scenes that both capture the peculiar habits and personalities of his characters and establish many of the essential dramatic conflicts between them. Especially prevalent among these texts are a series of “imperial culture” exempla: the poet Shelley, intoned by the black former schoolteacher Albert Perez Jordan in Remembrance; Coleridge and Robert Louis Stevenson, parodied by the white/black duo Harry and Jackson in Pantomime (1978); Baudelaire, Watteau, and French classical culture, espoused by the French creole painter Victor de la Fontaine, in The Last Carnival (1982); Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, enacted by the Trinidadian theater troupe in A Branch of the Blue Nile (1985). All these writers and texts function both as symbols of the colonial, imperial culture in general and as individual obsessions or states of mind from which many of Walcott's characters are unable to extract themselves. As classical figures and texts, they play the same role in the dramas as the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman myths play in Walcott's poetry: in toto they represent European cultural transplantation upon the Caribbean—an immense and complex backdrop, alongside the mute, pristine natural beauty of the islands and the dismal history of racial oppression, genocide, and slavery—against which Walcott attempts to sketch a necessarily troubled, ironic identity.
Respectively counter to each of these imperial texts are the variously parodic island “texts” which document the peculiar hybridizations, degradations, and adaptations that have flourished among the islands—often in a comic mode bolstered by the omnipresent, satiric, and mimicking styles of the Trinidadian carnival and its Calypso lyrics. Jordan attempts a number of derivative, self-admittedly poor poems and stories of his own in Remembrance; Harry and Jackson, in Pantomime, reverse their traditional roles to become a black Crusoe and white Friday, only to show the pathetically difficult task of role-changing for all races and cultures in a postcolonial world; in silly yet tragic fashion, Victor's family and friends prove unable to reenact faithfully his schizophrenic obsession with Watteau in The Last Carnival and slide helplessly, decadently into base slapstick and debauchery; the actors' hilarious Trinidadian dialectal versions of Shakespeare in A Branch of the Blue Nile, and their own parodic “playback” of their lives together on and off the stage, form a multiplicity of interwoven texts, both faithfully rehearsed ones and satirically improvised and distorted ones. Walcott's nearly flawless ear for personal, idiosyncratic speech patterns, his mastery of the many different “speech genres,” the dialects, the established and transplanted texts of the Caribbean, give his plays their dense, formal structure and their brilliant, scintillating surfaces, always witty and frequently hilarious. His profound understanding of the deeper implications of these multiple, conflicting, and interacting voices provides a rich portrait of the cultural and historical identity and transformation of the English-speaking Caribbean.
From the outset of his poetic career, through his recent completion of Omeros, Walcott has sketched and resketched discrete fragments, long passages, and cosmic eons of history unfolded in the Caribbean. Beginning at the zero point, the “blank pages turn[ing] in the wind,” and the infinite void of blue azure and Caribbean sea imaged in many of his poems, Walcott has set out to reconfigure and to reprioritize Caribbean history. From his postcolonial vantage point, the poet has been freed to “reverse the sights” on European history, on the prior heralded exploits of imperialist expansion, the “conquest” of indigenous peoples, slave-trading, and colonial cultivation. In most of the “official” European and American histories of colonial grandeur, the slaves have been mere footnotes to essentially white texts. The true history of Caribbean blacks, as of the Caribbean Indians before them, remains largely unwritten. This vast and sad ignorance permeates even the present generation, as Walcott's persona, Shabine, reflects in “The Schooner Flight” (from The Star-Apple Kingdom, 1979): “Who knows / who his grandfather is, much less his name?” His history is only one that his “masters please.” “Official” histories are most frequently promulgated on some notion of “progress,” and “progress” is quite hard to discern within the backwash of present-day colonial vacuums, as Shabine goes on to lament in “The Schooner Flight”: “Progress leaving all we small islands behind. / … Progress is history's dirty joke.”
Walcott has not failed to note the shortcomings of recent political history within the Caribbean community, for example its aborted attempt to form a Caribbean federation during its new, independent era; he has given a vivid account of his view in “The Star-Apple Kingdom.”
One morning the Caribbean was cut up by seven prime ministers who bought the sea in bolts— one thousand miles of aquamarine with lace trimmings, one million yards of lime-coloured silk, one mile of violet, leagues of cerulean satin— who sold it at a markup to the conglomerates, the same conglomerates who had rented the water spouts for ninety-nine years in exchange for fifty ships, who retailed it in turn to the ministers with only one bank account, who then resold it in ads for the Caribbean Economic Community, till everyone owned a little piece of the sea, from which some made saris, some made bandannas; the rest was offered on trays to white cruise ships taller than the post office; then the dogfights began in the cabinets as to who had first sold the archipelago for this chain store of islands.
Walcott's epic perspective on history provides him with the necessary neutrality to perceive that glory does not necessarily follow from revolution, that all change is a mixed blessing. In his more recent poetry, in many poems from The Fortunate Traveller (1981), The Arkansas Testament (1987), and Omeros (1990), Walcott has turned his attention often to the corruption and demise of the empire itself, and he links the waning of power of England and the United States to the final histories of Rome, Tyre, and Alexandria. From a cosmic or epic perspective, all civilizations follow many of the same patterns of rise, decline, and fall; the struggles of different peoples frequently resemble one another within the vast and ancient currents of human life around the world: “Albion too was once / A colony like ours” (“Ruins of a Great House,” from In a Green Night, 1962).
Nevertheless, the “mainstream” history of the Caribbean is bankrupt and passé for its contemporary inhabitants, and as its revision takes its course, many great, white idols must in turn be humbled: “I thought next / Of men like Hawkins, Walter Raleigh, Drake, / Ancestral murderers and poets, more perplexed / In memory now by every ulcerous crime” (ibid.).
Still, after such momentous revisions have been made, what remains? Certainly not the stuff of patriotic slogans, national anthems, and glorious “official” histories. The Caribbean, as Walcott is so painfully and acutely aware, will forever remain quixotic among the world's annals. As a region, it may form the paradigm for postcolonial “antihistory,” for the overturning of long-cherished myths and the brutal new chronicling of oppression, racism, and genocide. Its cultural history, which Walcott traces so accurately in the complex designs of his heteroglottic “multitexts,” provides one of the world's richest models for true multiculturalism—a dense crossroads of human differences, sometimes tragic and sometimes hilarious in their juxtapositions and interrelationships.
If we are entering an era in which multiculturalism is our central ideology, Derek Walcott must be acclaimed as one of our greatest cultural leaders. He repeatedly demonstrates, in dozens of his plays and volumes of verse, the true meaning of “many cultures coexisting in dialogue” within the work of a single writer. His multiple voices with Joycean brilliance range not only among the numerous dialects and speech genres of the English- and French-patois-speaking Caribbean, but also move to the widest limits of our entire treasure house of Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman, and European cultures. We may detect in Walcott's microcosmic Caribbean a paradigm for the most tolerant, mutually enriching coexistence of all the world's voices. Most wonderful of all, Walcott thoroughly exemplifies a “both/and” global political and cultural philosophy rather than an “either/or” divisive one. The Swedish Academy has certainly perceived this, and my congratulations go to its members for their choice, as well as to this profoundly accomplished, inspirational author whom they have lauded.
Lloyd King, “Derek Walcott: The Literary Humanist in the Caribbean,” Caribbean Quarterly, 16:4 (December 1970).
Ralph Campbell, “The Birth of Professional Theatre in Trinidad,” Sunday Guardian, 22 July 1973, p. 4.
Anonymous, “How Far Are Derek Walcott and Edward Brathwaite Similar?,” Busara, 6:1 (1974).
See Robert Benson, “The Painter as Poet: Derek Walcott's Midsummer,” Literary Review, 29:3 (Spring 1986), pp. 259–68.
See David Montenegro, “An Interview with Derek Walcott,” Partisan Review, 57:2 (1990), pp. 202–14; and Clara Rosa de Lima, “Walcott: Painting and the Shadow of Van Gogh,” in The Art of Derek Walcott, Stewart Brown, ed., Chester Springs, Pa., Dufour, 1991, pp. 171–90.
Derek Walcott, “A Note on Production,” in A Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays, New York, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1970. This sentiment and practice in Walcott's early drama conforms well to the concept of “word-song” in black world theater, as articulated by Paul Carter Harrison in his introduction to Totem Voices: Plays from the Black World Repertory, New York, Grove, 1989, pp. xi–lxiii.
See Stephen Breslow, “Trinidadian Heteroglossia: A Bakhtinian View of Derek Walcott's Play A Branch of the Blue Nile,” WLT 63:1 (Winter 1989), pp. 36–39.
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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 him for [Odyssey,] this most current work. Some pragmatists might argue well that a staged version of this play made from an epic would be doomed because of the large and unwieldy number of characters and sets employed; yet I would maintain that Walcott's new effort, as a work of literature to be read, is a brilliant success.
True to his profound respect for the ancient Greek classics, Walcott has taken Homer's epic at face value, with its characters, episodes, themes, structure, ethos, and emotional nuances, and “translated” it, with astounding faithfulness to the original. Still, crusty Aristotle would complain, stating that “the poets who have dramatised the sole story of the Fall of Troy … either fail utterly or meet with poor success on the stage” (Poetics, 18.5, S. H. Butcher, tr.). His reasoning, quite simply, was that the plethora of episodes and the multiplicity of plots characteristic of the Iliad and the Odyssey do not lend themselves to the relatively stark, concentrated form of the tragedy. Aeschylus and Euripides succeeded precisely because they dramatized only a select part of the vaster epics. Walcott challenges these cultural monuments while deferring to their sovereignty and wisdom; he may well fall nobly with Aristotle's lance in his side—the numerous exotic episodes and characters that populate Odysseus' journeys would be extremely cumbersome on the stage—but he rises into sublime lyricism with his brilliant poetry and drama on the page.
Walcott's faithfulness to the original has almost a scholarly accuracy: he begins his play with a prelude from blind Billy Blue, a double for the voice of Homer himself, then introduces, for purposes of exposition and setting, the major Greek heroes at the end of the Trojan War discussing the dispensation of dead Achilles' shield (which Odysseus won, but with the curse of wandering ten years before ever reaching home). Next, the sorrowful scene in Ithaca unfolds, as in Homer's original, with Telemachus barely escaping the predatory suitors and going in search of news of his father, first reaching Nestor and later Menelaus. The scene then switches to Odysseus and his beleaguered sailors, when his helmsman Elpenor drowns; he meets the charming young maiden Nausicaa and takes part in the contests on her island. The terrible encounter with the Cyclops ensues, followed by that with the witch Circe and her enrapturing magical potions, resulting in Odysseus' vision of the underworld and of the spirits of his dead mother and other Greek heroes. Closer to his home, Odysseus struggles through brief encounters with the deadly, beckoning Sirens and the clashing rocks of Scylla and Charybdis. The final scenes of his homecoming also follow his ancient model closely: meetings with his shepherd Eumaeus, his old nurse Eurycleia, then Telemachus and Penelope and their gradual recognitions. Walcott's scene of the slaying of the suitors could well have been written by Aeschylus or Sophocles, albeit behind a screen, as was the ancient tragedians' custom with violence.
Such meticulous fidelity on the part of a modern playwright indicates, I would judge, Walcott's desire to introduce new and often woefully untutored young audiences to the grandeur and excitement of ancient Greek literature. He not only incorporates the majority of essential episodes from Homer's Odyssey but also makes appropriate, modest use of heroic language as spoken by these famous figures from Greek tradition and holds resolutely to the Greek tragic technique of stichomythia, alternating single lines of dialogue. The latter functions well in allowing the frequent use of maxims, in which Walcott excels, and it moves the action and pace of the drama along forcefully. When Walcott retreats from his high-toned diction, he reverts to standard, common English speech and occasionally, with a humorous twist, to Caribbean dialect in the mouths of the Ithacan servants. This last, I think, is a comic bone thrown to his own homeland, St. Lucia. As nearly always in Walcott's work, the poetic strength of his sharp images and well-drawn phrases sparkles and triumphs.
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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 Empire and protectorates, happened much later. Compared to the experiences of other colonies simultaneous to our growth and adolescence, if one goes by the literature or the history one read, the experience was a benign one; there was no sense of being politically persecuted or repressed—though that may have been there subliminally or obliquely. It was certainly not the kind of experience that we read about, say, Martinique, where white French gendarmes represented French metropolitan law. If any repression occurred, it did not come politically or culturally from Britain, it came from the Catholic church, whose sources in the case of St Lucia were particularly French.
I'm curious, was there a two-way cultural traffic, or just the one colonial culture?
Two-way traffic would have to mean that what was exported to Britain by political necessity, as in the case of Indian Kenyans leaving Kenya, out of religious persecution in India or Pakistan, or for whatever other reason, had some impact. I don't think there is or was any influence on the part of immigrants as opposed to the other way around, because for that to be possible, one would have to have roots and some sort of power in Britain's institutions. I don't think the presence of the immigrant in Britain was understood or accepted for a very long time—and still may not be. If it were, I don't think we'd be having this debate about whether or not the Commonwealth should continue. Looked at the other way around, the presence of cultural institutions in the West Indies, in terms of say literature and film, could be called one-sided, but I don't think of it as one-sided if what is being received is being turned around into something that becomes part of one's own experience. The fact that I read Dickens, or Shakespeare, or Graves was not a matter of transforming me into an Englishman, but of my taking in an extra culture (not a superior or a primary one) that would include my knowledge and experience of St Lucian folklore as well as Jacobean theatre. That to me is an enriching thing.
Was it precisely this kind of rich multiculturalism that you were seeking to promote in your Nobel lecture?
Well, I wasn't promoting it, so much as demonstrating it. The cultural presence made up of all the various religions and races in contemporary Trinidad is being continually adapted and enthusiastically received, and it's not a matter of different races holding hands like you see on a Unesco poster, it's not an idealised experience, but a day-to-day reality. And if it's a daily reality in one place, why can't it be true of the rest of the world? Now that is not completely idealistic because of the practicality of the Trinidadian experience, the proximity and mutual tolerance of Hindus and Muslims, for example, that exists there.
You could say that in Britain there is a comparable multicultural experience that is there for the taking, but it's hardly being idealised in comparison with the Euro ideal.
One of the most amusing twists of history is that such a narrow-minded country as England should have had such a huge expanse of ownership of the earth, encompassing so many races. The policy that extended to include all those races, in contrast to the petty narrow-mindedness and provinciality of England itself, is a great irony to people who live outside of England but within the Commonwealth. It was the old Britannical civis sum thing that allowed one to be proud to be associated with the Empire. Reality dawned when immigrants arriving in Britain were told, “yes, but that doesn't work here”: you can't be part of things here, but you can be part of things over there because you're not threatening anything. That's the reality the Commonwealth has had to endure, and yet it and its writers (including those who remain in England) accept this as part of the ironical experience of being British, or at least, as part of the idea of the Commonwealth.
The Commonwealth prides itself on its abilities to maintain peace; Europe by contrast seems constantly to be warring with itself?
There have been terrible civil wars within the Commonwealth that have led to the division of nations, like India and Pakistan. Such things may appear to be provincial in the sense that they don't seem to bother world politics, but I think that, above that reality, the whole curiosity of the Commonwealth lies in the ideal you're describing: there is an idea of peace at the back of the idea of the Commonwealth. There is an idea of having a shared experience that is embodied in those photographs of dozens of prime ministers standing beside the Queen. How one looks at such photographs is very important. It is not a matter of saying that these countries, which include huge nations like India, Canada and Australia, should suddenly become very timid and accommodating presences around the figure of a monarch. That's absurd, since some of them are richer and others more powerful than Britain. But there is something that floats above that photograph that says “this is an example of world possibility,” and it is even more real than the UN because it is cultural above all else. It embraces the idea and reality of, say, sport. I think the importance of cricket cannot be magnified in terms of the lack of animosity that is there. Right now, for instance, England is beating us at cricket. What is the attitude here to this? It is not bitterness, not humiliation, nor a desire for revenge, but a simple concession to the fact. Transfer “the English are beating us” to a political atmosphere and what would be provoked would be anger.
The English team boasts a number of West Indian and British West Indian players …
That's probably one of the reasons why they're beating us! The question is whether that player is a complete Englishman. There's a whole generation of people descended from the immigrant movement after the war: are they totally absorbed into the fabric of England? If not, if, even domestically, they are being rejected, then the Commonwealth would be a lie, and there's no point in pretending that that kind of serenity exists.
You talk of sport; doesn't literature, too, have a role in shaping the ideal?
The depth of that is inestimable. What is inherited by Salman Rushdie, V. S. Naipaul, Michael Ondaatje, Ben Okri, and so on, is a sharing that has nothing ultimately to do with England. Historically, however, such writers have been categorised in Britain. West Indian writers were initially considered to be a remarkable thing, like Dr Johnson's woman creature: a phenomenon that would not last—it might flourish for a while but then it would go away. But these writers graduated into being published, and there's been solidity and development; the writers we've produced are certainly equal to anything in England. There was a phase, too, when a writer would be defined as a black writer in England. Commonwealth literature similarly cannot be called that anymore, it's just a part of English literature, that is, literature in English.
In terms of retaining a focus of unity, what are your opinions about the Queen remaining a figurehead of the Commonwealth?
I'll probably sound old fogeyish or predictable, but the fact that everything coalesces around her image is admirable. People are not being duped, it's not like a medieval concept, it is an agreement that the symbol of union will rest in the single figure of the Queen. And it has nothing to do with surrendering one's power.
What do you make of Britain's neglect of the Commonwealth, and suppression of Euroscepticism? Does it raise the suspicion that Britain is hoping to extinguish its colonial past by snuffing out the Commonwealth?
The history of the Commonwealth has been one of betrayals and denials by Britain, so it is not surprising to hear Britain talking about union with Europe rather than the Commonwealth. What's amusing is that England has never had an identity in Europe, it's always had a separate identity, and this pretext that it is going to be part of a Commonwealth of Europe is something that's not going to happen because England does not want it to happen. The stronger argument, though, is a practical one. Both economically and culturally Britain can strengthen itself by strengthening its Commonwealth associations and markets. Yet we find Britain willing to surrender much of its economic territory to a false idea of a quarrel-free Europe, and spending its time trying to identify itself in that alleged fusion. Britain should not be tempted by the illusion that when it enters the market or identity of Europe it is going to be anything less than a minor power continuing to dwindle.
What would be the cost of losing the kind of multiculturalism that the Commonwealth nurtures in pursuit of a single Euro identity?
The cost is something that is mainly idealistic, but more important than any kind of economic agreement. If we neglect the Commonwealth legacy, it would mean the loss of a world ideal, not a provincial or national ideal (like the American constitution), but one that is practically demonstrated in the Commonwealth whereby all its member nations, however small, can become equal voices. This is what the Common Weale means; it concerns the common destiny of mankind. It's the last ideal, and if Britain turns its back on the Commonwealth, it will fade. What should be respected is the votive idea called the Commonwealth. You cannot discuss that in terms of the past or in terms of economic possibility. Here is something that millions of people believe in, that is shared, however controversially, by artists, writers, poets, and readers, and to me that's more important than any kind of search for identity that Britain might embark on. To surrender that would be pathetic. It's a form of extremely subtle betrayal—a very quiet indecency. It's something the English would themselves describe as “bad form.” Morally speaking, that kind of apparently comic, parodic idea of doing the right thing has been one of the contributions of the Empire to the conduct of the Empire.
When I meet Salman Rushdie, Wole Soyinka, or Michael Ondaatje, we are sharing a language, but more than that, we're sharing an experience that has evolved out of the idea of the Empire and that hasn't pained us.
So the common ground that is cultural goes far deeper than that which is political and that's the way it should be?
Yes, and if Britain doesn't realise that than it really is a diminished and unimaginative colony of Europe.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1277
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 example. Swinburne's Poems and Ballads? And yet they were. Readers—young readers—knew them at once for the true thing—exciting, authentic, and subversive. Today they move the sympathetic reader in another way: as a poetical voice from the past.
The whole question remains ambiguous nonetheless. It is not just a matter of telling the good from the bad, or the deathless from the merely dated. Louis Untermeyer's huge anthology. Modern American Poetry, which went through several editions in the Twenties and Thirties, is just such a period piece today: but to browse through its dense pages is thoroughly absorbing. Hosts of poets from not so very long ago seem to be pleading for our continued attention. …
Derek Walcott's The Bounty is also an elegy, and a learned one too, for his own mother and for the poet John Clare. By the “rustling archery” of the sea palms their graves seem very close together: mingled with an image of the breadfruit brought by the ship Bounty from the Pacific to the Caribbean islands; mingled as well with the bounty of each morning, and poetry, and survival itself. And yet even in elegy for the near and dear, a poet, as poet, cannot but be a hardhearted creature.
… for this morning's sake, for- give me, coffee, and pardon me, milk with two packets of artificial sugar, as I watch these lines grow and the art of poetry harden me
into sorrow as measured as this, to draw the veiled figure of Mamma entering the standard elegiac. No, there is grief, there will al -ways be, but it must not madden,
like Clare, who wept for a beetle's loss, for the weight of the world in a bead of dew on clematis or vetch, and the fire in these tinder-dry lines of this poem I hate
as much as I love her, poor rain- beaten wretch. redeemer of mice, earl of the doomed protectorate of cavalry under your cloak; come on now, enough!
Walcott has always been a poet of singular honesty, which, with the earthiness that goes with it, combines naturally with an enchantingly Ovidian wryness and sense of nostalgia. Elegy makers of the past would admire almost as a new variation on the form's technique the way in which sorrow for his mother makes him hate the lines he is writing in her memory, and as her memorial. In a sense poetry can but harden us “into sorrow as measured as this”; and yet we know and feel from his lines that Walcott's feelings are in truth the reverse of hard, only that as a poet he has a more than usually multifold grasp of the self-protective or merely incongruous matters that go through the head of any mourner. And how much more so with a poet as good as this, while he is finding the words, and the art, of his grief?
God's bounty, and the recollection of one who understood it, expands magically throughout the slow magic of an impressive poem. As with Merwin or Ashbery, the feel is of a complexity, and of a certain helplessness in modern living which poetry can record but has no business trying to triumph over. More significant is the note of phantom homecoming, the marvelous evocation of lost islands, their old French culture, and their rich physical being.
My country heart, I am not at home till Sesenne sings, a voice with woodsmoke and ground-doves in it, that cracks like clay on a road whose tints are the dry season's, whose cuatros tighten my heart- strings. The shac-shacs rattle like cicadas under the fur- leaved nettles of childhood, an old fence at noon, bel-air, quadrille, la comette, gracious turns, until memory settles. Black boulders on a wavering hill face the burning Atlantic in August, with an old man cradling his cutlass like a rifle, and his inevitable pothound returning from his garden. A voice like the smell of cut grass, its language as small as the cedar's and sweeter than any wherever I have gone, that makes my right hand Ishmael, my guide the star-fingered frangi- pani. Our kings and queens march to their floral reign, wooden swords of the Rose and the Marguerite, their chorus the lances of feathered grass, ochre cliffs and soft combers, and bright as drizzling banjos the coming rain and the drizzle going back to Guinea, trailing her hem like a country dancer. Shadows cross the plain of Vieuxfort with her voice. Small grazing herds of horses shine from a passing cloud; I see them in broken sunlight, like singers remembering the words of a dying language. I watch the bright wires follow Sesenne's singing, sunlight in fad- ing rain, like the names of rivers whose bridges I used to know.
The moving sequence of “Homecoming” is succeeded by “Six Fictions,” imaginations of personae which might be, or might have been, those of the poet himself, linked to his own past.
He mutters to himself in the old colonial diction and he heard how he still said home not only to appease his hope that he would be there soon, but that he would come to the rail of the liner and see the serrated indigo ridges that had waited for him, and all the familiar iron roofs, and even the vultures bal- ancing on the hot ledges of the Customs House. He wears black, his hair has grown white, and he has placed his cane on a bench in the park. There is no such person. I myself am a fiction, remembering the hills of the is- land as it gets dark.
The pull of the old colonial background of childhood remains as hauntingly strong in these impressive poems as it does in V. S. Naipaul's prose masterpiece, The Enigma of Arrival. Neither writer can escape, or in a sense wishes to escape, from those powerful early associations—in the novelist's case of Trinidad, and in the poet's of the island of Saint Lucia—which have made them writers. Native ground is the ground of their writing, although their genius, and the skills it has developed, has led them into regions far beyond it.
As it turns out, the nostalgia in The Bounty, the elegiac sense of a past which has vanished not only for the poet but perhaps from a more generalized human consciousness today, is common to these three collections of poetry. They all seem, in their own separate and potent ways, to live in the past, as uncompromisingly as do the poems in Louis Untermeyer's anthology, Modern American Poetry. It might be going too far to say that these poets, like George Orwell, love the past, hate the present, and dread the future; and yet their poems, like almost all good poems, seem full of ghosts who are still very much alive. As Anthony Hecht's sardonic Death persona is well aware, the backward look is the naturally poetical, and Tennyson's “days that are no more” are a natural habitat of poetry—a habitat revisited in these fine collections.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7858
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 surgery of poetry may have to disfigure a character with wounds to repair historical injuries: “He has to be wounded,” continues the poet defensively. Why must the poet stitch some kind of wound into all his major characters, from Philoctete, the emblematic black descendant of slaves, to Plunkett, the representative white colonial; from the lovelorn Achille to Hector, Helen, even himself? Because, the poet explains, “affliction is one theme / of this work, this fiction,” as indeed of black Caribbean literature and much Third World literature in general (28). That the wound trope is central to Omeros suits preconceptions of postcolonial writing as either “victim's literature” or “resistance literature.” But Walcott's use of the figure frustrates the assumptions it elicits. Indeed, this seemingly unsurprising motif continually turns strange and unpredictable in Walcott's hands; this strangeness starts with his willingness to embrace the motif after having denounced the literature of Third World suffering for decades.
In examining Walcott's elaboration of the wound in Omeros, I trace the complex genealogy of the trope's primary bearer, the black fisherman Philoctete. By appropriating the classical hero Philoctetes, Walcott not only gives new voice to the suffering of African Caribbean peoples under European colonialism and slavery, he fuses other literary prototypes of North and South, Old World and New in an astonishing hybridity that exemplifies the cross-cultural fabric of postcolonial poetry and contravenes the widespread assumption that postcolonial literature develops by sloughing off Eurocentrism for indigeneity. Repudiating a separatist aesthetic of affliction, Walcott turns the wound into a resonant site of interethnic connection within Omeros, vivifying the black Caribbean inheritance of colonial injury and at the same time deconstructing the uniqueness of suffering. Hybrid, polyvalent, and unpredictable in its knitting together of different histories of affliction, Walcott's radiant metaphor of the wound helps dramatize poetry's promise in postcolonial writing, from Walcott to other Caribbean poets like Kamau Brathwaite and Lorna Goodison and from African poets like Okot p'Bitek to South Asians like A. K. Ramanujan.
Perhaps the most ambitious English-language poem of the decolonized Third World, Walcott's Omeros fills hundreds of pages with rolling hexameters in terza rima; alludes abundantly to Homer, James Joyce, and Aimé Césaire; and ranges historically from precolonial Africa to contemporary Ireland and Saint Lucia. Interwoven with the story of Philoctete's wound are plots of a Saint Lucian Achille and Hector struggling over a beautiful Helen, of an English Plunkett and an Irish Maud seeking peace in the Caribbean, and of a composite poet—part Walcott, part blind pensioner—striving to tell the history of his island. Of African Caribbean poems in English, only Brathwaite's The Arrivants (1973) is a work of comparable size, scope, and aspiration. Brathwaite's fragmentary trilogy also revisits the trauma of the Middle Passage and looks back to Africa, bases characters on inherited literary types and combines patois with literary English. But whereas an epic poem of Caribbean “wounds” or “hurts of history” might be expected of Brathwaite, professional historian of New World African dispossession and survival (Arrivants 210, 249, 265), Walcott in the 1960s and 1970s declared his hostility to African Caribbean literature about “the suffering of the victim” (“Muse” 3). While many black Caribbean writers of this period chronicled the inherited devastation of European slavery and colonialism, Walcott, accusing Brathwaite among others of being absorbed in “self-pity,” “rage,” and “masochistic recollection,” called instead for a celebration of the Adamic potential of the New World African and upheld perpetual exile as the condition for a new creativity (“Tribal Flutes” 43; “Muse” 8, 2–3).1 In Walcott's poetry of this period, such as the autobiographical Another Life (1973), the wound or scar is often the figurative locus of such criticisms: Walcott blasts Caribbean artists for nurturing “the scars of rusted chains” and revering “the festering roses made from their fathers' manacles” (269, 286).
But in writing an epic poem of his native Saint Lucia, Walcott takes up the postcolonial poetics of affliction he once condemned, anatomizing the wounded body of Caribbean history through Philoctete,2 injured by a rusted anchor:
He believed the swelling came from the chained ankles of his grandfathers. Or else why was there no cure? That the cross he carried was not only the anchor's
but that of his race, for a village black and poor as the pigs that rooted in its burning garbage, then were hooked on the anchors of the abattoir.
Walcott makes an oblique reference to colonialism, comparing the wound to the “puffed blister of Portuguese man-o'-war” (19); and he also evokes “a wounded race” (299) and “the tribal / sorrow that Philoctete could not drown in alcohol” (129). Even after he is supposedly healed, Philoctete joins Achille in a Boxing Day rite that, like the Caribbean limbo dance, recapitulates the trauma of the Middle Passage, including the primordial deracination that Philoctete reenacts when he slaughters the yams: “All the pain // re-entered Philoctete, of the hacked yams, the hold / closing over their heads, the bolt-closing iron” (277). In using the wound motif to signify slavery and colonialism, Omeros resembles countless other texts of African diaspora literature. As C. L. R. James recalls in his discussion of the vicious treatment of Caribbean slaves, wounds were inflicted in many gruesome ways, and “salt, pepper, citron, cinders, aloes, and hot ashes were poured on the bleeding wounds” (12). Early on in Omeros, Walcott uses one of Philoctete's seizures to suggest that the inexpressible physical suffering of enslaved Africans is retained in the bodies of their descendants and that the pain still presses urgently for an impossible verbal release:
His knee was radiant iron, his chest was a sack of ice; and behind the bars
of his rusted teeth, like a mongoose in a cage, a scream was mad to come out; his tongue tickled its claws on the roof of his mouth, rattling its bars in rage.
Naming conditions of black enslavement with the words “iron,” “bars,” “rusted,” and “cage,” Walcott portrays the pain of the wound as colonizing Philoctete's entire body. More than any of Walcott's previous works, Omeros memorializes the institutionalized atrocity of New World African slavery. Though as late as the 1980s Walcott continued to castigate West Indian literature for its morose tendency “to sulk and say, ‘Look what the slave-owner did’” (Hirsch 79), at the beginning of Omeros Philoctete rolls up his trouser leg and “shows” his punctured shin to paying tourists and, by extension, to the touristic reader (4).3 And whereas Walcott once locked in hell “[t]hose who peel, from their own leprous flesh, their names” (Another Life 269), Philoctete refers to the colonially imposed name as one source of the ancestral wound:
What did it mean,
this name that felt like a fever? Well, one good heft of his garden-cutlass would slice the damned name clean from its rotting yam.
Nursed and inspected, magnified and proliferated, the metaphor of the wound forms the vivid nucleus of this magnum opus, as Walcott suggests in an interview: “A very good friend of mine had died,” he recounts, “an actor, and I was thinking about that. And where this poem started was with the figure of Philoctetes, the man with the wound, alone on the beach: Philoctetes from the Greek legend and Timon of Athens as well” (Bruckner 397). The bridge by which Walcott crosses his own oppositional divide, the Greco-African Philoctete, is a compromise formation, a venerable vehicle that grants cultural authority to Europe but that is tropicalized and twisted into a vibrant new figure for African Caribbean rage and suffering.
Walcott's appropriation of the wounded Philoctetes broadly resembles other well-known indigenizations of canonical Western characters. To dramatize Caribbean suffering and anticolonialism, Césaire remakes the doltish Caliban (Tempest), Brathwaite the submissive Uncle Tom (Arrivants), and Jean Rhys the raving Bertha Rochester. Racked by an unhealing wound, Philoctete's body literalizes the anguish and anger of his celebrated West Indian counterparts. But while Césaire, Brathwaite, and Rhys appropriate characters already oppressed by virtue of their gender, class, or race, Walcott blacks up the classical white male hero responsible for victory in the Trojan War. Like Walcott's seemingly perverse use of Crusoe instead of Friday to personify the Caribbean condition (“Figure”),4 the metamorphosis of this wounded Greek castaway is more tangled than that of Caliban, Tom, or Bertha, for it invokes shifts from white to black, colonizer to colonized, classic to contemporary that are not merely subversive or exotic but defamiliarizing. Keeping the ironies acute, Walcott presents his Philoctete as a Mona Lisa with a distinctively Caribbean mustache.5 To highlight his reliance on a culture of slavery to indict the practice of slavery, Walcott pointedly refers to the institution as “Greek” (177) and ironically adduces “the Attic ideal of the first slave-settlement” (63). He repeatedly signals the seeming oddity of Philoctete's name in the Saint Lucian context (greater than that of the simpler Achille or Hector or Helen), as if to make of the name a foreign-language sign hung around his neck. “Pheeloh! Pheelosophee!” scream boys on their way to school (19), and sheep bleat, “Beeeeeh, Philoctete!” (20); only at the moment of his apparent cure is the “yoke of the wrong name lifted from his shoulders” (247). Instead of naturalizing the name, Walcott turns it into a trope for violent colonial imposition, a partial cause of the wound to which it is metonymically linked.
Most familiar from Sophocles's eponymous play but also portrayed in countless other retellings from Homer to Seamus Heaney and in the visual arts from Attic vase painting to neoclassical sculpture, Philoctetes, with his exquisitely elaborated pain, has long served as the classical alternative to Christ in the Western iconography of pathos and innocent victimhood. Bitten by a venomous snake and abandoned on the isle of Lemnos by his Greek compatriots, the groaning, shrieking Philoctetes languishes for nine years, his wound stinking, his body convulsed with pain, his flesh covered only with rags.6 If Philoctetes enabled Lessing to affirm his neoclassical faith in the “moral greatness” of heroic endurance (29) and helped Edmund Wilson advance a psychological conception of artistic genius as “inextricably bound up” with “disability” and “disease” (257, 259), he becomes for Walcott, as for Heaney in The Cure at Troy (1991), an allegorical figure for the postcolonial condition. As an agent of Troy's defeat, Philoctetes might seem a dubious choice to represent the colonial victim, yet it is also true that the Greeks exploit him to conquer Troy, that he is transported to an island and abandoned there, and that he lives in poverty, hunger, and pain. Unintelligible stammerings—literally the discourse of the barbaric—interrupt his Greek when he suffers spasms of pain. And his wound suggests not only affliction but also colonial penetration, evacuation, and forgetting. Faithfully reproducing the stinking wound, island fate, physical misery, and eventual cure of the classical Philoctetes, Walcott nevertheless transports him to a different archipelago, darkens his skin, moves his wound from foot to shin, trades his Herculean bow for a fisherman's net, transcribes his pained ejaculations in creole, and effects his cure through an obeah woman.
In Philoctete, Walcott has spliced a variety of literary genes and even antithetical cultures to create a surprisingly motley character. If even the character in Omeros who seems simplest in his cultural inheritance turns out to have a multiple and contradictory parentage, then perhaps the postcolonial poet's seeming capitulation to or subversion of European influences needs to be rethought as a more ambiguous and ambivalent synthesis than is usually acknowledged.7 Philoctete represents Walcott's refiguration not only of Philoctetes but also, strangely enough, of Caliban and thus of the Caribbean paradigm of anticolonial defiance, which Walcott once debunked as “fashionable, Marxist-evolved” revisionism (“Figure” 36; see also “Muse” 4).8 Both Caliban and Philoctete are seized with pain and anger, lament their compulsory hard labor, and personify colonial grievance. At the moment of Philoctete's cursing, “a fierce cluster of arrows / targeted the sore, and he screamed” (21); similarly, Caliban's curses prompt his master to promise, “I'll rack thee with old cramps, / Fill all thy bones with aches, make thee roar” (Tmp. 1.2.369–70). But whereas the new Caliban was already becoming a West Indian cliché a couple of decades before Omeros, Walcott paradoxically refreshes the symbol of postcolonial agony, deindigenizing Caliban and fusing him with a still-more-wizened prototype. Exemplifying the twists and turns of intercultural inheritance, this maneuver belies the narrative of postcolonial literary development as a progression from alien metropolitan influence to complete incorporation within the native cultural body. In Omeros the culturally alien and the native, the outside and the inside stage a polyrhythmic dance.
While Caliban may seem fishlike, a Euromodernist text that also interpolates The Tempest provides a closer antecedent for Walcott's wounded fisherman, who, with his “unhealed” wound, “limp[s]” and languishes at the waterside, feeling his “sore twitch / its wires up to his groin”—a mysteriously unhealed wound that reflects the condition of the land and indeed of the entire region (9, 10). Like the Fisher King in T. S. Eliot's Waste Land, Philoctete is a synecdochic figure for a general loss, injury, and impotence that must be healed for the (is)lands to be set in order. Like many vegetation deities, Philoctete requires the ministrations of a female counterpart to be healed: the obeah woman or sibyl Ma Kilman. Achille plays the role of questing knight who must journey to the Chapel Perilous—in Omeros, Africa, site of ancestral enslavement—to rejuvenate the wounded fisherman, the land, and its people.
This curative plot of return to a precolonial Africa would have been unimaginable without negritude, however long past its heyday and however often resisted by Walcott (as in the grudgingly entitled 1964 essay “Necessity of Negritude”). In Omeros Walcott describes in loving detail how “centuries ago” an African swift managed, in bringing a special seed across the ocean, “to carry the cure / that precedes every wound” (238, 239). He even flirts momentarily with the concept of race-based blood inheritance of belief: the African gods return to Ma Kilman and sprout through her body, “as if her veins were their roots” and her arms their branches (242).9 Moreover, although it is easy to assume that Walcott has simply encased a classical type in African skin, the pervasiveness of the trope of the wounded black body in negritude poetry—as in Césaire, Jacques Roumain, Jean-François Brierre, Léon Damas, and even Brathwaite—makes it equally plausible to argue that Walcott places a Greek mask on the wounded black body of negritude.10
The oscillation among Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean raises the question whether Philoctete's wound comes from the black body of African Caribbean negritude or from the Euromodernist fertility god, from the Caribbean Caliban or from the Greek Philoctetes. Yet even these designations are reductive: the Caribbean Caliban evolved from a Western canonical figure, many vegetation gods appropriated by Western modernists were originally Eastern, and negritude developed in part as a dialectical reversal of Western colonial stereotypes. In intermingling Caribbean and European literary paradigms, Walcott thickens the cultural hybridity of each, accelerating, complicating, and widening rather than purifying what might be called the dialectic of the tribe.
One of Walcott's recurrent metaphors for cultural hybridity is the scar. Comparing the cultural heterogeneity of the Antilles to a shattered but reassembled vase, Walcott said in his Nobel Prize address that the “restoration shows its white scars” and that “if the pieces are disparate, ill-fitting, they contain more pain than their original sculpture” (Antilles). More somber than Walcott's tropes of webbing and weaving, let alone popular metaphors like callaloo, the melting pot, or the salad bowl, the scar signifies cultural convergence in the Americas without effacing its violent genesis. At the end of “The Muse of History,” Walcott recalls the violent past deposited in his body, apostrophizing a white forefather, a “slave seller and slave buyer,” and a black forefather “in the filth-ridden gut of the slave ship.” But the scars left by the slavemaster's “whip” are metamorphosed in Walcott's magnificent image for his and the Caribbean's fusion of black and white skins, of Northern and Southern hemispheres: “the monumental groaning and soldering of two great worlds, like the halves of a fruit seamed by its own bitter juice” (27). Walcott returns to this idea near the end of Omeros, when he represents the inter-cultural labor of the poem as having “followed a sea-swift to both sides of this text; / her hyphen stitched its seam, like the interlocking / basins of a globe in which one half fits the next,” East and West, Old World and New (319). In Yeats's words, Walcott suggests that “nothing can be sole or whole / That has not been rent” (“Crazy Jane” 260).
Seaming black skin and white masks, white skin and black masks, Philoctete stands in a long line of Walcottian personifications of cultural and racial hybridity.11 He recalls the speaker of the early Walcott poem “A Far Cry from Africa,” “divided to the vein,” cursing the brutality of the colonizers yet cursing them in the language they have given him—“the English tongue I love” (Collected Poems 18). The Greco-Caribbean, Euro-African Philoctete is perhaps even more of an amalgamation than is the self-defined Shabine of “The Schooner Flight”:
I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me, and either I'm nobody, or I'm a nation.
(Collected Poems 346)
Although Philoctete may seem at first to represent but one cultural and racial pole of the Caribbean and thus to differ from Shabine and from Walcott's other early hybrids, even Philoctete's cure, like his wound, turns out to be multicultural. Ma Kilman relies on a specifically African plant and on African gods to heal Philoctete's wound, but she attends five-o'clock Mass the day she delivers Philoctete of gangrene. Vacillating between Greece and the Caribbean, the poem calls Ma Kilman “the sibyl, the obeah-woman.” This apposition reverses the presumably literal and metaphoric, and succeeding lines perpetuate the whirligig in naming her “the spidery sibyl // hanging in a sack from the cave at Cumae, the obeah / … possessed” woman (245).
Decades before the academic dissemination of the concepts of hybridity, creolization, cross-cultural poetics, postethnicity, métissage, and mestizaje, Walcott argued vehemently for an intercultural model of postcolonial literature.12 Against a “separatist” black literature that “belligerently asserts its isolation, its difference,” he counterposes a vision of the Caribbean writer as inevitably “mixed”: New World blacks must use what Walcott ironically calls “the white man's words” as well as “his God, his dress, his machinery, his food. And, of course, his literature” (“Necessity” 20). But Walcott also attacks pervasive assumptions about so-called white American literature—a more powerful if less visible identitarian counterpart to negritude and nativism: “To talk about the contribution of the black man to American culture or civilization is absurd, because it is the black who energized that culture, who styles it, just as it is the black who preserved and energized its faith” (“Caribbean” 52). For Walcott, as for Edouard Glissant and Wilson Harris, tribalist views from either extreme disfigure the mixed reality of New World culture, repressing it in favor of simplistic narratives of cultural origin.
The twisted skein of intercultural influences in Philoctete reveals the distortion involved in conceiving of postcolonial literature as a progression from colonial dominance to indigeneity, European subordination to nativist freedom.13 According to this narrative, Walcott's use of the Philoctetes type would seem to be a regression to an earlier phase of Eurocentric indebtedness; yet the same linear narrative would also have to note in the figure a progressive step toward indigenous articulation of West Indian suffering. Is Walcott recolonizing Caribbean literature for Europeans by using this and other Greek types? Or is he decolonizing it by representing Caribbean agony? Does the poet re-enslave the descendant of slaves by shackling him with a European name and prototype? Or does he liberate the African Caribbean by stealing a literary type from former slavers and making it signify their brutality? Perhaps too simplistically political for the cultural entanglements of a poem like Omeros, the evolutionary model of postcolonial literature is rooted in a discredited model of national development. Critics have seen a shift in Walcott's work from literary Eurocentrism to Afrocentrism, from denying to embracing African influences on his and others' Caribbean art. Yet Philoctete's wound and cure show Walcott not shedding but deepening his European interests as he explores his African commitments, putting into dialectical interrelation literary and cultural influences that would seem to be politically antithetical and becoming neither a Eurocentric nor an Afrocentric poet but an ever more multicentric poet of the contemporary world.
While using the wound motif to honor the uniqueness of black experience in the West Indies, Walcott nevertheless cross-fertilizes the trope, extending it to other peoples as well. Hybrid in its intertextual ancestry, the wound is also a trope of polymorphous diversity within the text. Walcott's principal white character also “has to be wounded,” because of the poem's cross-racial thematics: “affliction is one theme / of this work.” Like Philoctete's wound, Plunkett's has only the bare outlines of a literal pathogenesis. Plunkett, wounded in the head by an explosion just after witnessing the death of comrades during the North African campaign of World War II (27), also seems to bear the inherited wound of European colonialism. He even discovers that a midshipman with his name suffered a “fatal wound” in the Battle of the Saints, the famed eighteenth-century battle for Saint Lucia (86). Certainly, Plunkett's wound differs suggestively from Philoctete's: it is to his head, not his body, and it never induces spasms of uncontrollable physical pain. These and other differences may point up the more cerebral nature of white suffering in the aftermath of colonialism. Even so, Walcott insists by emblem and analogy that both colonizer and colonized inherit a legacy of affliction in the Caribbean.
Walcott reveals Plunkett and Philoctete's commonality in a variety of ways: their names share an initial p, an l, and the nearly anagrammatic final letters -kett and -ctete. Though the men differ predictably in appearance, Plunkett, with “a cloud wrapped around his head” during convalescence, recalls the “foam-haired Philoctete” (28, 9). The stoic Philoctete resolves to “endure” his affliction with the patience of an “old horse,” even as Plunkett, true to his stiff-lipped heritage, rejects the “[e]asy excuse” of blaming his temper on his injury (22, 56). Philoctete's wound apparently renders him impotent, and the great sorrow of Plunkett's life is his inability to father a son (29). Like Ma Kilman, the female anointer of Philoctete's wound, Plunkett's wife, Maud, his nurse in the war, looks after his head injury.14 After Maud dies, Ma Kilman acts as a medium in Plunkett's effort to contact her. Whether these links are instances of “Homeric repetition,” “coincidence,” or Joycean counterpoint (96), they make inescapable the connections between one affliction and the other. As early as “Ruins of a Great House” (1962), Walcott combines the bitter knowledge that “Some slave is rotting in this manorial lake” and “That Albion too was once / A colony like ours,” that both slave and master inherit histories of excruciating pain, cruelty, and abuse (Collected Poems 20). As Walcott says of “[d]oubt,” the wound “isn't the privilege of one complexion” (Omeros 182).
Walcott's use of the wound at first seems to satisfy Fredric Jameson's well-known generalization that “[a]ll third-world texts are necessarily … allegorical, and in a very specific way: they are to be read as what I will call national allegories” (69). Read thus, the Walcottian wound would be a trope of unproblematic referentiality and would stand for the particular historical experience of a particular race in a particular part of the world. But Walcott plays energetically on the instabilities of the trope, for the wound also has, as Elaine Scarry observes, “a nonreferentiality that rather than eliminating all referential activity instead gives it a frightening freedom of referential activity” (119). Discourses of realist fiction and of nationalist politics might seek to control and even defeat the “referential instability” of the wound, affixing it to a particular people, motive, or cause (121). But by attaching the trope to the name Philoctete and to a black body, Walcott already contaminates and disrupts the specificities demanded by “national allegory.” Moreover, the lancet wound that Philoctete suffers from confounds inside and outside; it is the point at which racially unmarked interiority erupts as exteriority and the world within breaks through the epidermal surface. While much contemporary criticism views postcolonial texts, more than their metropolitan counterparts, as preeminent examples of the literature of national specificity, Walcott devises a “transnational allegory” about both the wound of black Saint Lucian history and a larger subject—what he calls the “incurable // wound of time” (319).
To write about pain and mortality as transcultural experiences may be to risk an easy humanism or discredited universalism. Walcott keeps this tendency in check by reserving for the wound an interpretive opacity. Philoctete's injury is a piece of body language that, like many literary wounds, signifies its status as a polyvalent sign by resembling a “mouth” (18). But this sign also signifies its inarticulateness: although it is an external mark that tourists, associated elsewhere in the poem with neocolonialism, pay “extra silver” to see, it remains mysterious, turned inward, folded and guarded. Walcott describes it as “puckered like the corolla / of a sea-urchin,” in contrast to “a garrulous waterfall” that tourists hear “pour out its secret.” Philoctete “does not explain [the wound's] cure. / ‘It have some things’—he smiles—‘worth more than a dollar’” (4). Hovering between inarticulateness and communication, the wound offers touristic readers an entryway into African Caribbean experience even as it reminds them that they can never fully comprehend the local burden of historical pain, that they must remain voyeurs peering from without. Philoctete's wound elicits from him a scream that is “mad to come out” but that is held back “behind the bars // of his rusted teeth.” Inducing yet disabling speech, the wound figures both the promise and the limits of language as a vehicle of interpersonal and intercultural understanding.
Walcott thematizes Philoctete's wound as language since Caribbean blacks also suffered the wound of colonially imposed languages like French and English, which are interwoven throughout the poem. Just as Philoctete experiences his alien and inscrutable name as a festering wound he wishes he could cut from his body, Achille realizes that he does not share his forebears' belief in an essential connection between names and things, that he does “not know” what his name means: “trees, men, we yearn for a sound that is missing” (137).15 If Philoctete's wound is a language—partly readable, partly opaque—his language is also a kind of painful wound haunted by the memory of the Adamic language it has displaced. But this woundlike language is also potentially its own cure: as the narrator remarks near the end of Omeros, “Like Philoctete's wound, this language carries its cure, / its radiant affliction” (323). The line break, in a pregnant syntactic ambiguity, hovers between an elided conjunction (which would make the cure and affliction opposites) and a relation of apposition (in which the cure would be the affliction). The metaphor of light, repeated from earlier descriptions of the wound as “radiant” (9, 21), tips the seeming antithesis toward identity, much as the poet has done earlier in punningly mistranslating Philoctete's creole complaint that he is wounded, “[m]oin blessé,” as “I am blest” (18). The likeness between the words blessé and blest, like the poet's monolingual play on affliction and fiction (28), demonstrates how the European languages inflicted on African Caribbeans can be turned from curses into blessings. Like Yeats, who said of his ambivalent relation to English, “my hatred tortures me with love, my love with hate” (“General Introduction” 519), the poet of Omeros refers to “the wound of a language I'd no wish to remove,” even after the poet character and Plunkett mimic upper-class accents in a linguistic charade (270).16
Philoctete's wound, no less than the colonial language it partly figures, carries its cure dialectically within itself. Indeed, wound, weapon, and cure belong to a metonymic family that Walcott strengthens by metaphoric substitutions throughout the poem. When Walcott compares a “running wound” to “the rusty anchor / that scabbed Philoctete's shin,” for example, he identifies the shape and color of the wound with the weapon, and the word “scabbed” suggests both the injury and its cure (178). As if to close the distance between a punctured leg and the healing agent, Walcott chants their prepositional coalescence: “the flower on his shin,” “the flower on his shin-blade.” “the foul flower / on his shin” (235, 244, 247). The tropological binding up of seeming antitheses also works in the opposite direction. In writing that the “pronged flower // sprang like a buried anchor,” Walcott identifies the curative African plant with the weapon whose injury it reverses, as later with the wound it heals: “the wound of the flower, its gangrene, its rage / festering for centuries, reeked with corrupted blood, // seeped the pustular drops instead of sunlit dew” (237, 244). Using metaphor to leap the gap between destruction and healing, Walcott's language performatively converts injury into remedy. The only flower that can heal Philoctete's wound must match, perhaps even exceed, the wound's “bitterness,” “reek,” and “stench” (237); thus Walcott suggests that the poem cannot contribute to healing the wounds of African Caribbean history without reproducing their pain. Like the Boxing Day rite in which “[a]ll the pain // re-entered Philoctete,” the poet's language carries a cure that must continually reopen and expose the wound (277). In fashioning a mirror relation between injury and remedy, Walcott represents within Omeros the poem's homeopathic relation to the traumatic history of the West Indies. Joining black and white, African and Greek, Old World and New, the cross-cultural metaphoricity exhibits the doubleness that is fundamental to the poem's logic.
The wound motif exemplifies the slipperiness and polyvalence of poetic discourse that circulates between races, crossing lines of class and community, bridging differences between African fisherman and Greek warrior. With its resonance and punning, imagistic doubling and metaphoric webbing, Walcott's poetry demonstrates the kinds of connections and transgressions that have paradoxically made poetry a minor field in postcolonial literary studies. For poetry, at least in Walcott's hands, is less respectful than prose fiction of racial, regional, national, and gender loyalties.17
The lancet wound migrates from Philoctete to a white settler woman of the American plains, when Walcott attributes to Catherine Weldon “the wound of her son's // death from a rusty nail” (176). Moreover, the trope helps Walcott cross the line between narrative and lyric poetry as he compares his personal loss in a failed marriage to Philoctete's historical and communal injury: “There was no difference / between me and Philoctete,” he says; “we shared the one wound, the same cure” (245, 295). Although postuniversalist sensibilities might bridle at such assertions of identity, Walcott signals the distances he traverses by trope. The poet stays at a hotel; the fisherman lives in a poor village. Philoctete is a contemporary black man; Catherine Weldon is a nineteenth-century white woman. But Walcott refuses to accept the identitarian fear that shuttling across these enormous differences erases them; he suggests that the greater danger lies in becoming captivated by the narcissism of differences. Philoctete mediates not only between Greece and Africa, white and black, wound and cure but also between Achille and Hector (“Philoctete tried to make peace between them” ), between capitalist and Marxist parties (he campaigns for “United Love” ), between the living and the dead (he names drowned fishermen ), as well as between male and female (he and Achille become “androgynous / warriors” during their Boxing Day dance ).
The wound joins the major characters of Omeros in a large metaphoric company. The pervasive love wound is one example of this effect: Hector's transport is like a “flaming wound” because he fears Helen still loves Achille (118); Achille “believed he smelt as badly as Philoctete / from the rotting loneliness” (116); Helen so misses Achille that it seems the nightingale's “monodic moan // came from the hole in her heart” (152); Plunkett is afflicted with another “wound” on the death of his wife (309); and Saint Lucia's fishermen suffer “that obvious wound / made from loving the sea over their own country” (302). Linking various characters in amorous anguish, the wound trope also comes to signify the love that poets like Shelley have long associated with metaphor. A metaphor for metaphor, the wound even circulates through various parts of the nonhuman world, from the volcano whose “wound closed in smoke” (59) to the French colonial ship Ville de Paris “wallowing in her wounded pride” (85) and from a field (170), a bay (238), a cauldron (246), and a hut (272) to shacks (178), coves (249), the entire island (249), the sky (313), even the whole Caribbean basin (247). Unleashing the pathetic fallacy, Walcott sees the region's brutal history reflected throughout its natural and human landscape. He presents the phantasmagoria of the poet, Omeros, as the ideal embodiment of metaphoric conjuncture; Omeros's language is a “Greek calypso,” and his images flicker between black and white, the living and the dead, the real and the fantastic (286).
From the perspective of the identity politics that sometimes underwrites postcolonial studies, metaphor and postcoloniality might seem to be strange bedfellows, but they should be regarded as reciprocal, interwoven, and mutually enlarging. The movement of metaphor across ethnic, regional, and gender boundaries is well suited to the hybrid and inter-cultural character of postcolonial literature and finds perhaps its fullest articulation in poetry, from Walcott to Eunice de Souza, Agha Shahid Ali, and Wole Soyinka. Forced and voluntary migration, crossings of one people with another, linguistic creolization, and racial miscegenation—these are the sorts of displacements, wanderings, and interminglings that poetic metaphor can powerfully encode in the fabric of a postcolonial text. To trace the spiralings of the wound motif in Omeros is to begin to understand how Walcott's restless work of discovering and creating resemblance confounds the tribal, ethnic, and national limits set by colonizer and critic.
Trauma is, of course, Greek for wound, and Walcott's Omeros could be said—extending a psychological analogy endorsed by Glissant—to remember, repeat, and work through the trauma of African Caribbean history (65–66). But this ameliorative work should not be confused with a definitive healing. Although both the character Philoctete and the “phantom narrator” are represented as being cured in a climactic scene, the wounds of history and language are shown to persist. Even in the opening canto of Omeros, the trope bounces from trees to earth to blacks to native people with such vigor that no fictive cure can ever stop its enactment. Walcott wants to show victimizer and victimized to be ambiguous, shifting positions.18 Philoctete starts out as neocolonial victim: he “smiles for the tourists, who try taking / his soul with their cameras,” who try to penetrate the interior of the black Caribbean descendant of slaves. But he also tells how he and the other fishermen have “axes” in their “eyes,” as the tourists have piercing gazes. Indeed, he and his comrades, like latter-day colonizers, become “murderers”: “I lift up the axe and pray for strength in my hands / to wound the first cedar” (3). If metaphor turns Philoctete's wounds into weapons, it also inverts his black victimization as soon as that status is established. But neither is the alternative role stable, for Philoctete now reveals his own painful scar, which identifies him with the wounds that he will perpetrate on the trees. And as Walcott alludes to the annihilation of the Arawacs and their language, he recalls a still-earlier trauma from which there can be no recovery. Sharing a fate of island suffering yet surviving it to replace the native population, Philoctete and the other black fishermen soon resume the role of inflicting, not receiving, wounds: they turn off the chain saw and then, ripping “the wound clear” of vines, “examine the wound it / had made,” as the blood of a Saint Lucian sunrise “trickled” and “splashed” on the trees (5).
Is Walcott, as poet of cross-cultural affliction, a “fortunate traveller” of transnational trope? Because he sets this politically loaded metaphor spinning, does he irresponsibly confound distinctions between colonizer and colonized, oppressor and oppressed? How can this cross-racializing of the wound be reconciled with the asymmetrical suffering that marks colonialism and postcolonialism, let alone slavery? These are the undeniable risks of Walcott's free riding of the wound trope across moral and historical divisions, but his wager is that they are risks worth taking. If exclusive fidelity to a single history of affliction is required of the Third World poet, then Walcott certainly fails this test. But Walcott conceives the Antilles as a physical, corporeal, and linguistic site of multiple and inextricable histories of victimization and cruelty. From an identitarian perspective, poets like Walcott who metaphorically enact interethnic connections falsify the historical specificity of their people's experience. But for Walcott, the greater falsification would lie in an aesthetic separatism blind to the webbed history of the Caribbean, of his ancestors, and of his imagination and hostile to the cross-racial and cross-historical identifications the New World offers. As a graphic emblem of convulsive, bodily pain, the wound in Omeros memorializes the untold suffering of African Caribbeans, yet as a trope, it poeticizes pain, compares this particular experience to others, and thus must either mar or deconstruct experiential uniqueness by plunging it into the whirlpool of metaphoric resemblance and difference. Anchorlike in shape and origins, the wound trope in Omeros drifts from the ground of a particular people's experience to the afflictions of native peoples, Greeks, Jews, colonial Americans, even the English. Because Walcott's intermappings never occlude Philoctete's primacy and never sugar-coat the trauma of slavery, they keep in view differences between oppressor and oppressed, even as they reveal the connections between the experiences of African Caribbeans and others. Appropriating a Western icon of suffering and refashioning a polysemous and multiparented trope, Walcott's Omeros, together with the poetry of Goodison, Brathwaite, p'Bitek, and Ramanujan, champions a postcolonial poetics of affliction that obliterates the distinction between “victim's literature” and its supposed opposite.
Brathwaite and Walcott have often been compared (see, e.g., Ismond; Chamberlin 154–55).
Walcott uses the Philoctetes type in his unpublished play The Isle Is Full of Noises (1982), but there the wound signifies indigenous political corruption, not inherited colonial injury.
Walcott's earlier and later positions are less antithetical than my juxtapositions make them appear to be. At the time of his earlier pronouncements, Walcott was already mourning what he called the “wound,” the “deep, amnesiac blow” of slavery and colonialism (Collected Poems 88). Even so, he did not fully sound this theme before Omeros.
Walcott gives the nickname Crusoe to the Philoctetes character in The Isle Is Full of Noises. Philoctete may even owe something to what Walcott belittles as the “exotic,” cross-racial recasting of characters like Hamlet (“Meanings” 47).
Other Greek-named characters in Omeros share a similar genealogy, but their looser affinities with their namesakes make them more-independent characters than the allegorical Philoctete. On the relationships between Walcott's characters and their Homeric counterparts, see Terada 183–212; Lernout 95–97; Figueroa 203–06; and Taplin.
On the traditional fascination with Philoctetes's pain, see Mandel 35–36. Mandel also surveys Philoctetes's iconography (123–49).
Terada discerns the “variegated” and even “confusingly over-determined” models behind characters in Omeros (188, 187), but critics have tended to see Philoctete as a character with a simple pedigree.
For a discussion of earlier refigurations of Caliban, see Nixon. Minkler also notes a connection between Caliban and Philoctete (272).
Walcott seems to follow the lead of negritude writers in dialectically inverting colonial stereotypes, stressing, for example, the foul “smell” of Philoctete's wound (10).
See, e.g., Césaire (Cahier 40, 126), as well as Sartre's discussion, in his introduction to a founding anthology of negritude poetry, of Roumain, Damas, and Brierre (31–32, 36).
Walcott has often been discussed as a poet of “mixed” culture, “divided” inheritance, and “schizophrenic” allegiance; see Breslin; Brodsky; Dickey; Dove; McClatchy; McCorkle; Ramsaran; Terada; Vendler; Wyke.
Among the proponents of these models are Brathwaite, Roots; Bhabha, Location; Glissant; Retamar; and Hollinger. In some models the mixture is primarily cultural, in others racial; Walcott often conflates the two. I use hybridity as a general term for intercultural synthesis. According to Kortenaar, “creolization” models, as well as their “authenticity” opposites, are rhetorical rather than ontological (30–31).
See Fanon's classic formulation of the three-stage “evolution” of native writing, from “unqualified assimilation” to nativist “exoticism” to “revolutionary,” truly “national literature” (222–23). For a more recent example, see Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin: “Post-colonial literatures developed through several stages which can be seen to correspond to stages both of national or regional consciousness and of the project of asserting difference from the imperial centre” (4–5). For Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin, as for many other critics, this literary-historical narrative remains fundamental, despite a growing interest in “models of hybridity and syncreticity” (33–37).
According to Barrell (213), the traditional image of Philoctetes, “with his wounded and unsupported foot, … express[es] the fear of castration,” which “derives from the belief that the woman is castrated” and thus “produces the need for the companion representation” of a female figure.
Compare the alienating return to Africa in Brathwaite's The Arrivants: the poet has “come / back a stranger / after three hundred years” (124).
As McCorkle observes, “The colonial language is both poison and cure” (105).
Even postcolonial novels like Michelle Cliff's No Telephone to Heaven and J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians, which like Omeros allegorize the wound and scar, satisfy the socio-political imperatives of much postcolonial criticism more readily than poetry does. For an indication of poetry's subordinate status in the field, see the collections edited by White and by Adam and Tiffin. These significant volumes of recent critical essays on postcolonial literature each contain five essays on fiction but none on poetry. Further, there are no works of poetry criticism equivalent to the essay collections on postcolonial fiction (e.g., Bhabha, Nation) or to transcontinental books on postcolonial fiction (e.g., Moses) and even drama (e.g., Olaniyan).
On the ambiguous historicity and positionality of trauma, see Caruth; Laub.
I wish to thank my wife, Caroline Rody, for her astute readings of this essay and for her stimulating ideas about interethnicity. I am also grateful to Paul Breslin for sharing with me the typescript of Walcott's play The Isle Is Full of Noises.
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Yeats, W. B. “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop.” The Poems. Rev. ed. Ed. Richard J. Finneran. New York: Macmillan, 1989, 259–60.
———. “A General Introduction for My Work” Essays and Introductions London: Macmillan 1961, 509–26.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7882
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 and was broadcast on Voice of America.
[Styron:] So let's start at the beginning: tell me a bit about your early childhood on St. Lucia—your first memories, or your parents in this multi-racial, multi-cultural group of islands—where you went to school, and how you started writing poetry.
[Walcott:] I was born here, not far from where I am now, near the sea, up at Becune Point. I was born in the very small town of Castries, which is the capital of St. Lucia. My mother was a school teacher and a widow. I have a twin brother and a sister.
I think my mother's encouragement obviously, and because of the fact that my father was a painter and an amateur writer and evidently a director of theatricals as well—was very encouraging in terms of our writing. So I owe her that. I mean she was not one who discouraged it, in a place like this where it, you know, conceptually it seemed to be crazy to want to be a writer, and particularly a poet, and for her that was perfectly okay, and she is the one who physically, practically, helped me, by giving me some money to have my first book printed in Trinidad. I owe my mother for that kind of encouragement.
And of course teachers who were splendid young men who felt that it was perfectly okay to want to be a poet. That's not a common thing, in any country.
It's a very uncommon thing, from the poets that I have had conversations with—on this program and everywhere else. So you did not feel alienated, or different, as they did; you were in effect in the mainstream, in your family, if not in school?
I'm saying it was never much trouble at any point for me to consider that I was making some choice that would not be to my or to other people's benefit. That I am very grateful for.
Were you always aware of and concerned with the multi-culturalism, with the many races and backgrounds in the Antilles as you seem to be now? It seems to me to be almost your grand theme—in your Nobel lecture on the Antilles, for instance, you speak of St. Jean Perse in Guadaloupe, of his “the swaying palm trees recite by heart”—Perse was the former Nobelist from this area—and you say the fragrant and privileged poetry that Perse composed to celebrate his white childhood, and the Indian music behind the graceful young brown archers whom you speak of in Trinidad, in Felicity, as they were recreating the Ramayana there—Trinidad has the same cabbage palms, set against the same sky, and you say, “They pierce me equally.” So is the source of your poetry, and of your love for the Antilles, partly its multi-cultural background?
No, I think I arrived at that, and I think we, in the Antilles, arrived at that too, politically, because basically the Caribbean, from Cuba down—Cuba of course a little earlier—is basically a feudal setup—it was pyramidal, hierarchical, and frankly feudal, because it meant in terms of the land that there were fewer white owners with large estates, on which, in the smaller Caribbean, in the lesser Antilles, the working population were principally African—and it's only when I went to Trinidad I think that I became fully aware—certainly absolutely more aware—of the complexity and variety of races. In Trinidad, and for us, in a passage that I myself have gone through—which would be the equivalent in terms of, if I were dividing my life into political sections, I would say—the childhood would be colonialism, the adolescence might have been adult suffrage, the maturity would be independence, and then perhaps the independence would be chaos, I don't know—the way you feel when you get to my age.
But anyway, that's a political parallel. So that if a multi-cultural society wasn't there early, I think the explosion of races that I encountered, the mute explosion of different faces that were there in Trinidad, is tremendously exciting, and remains that way to me. It is happening more and more in the Caribbean. For instance there are more Syrians here now, there are certainly a few more Indians, and so on, so that, you know, the mosaic, and the mural, of different faces—that you see around you in the Caribbean—wasn't that rich and complicated—it was very simple at the beginning.
I think the sense of multiplicity came to me when I got to Trinidad, and that became a tremendous heritage, because it meant that I was perfectly entitled to study Chinese literature, because there were Chinese in Trinidad. And they are West Indian, and you know, Arabic, and—English obviously, and Spanish, and African—all of those things existed, and they are as much my heritage as, say, the African heritage is.
I know you say that—at least you say one way or another, that “the ideal city is a writer's heaven”—I think you spoke about Trinidad in relation to cities—and cities are also a source of culture. So what for you would be the ideal city? Is it the city you found in Trinidad? Or have you found cities in other parts of the world that give you that same feeling?
I remain a small island boy, no matter where I go. And I don't know Europe, so every city I go to in Europe comes as a total shock of experience in a sense, so that's not an experience that I know, and one that I'm still, in a sense, afraid of. Like I'm scared of Italy because it might be too overwhelming; I might want to stay there. I was scared of Spain, and now I'm not cowed by Spain, and love it very much.
But in terms of the proportions of a city, what I meant was—Auden had a wonderful line that he wrote in his middle period about lakes, and he said, a lake allows the average father, walking slowly, to circumvent it in an afternoon. I think the same thing said by Auden about lakes may be true about a city, that I think that a city's got to be basically, for a certain distance, ambulatory; I think we should be able to walk, almost around the circumference. Now—perhaps you can do that in some cities, but you really can't, ultimately. I think the width, and sense of dissipation, of identity, that can happen in a city, is not something that I personally am excited about. I think the proportions of cities, and certain historical peaks of great literature, or painting, for example, all have a neighborliness, a familiarity, even a provinciality, to them. And perhaps when that provinciality goes out of a metropolis, then what it creates is very small pockets, that don't cohere. You know, inner cities, or sections for the rich, or another kind of section—whereas I think certainly in a West Indian city there's a kind of coherence and rhythm that is affable, and, you know, penetrable, and so on—at least for me. So I find that in Port of Spain—not that I walk that much, in fact I never walk, but—so there's a lie there, but I mean—I'm talking about the sense of circumference that is there in a city. That's what I feel. And if that city can contain all these races and there's an affability that is possible in the idea of the neighbor, the next-door neighbor, who may be Chinese, or African, or Syrian, as is the case in Port of Spain, then that's to me an ideal thing.
Can you see a dark time when tourism, or political conflict, or overcrowding would cause Port of Spain, or any of the island cities, to become like New York, like Washington, where races clash, where the ethnic neighborhoods are set against each other—or like Belfast, where religious groups fight each other?
No. I think—for instance in Trinidad there are Muslims and Hindus—if someone tried to exploit the religious differences that exist between them—you know, if you're smart enough you can always exploit anger or resentment or jealousy or whatever, but I think that it would be hard to do that in Trinidad. Even if it were attempted that should certainly be stopped—eradicated—quelled—whatever. I don't think that the idea of exploiting, the idea of racial hatred, is out of the question—I think it could happen for instance in Trinidad, where there is, you know, a lot of tension in a sense between the Indian and the African politicians, still, and it could happen in Guayana, and so on. This is not such a threat, though. I think that after awhile the rejection and absurdity of it would strike the Trinidadian—particularly the Trinidadian—as being a waste of time and stupid and not practical.
And that's what I like about the temperament of Trinidad and the Caribbean. But I think the threat, the danger is the expansion that can happen with tourism—that you could have like many Miamis, all along the Antilles. Especially in the flat islands, in which, you know, the growing and the spread of malls and marinas and shops and hotels and so forth, can suddenly transform a place into a large shopping mall with a beach. I think the responsibility of that control rests with the politicians. You can't blame them. If our politicians, and they do do that, encourage things like, you know, drug lords, or encourage land sales, or hotel developments in which they make some deals—we have to examine the corruption of our politics before we accuse people from abroad of, say, corrupting our life style. Self-examination is more important than blaming Americans for corrupting the Caribbean.
When you talk about the blessed obscurity of your island, you also talk about the fact that there can be a virtue in deprivation, because it can save you from what you call “a cascade of high mediocrity.” Do you think there's more danger in high mediocrity invading your island than anything else?
Well, I think it's a world-wide threat, I think the tide, you know, sort of that mass tide of not-quite-good, or okay, you know, not a masterpiece, but tolerable. You know, the fat paperback with the silver and gold raised things that you find in airports—it's hard to define what it is, because it sort of looks elegant and is terrible—that's the seepage that I think is dangerous. What I meant by that is not to say that, you know, there are qualities and virtues in poverty; I'm just saying that what I remember of my boyhood is that a library had to choose the best because of the budget that it had; there were no second-rate novels in the library in Castries—they couldn't afford them—so what you had to have is Dickens and you had to have Scott—even occasional novels were quality novels. It might be O'Hara, it might be Hemingway, or English writers, like Waugh and so on. So that's what I meant—in terms of the rigidity or astringency of a particular budget, if you equate that with poverty, the kind of education that one had was a part of that kind of deprivation. A lot of the writers of the Caribbean, who were quite brilliantly educated in many respects, had to look for themselves and create their own idea of what writing could be. I think now—I think that there's so much tolerable trash out, you know, that for us it is dangerous because we don't have the alternatives. If you live in New York you can say, I don't want to watch any more television, I'm sick of MTV, and then you get something else—then you can go to a movie that you really want to go to, or a play or something—when you don't have that recourse, and you're flooded with stuff that is okay, you know—it doesn't hurt anybody—but if that's the only thing you have, then that's a terrible thing that I think is happening in the Caribbean. And what one has to fight against and preserve.
As a child then, in a library with good taste—what inspired you? What literature did you read that made you want to become a writer? Or was it just spontaneous knowledge rather than other reading?
No—there's no point pretending—I think if one asks oneself why do you become a writer, I think you have to answer quite simply, quite humbly, and quite gratefully, that you were gifted. And that's what my answer is, and it's quite acceptable for me to say that about myself. I don't think of it as something that separates me from anyone else, I just think of it as a reality. I knew that I had this gift, that I wanted to develop it and so on. So I knew that early.
In terms of how one felt about reading other writers, I think that happens to every writer; I think you lose your originality like your virginity, you know—at the beginning you're original. The most original period of any writer's life is when that writer begins to write. Thomas Traherne says “I learned the dirty devices of the world.” I think the dirty devices of syntax, about how to be a writer, can corrupt a writer in a sense. I think for instance a writer like Blake, trying to get back to an inner sense of syntax—you can only have one writer like that. Then—to take an example of supreme magnificent decadence, you'd have to say Milton, or aspects of Shakespeare. But it's magnificent, right? What I mean is, that clarity and inner sense that is there in the beginning writer—that goes. And then the writer learns how to write, from other writers.
What I think that I feel was very exciting for writers of my generation, given the apparent constrictions of where we were, is—this is what was happening. You would go to school, on a hot day—you would have to wear a blazer, you'd have to wear a pork helmet, you'd have to wear long pants, gray flannel—I mean this was like murder, and to go home in those clothes. However, that was a discipline imposed on the equivalent of an English schoolboy. Of course it was mimicry but that was the discipline. The mimicry was good, I think, because although it created an elite, it made you aware that you were going to a particular place to do something. And there you would go and you would be studying Latin, and you would be studying French poetry, in a tropical climate, very hot and so on—now I think the danger is for people to teach that as being incongruous. That is dangerous. The other thing is not dangerous. The other thing is not what you would call white-washing, or colonializing. I think that is stupid. The width of encountering, say, Latin writers, or Shakespeare, or French writers—it wasn't Baudelaire, too early to do that—but to have that kind of experience, that is wider. I remember being in the library, in the Carnegie Library, and reading Wilson's Axel's Castle. Now I was a much older person, maybe at sixteen or seventeen—I remember the tremendous kick—I mean it's physical—it was like a heart thudding, reading—you know, reading the criticism of Wilson on Joyce, and the same that happened a little later in Eliot's criticism of the Jacobean playwrights.
Now here you are in the tropics, sitting down, you know, wherever you are, and outside there's a fierce, oven-like heat, and black people out there, walking, continuing their lives; how do you connect that with what's happening outside? For a while you can live with that and simply file it as a kind of separation and division. And then you realize as you get older, there's no division. There's no separation. Because the person who's outside there, the woman who's walking with her basket, wants her son to be where you are. And why would you deny her son, you know, because she's black or poor, the place where you are, because you have been given a scholarship or something? So there's no incongruity, to me, of having gone through that. And I think it's a kind of experience that created the sharpness, the acuity, and the depth, of writers like C. L. James, who's written brilliantly about it in Beyond the Boundary, and writers like Naipaul, and other writers like Hearn, and Wilson Harris, have had that experience. That sense of almost being disconnected with the world outside, but knowing that one has to push further on and make that connection.
Before you decided to push further on and meet the world outside, whether it was in the Antilles or the States, or—I don't know how much time you spent in Greece—
I've never been to Greece—no—I think if I'd been to Greece I wouldn't have written the book.
It's such a remarkable evocation of the islands in Omeros—so you were acquainted with Homer through reading rather than through—
Well I should confess—I've never read Homer—I've read fragments of Homer—this is terrible but—the Homer I read was mainly like reading Hemingway—I mean the physical Homer, the geographic Homer. The Homer of myth and the gods and so on I found very hard to absorb. As reality.
Was myth, or religion of any kind, a reality for you when you were a boy?
Oh, certainly in terms of super—if you want to call it superstition—but it's really religion, in terms of African religion, African pantheism, and story-telling and music and so on. Definite influence, and I put it in my plays.
Was theater as attractive to you as poetry early on? Did you know that you would write plays and found a theater?
My brother and I did that—we did it a little later, but—he put me on to writing plays—but my mother used to perform, you see, she used to recite a lot of Shakespeare, and evidently my father had staged it—there's a man I knew who played Shylock and my mother played Portia, and it must have been young people just doing fragments of Shakespeare. So that theatrical thing that was there in my mother, through my father's encouragement. I have a strong belief in heredity, you know, through environment. Absolutely.
Did you act as a child? Did you act as a young man?
No, no, no. I gave up acting when I was on stage once and I had to say a line like, “Roger's coming now,” and Roger didn't come so I got very angry—I was furious, and then I quit.
Was that right here in St. Lucia?
That's right. That's the end of the career, right. So then I started to punish people by writing plays.
Did you also direct—when you were in Trinidad?
Yes, I direct, sure, yes.
Does that still appeal to you, or not?
You've directed your own—
Have you allowed other people to direct them too?
Yeah, I have—it's very difficult if you form your own company, which I have. The companies are now thirty-five years old, you know, and I've always premiered the plays with them, and I know the actors and I write for them—it can be very painful unless you find a director who understands exactly what you want. And even then a minimal gesture, a little thing that's, you know, out of alignment with what you meant, can be distracting. But generally, when I have been lucky, as I have been recently with a young director from England, then you can see a lot of things that you never thought were possible, coming out of the actors, and the staging. But yes, I really enjoy working with the company.
Was this young director from England directing your plays here, or in the States?
No; well, he did the Odyssey at the Royal Shakespeare Company, at the Barbican, then he came out and did a stage reading and also directed another play called The Joker of Seville, which we took to Boston. So the company love him and he's a terrific young guy, and it's nice to work with him. Sometimes, though, particularly I think in the American theater, there's so much self-torture about motivation, tragically.
When we were swimming the other day, right near here, you and Carlos Fuentes were talking about production of plays, particularly with the American Repertory Theater.
Be careful here now—
But go ahead—
I just wondered if you had another director there, or did you direct your own?
No—I think the thing that happened with that play—if I have to make a lot of excuses, which I think I need to—is that a musical is a very complicated, long process which requires—there's so many aspects to it that it requires a lot of time to get right. And in that particular case, whatever the book was, it needed a lot of work, and the music—it was just too short, and the conditions were—this is a particular example of what I was saying—and since I write a lot of musicals, the hours and length of time it would take to get one right, I would think we should be steadily working on for at least six months or a year.
How long have you been working with Paul Simon?
About a year and a half now.
And how much longer do you think you'll be working on it?
He might be listening. I can't talk—but it's going very well.
So you work together daily on the music and the book?
Well, not daily, because he's in New York and I'm here sometimes, and sometimes I'm in Boston, and you know, we have to get a little closer together now, because we're getting close to the end.
Do you see yourself in the future doing more theater than poetry, or more epic poetry or lyric poetry, or do you play it by ear day by day?
Well, I have a lot of work now—I have a couple of films—scripts—that are required, that I have to do, and then there are a couple of musicals—there's a lot—and there's a new book of poems, and then there's supposed to be a book of essays—plenty to do.
That's exciting for all of us—
It's terrifying. It's frightening.
It's wonderful for us. Were you a great seer of films all of your life?
Um—Yeah, certainly in St. Lucia. Absolutely. And in Trinidad to some degree. Not so much in the States now, because, you know, everybody gets so busy doing their own work, you hardly have time to go to the movies—I haven't been for a while. When you don't go it's always a thrill to go and find out how exciting a good film could be.
I think the—I'm trying to think very carefully here. I was wondering this morning, for instance, whether you get the same kind of echo, inner reverberations, that you get from a book, as you might from a movie. And probably not—but I think the films that you do want to see again, that have a classic symmetry to them—some of the obvious ones—their refrain is almost like a line of poetry, it's beautifully done it manages to have a reason—it all adds up to a sound—the sound of itself.
I think for instance of My Darling Clementine by Ford. It's a movie I keep seeing, over and over, and admire every shot in it, and so on. Obviously Kurosawa. And Treasure of Sierra Madre I think is a great film that you can look at over and over. I don't know how many movies you can do that with, though—all the names I think are by obvious artists, like Fellini, Kurosawa and so forth.
I know that one of my favorites is Kurosawa's Dreams.
I haven't seen that. I think Seven Samurai is—well everybody says probably the greatest movie—but it's one of the great—absolutely one of the great movies, I think. The full Seven Samurai—the complete thing.
I wonder if you've seen The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as many times as my husband has.
It's an amazing film.
He and Peter Matthieson can quote great passages of it.
I think what's astonishing in a director like Huston, and for every writer, especially a playwright, is how short these movies are. In essence—short in terms of content, and the volume, the width of the movie—see today, I think people—if you're going to do a movie like Treasure of the Sierra Madre, it's going to be two and a half hours long, and—conceptually, I don't think they can do it any more. I don't think they have that fantastic sense of economy, that Ford and Huston, for instance, had. When you think of the content of Treasure … and the amount that happens—it's astonishing.
Seven Samurai is long—and Lawrence of Arabia is long. It's when they're long and empty—I think that's the thing, you know.
Let's get to poetry a little bit, since we've talked about everything else—
How can you interrupt John Huston for poetry?
Well I don't know—since you're a poet I'm going to force you to—your poetry is made so vivid, I guess by the movies you've seen, and whatever you've read, but especially by natural observation, and the echoes of music, and the intensity of your memory. Could you say how you most often begin a poem? Is it sort of a sudden psyching of one of your swifts crossing the water, or the curlew, or the scarlet ibis? Or is it the feel of the trade winds, or the beat or melody of the surf, or an old song, or a vision of a painting? Which of your senses do you start through? Or is it through an idea, or a phrase, or an event you've experienced? An emotional crisis?
This is the point at which all poets get very pompous. And they give these enigmatic answers and say, well, you know, generally it comes this way and so forth—I don't really have an answer, so I'm going to cut down on the pomposity. But I would say—if it were explainable, then it might disappear. It's not explicable. I think perhaps to a musician a phrase might come and then it can develop, and develop into a huge thing. And I think—like music it may come in some notes whose equivalent is words, you know? And those words may be a phrase that just comes out of the air. Not necessarily out of the immediate experience, you know? And then out of that I think the thing begins to develop.
And Graves said he thinks that every poem begins with half a line and then the next half of a line. That the sound of it is that. And I think that that's pretty true. That what you hear is the second half of the same line. Not the beginning. I think the beginning is prose. I think if you go one two three four, and you get the first line right away, then it might be pretty good, pretty competent, but not a really inspired thing. I think what can happen, is that maybe that phrase, that's the half-phrase, is continued, and I think that margin on the right gives a structure for the left. This is Grave's theory, and I think—I'm not saying this only applies to me or to everyone else—there are all sorts of theories—but you can't say that it comes out of something related to an object that you're looking at or an experience that you have—it may just be something that you don't quite know the meaning of, and that's the pompous and mysterious part of it.
But it is—I mean I do think that when it does come, it comes—as Keats said, you know, it comes like leaves come to a tree, you know? Either it comes that way or it doesn't come at all. So what may appear to be leaves on a tree, are really like artificial leaves on an artificial tree. But you know that when it does happen. And when it does happen the poem seems to go right through and finish itself down to its roots. I don't think it starts from the roots, but like it starts in air and gets down to roots. Or something. A lot of this is nonsense in a sense, but it just—we're trying to explain something. So I don't have an argument or a reason for saying this; I think if you have an occasional poem, a poem aimed at a subject, yes, you can do that, because that's your craft, and you can make it happen. As to when it can happen, and when it does happen, I think it's just the continuous practice of verse that creates poetry.
A real labor of the imagination.
Yes—I guess the craft—I mean working at the craft—creates I think for young writers, what they must do every day, is just write—they don't have to write on a subject—when I teach my class I tell them, don't try to finish a poem, just go as far as you feel is honest and then abandon it. But there's this desperation to complete things that the young have, you know?
So when you start a poem you don't necessarily know where it's going, or have a vision of the end, even if you can't hear it—
Well I think one of the reasons why I use rhyme, is because rhyme takes over, right? There's one kind of reason—there's a reason, which I think is a prosaic reason, which says, this is the subject, and stick to it, you know? And this is the prose reason. Whereas if you use a rhyme—let's say you're heading toward the end of a line, then you find a rhyme—whatever the design of it—it could be far down, but—I think all poems are based on the concept of rhyme. Every poem is based on that idea. It's used or it's not used, but the instinct is that. So if you are using rhyme, when it does happen, when you're heading towards those last couple of syllables, and you're desperate, and you don't know what it's going to be, and if it does happen—it can alter meaning. It can absolutely lift meaning in a certain direction or in another direction, and what you then do is you have to follow what the subterranean thing that has suddenly emerged dominates in your direction. And you keep following that, and you're still trying to maintain direction, some original direction, but you're discovering what you're writing, as you write it, you know? And that's when it becomes magical. But that's not common. That's not often.
That's beautifully said. I rhyme more often than not rhyme, and a number of poets I've recently talked with seem to be against rhyme, feel that they have left rhyme behind, and that contemporary poets should. And I never thought—
I'll tell you something—let me interrupt here for a second, because this always infuriates me. For one—American arrogance can be astounding. American arrogance about esthetics. America believes a lot of things—it also believes—I'm talking about the worst aspect of arrogance of American esthetics—for instance the idea that they invented breathing—right? That the American pulse is somehow different from the Victorian pulse. And that it works in free verse. The American pulse is free verse, and you don't breathe in and out, but there's some other kind of rhythm—I don't know what's between breathing—inhaling and exhaling, but a lot of people who—when you say this thing about saying we have gone beyond rhyme and we have gone beyond X or Y—I have had too many maimed students. I think, crippled students, who have come to me from certain classes from somewhere, in which they have been told not to use rhyme, there is too much melody. Someone has said to me, once I was told—try to avoid music. This is the only culture in the history of the world that has ever said that about verse. Absolutely. This is ridiculous—it's absurd. The apocalypse. Armageddon.
Americans say, and I've heard it a lot recently, from platforms from classrooms—that Whitman is the father of American poetry, and Dickinson is the mother. Some advocate moving, today, in the father's direction.
Oh, but—we need two hours—Dickinson is the greatest American poet. Okay? She is wider and deeper than Whitman. She is more terrifying than Whitman. There is no terror in Whitman. There is no fear in Whitman. There is an elegaic kind of fear. I'm not criticizing Whitman. If you think, if one thinks that because Whitman wrote in a line that basically was based on Italian opera, not on inventing American rhythm. And the Bible. Which are old books. I don't mean opera—but I mean it's a form from another thing. People misunderstand Whitman when they say, when they quote him and he says, cross out his over-due accounts. He's not saying that you don't have any debt to Greece and to Rome, he's just saying, you know, we've paid it; it's okay. That's what he's saying. People misinterpret it to mean, you should not acknowledge a debt to Greece and Rome. That is ridiculous. How can—Whitman would not allow someone to speak to him that way.
When you learn finally to come to Dickinson and realize that here in a box-shape, you know, very tight stanzas, that are like little prisms of things—all this experience is contained, and that the half-lines are staggering—Astonishing. Frightening—that that little box contains more in it that the loud, amplified line of Whitman, then you are a mature person. Then you have grown up.
Then the box is a prism, not a prison.
What do you have your students read, in the way of poetry?
Well I tend to—I let them do a lot of Auden—and by heart, too—because I think that Auden is a great twentieth-century poet; I think for intelligence, for wit, and the courage of his forms, for instance, that he's astonishing, more so than Eliot or Pound, so I do a lot of that—then I do Hardy, because very few people discover Hardy. I do a lot of George Meredith—a discovery to a lot of people—I do Modern Love, which is a great poem. And Larkin and so forth. So I tend to do writers who are, if you want to use the jargon, which I detest, formal, and so on. And sometimes you should give them exercises. You see one of the crippling things that has happened I think to the young American writer, is if you give them a simple exercise, like a composition, a pentametrical composition, right?—what you see is terrifying. Because [what] you generally see is somebody who, like a horse galloping, collapses, or breaks his leg, when it comes to the Caesura. The rhythm goes off. They can go so far—they can go for five syllables. The second half—especially if it's going to rhyme—goes into an alarming banality. And you can judge from the second half of the pentameter if that person is gifted. Because, it's okay to write, you know, to splice the verse down the line and do it, you know, for so many beats, and not do it in verse. But when you give them a simple thing to do—and you hear that happening, and something has gone off, there's no point in arguing about saying, you know, the American ear is different to the English ear, or whatever, you know? But that's not a test—it's one of the things that you see happening. So sometimes the exercises I do, I tend to do, is not to force the pentameter on them, but to point out that if they can't do it, then they've got a problem. They have a problem.
Do you give them any poetry in translation? Russian, or German?
Oh yeah, sure—anything is good—I do Adam's poems: “Going to Lvov” is a great poem. I do it all the time.
That's Adam Zagajewski.
I do different people—I make it international if I can—I do Lorca—
I would have guessed that. Rilke?
I'm beginning to think Rilke is kind of dangerous for people at a certain age. Like liquor. Booze. Drugs. Metaphysical booze, in a way. Just whiskey, in a way. I think—The Duino Elegies—maybe toward the end of a course, but not before. Not too early.
How about contemporary Russians like Ahkmatova or Mandelstam?
I tell them to read—they don't always have to take it up in class, but I ask them to read, sure. And other Spaniards apart from Lorca—Aleixandre, and Latin American poets—early Vallejo is superb—Borges—again Neruda I think is someone you want to keep, because I think it gets—pretty flagellant—I mean as an influence, you know what I mean? A rhetorical thing can happen.
Before we run out of time I think I'd like to ask you to do some reading. And then if we have time we can come back and talk some more.
Do you want to read, or recite? … Before you start, just let me ask you how you know so much about ornithology, and sailing, and sea battles, which seem to me to dominate Omeros in a way.
Well if you ask Stephen Crane, how do you know so much about the Civil War, he would have said, books. I mean it's right out there, you know—the sea is out there—the one thing I don't feel that I am is a scholar, really—I don't think of myself that way—academically. So I don't think that if one looked at it hard that the history that's in the books is anything serious or anything profound; I think it—I think part of the superficiality of the knowledge of history here is part of the experience of being Caribbean, but it shouldn't go too deep. Because if it goes too deep you tend to think “dispossessed,” that the history belongs to somebody else, and it's not yours. And since there is no chronicle here—that's a whole subject that necessarily one needs to go deeply into—I don't believe in the expression. Those who don't know history are condemned to repeat it, because look at how many know history and are repeating it anyhow, you know?
All right, this is a section from Omeros about coming home to an island that is changing—coming to the south of the island and driving north towards Castries and noticing what's been happening. In it there's a reference to a taxi driver who has died hurrying to make a lot of money with the tourist trade.
Drivers leant over the rail. One seized my luggage off the porter's cart. The rest burst into patois, with gestures of despair at the lost privilege
of driving me, then turned to other customers. In the evening pastures horses grazed, their hides wet with light that shot its lances over the combers.
I had the transport all to myself. “You all set? Good. A good pal of mine died in that chariot of his called the Comet.” He turned in the front seat,
spinning the air with his free hand. I sat, sprawled out in the back, discouraging talk, with my crossed feet, “You never know when, eh? I was at the airport
that day. I see him take off like a rocket. I always said that thing have too much horsepower. And so said, so done. The same hotel, chief, correct?”
I saw the coastal villages receding as the highway's tongue translated bush into forest, the wild savannah into moderate pastures,
that other life going in its “change for the best,” its peace paralyzed in a postcard, a concrete future ahead of it all, in the cinder-blocks
of hotel development with the obsolete craft of the carpenter, as I sensed, in the neat marinas, the fisherman's phantom. Old oarlocks
and rusting fretsaw. My craft required the same crouching care, the same crabbed, natural devotion of the hand that stenciled a flowered window-frame
or planed an elegant canoe; its time was gone with the spirit in the wood, as wood grew obsolete and plasterers smoothed the blank page of white concrete.
I watched the afternoon sea. Didn't I want the poor to stay in the same light so that I could transfix them in amber, the afterglow of an empire,
preferring a shed of palm-thatch with tilted sticks to that blue bus stop? Didn't I prefer a road from which tracks climbed into the thickening syntax
of colonial travelers, the measured prose I read as a schoolboy? That cove, with its brown shallows there, Praslin? That heron? Had they waited for me
to develop my craft? Why hallow that pretence of preserving what they left, the hypocrisy of loving them from hotels, a biscuit-tin fence
smothered in love-vines, scenes to which I was attached as blindly as Plunkett with his remorseful research? Art is History's nostalgia, it prefers a thatched
roof to a concrete factory, and the huge church above a bleached village. The gap between the driver and me increased when he said: “The place changing, eh?”
where an old rumshop had gone, but not that river with its clogged shadows. That would make me a stranger. “All to the good,” he said. I said, “All to the good,”
then, “whoever they are,” to myself. I caught his eyes in the mirror. We were climbing out of Micoud. Hadn't I made their poverty my paradise?
No, I think you should definitely read another. Obviously your mode is loving the world, so I'm sure there's another piece of the world you'd like to read about. I love the fact that you say you're impatient for sunrise. That the morning is your time, and you want to transfix the light in amber.
All that Greek manure under the green bananas, under the indigo hills, the rain-rutted road, the galvanized village, the myth of rustic manners,
glazed by the transparent page of what I had read. What I had read and re-written till literature was guilty as History. When would the sails drop
from my eyes, when would I not hear the Trojan War in two fishermen cursing in Ma Kilman's shop? When would my head shake off its echoes like a horse
shaking off a wreath of flies? When would it stop, the echo in the throat, insisting, “Omeros”; when would I enter that light beyond the metaphor?
But it was mine to make what I wanted of it, or what I thought was wanted. A cool wood off the road, a hut closed like a wound, and the sound of a river
coming through the trees on a country Saturday, with no one in the dry front yard, the still leaves, the yard, the shade of a breadfruit tree on the door,
then the track from which a man's figure emerges, then a girl carrying laundry, the road-smell like loaves, the yellow-dressed butterflies in the grass marges.
That's beautiful, and evokes the character of Helen in Omeros with her beautiful yellow frock—perhaps because I'm a woman and it's such a romantic image.
Well, I think I've taken enough of your time, and I thank you. If there's anything from your new work you would like to read I would love to hear it, or if you have a stanza or a few lines in your head that you'd like to end with, that would be very nice.
Well, I'm working on a new book, so I might read something that's new.
“Oedipus At Colonus”
After the plague, the city-wall caked with flies, the smoke's amnesia, learn, wanderer, to go nowhere like the stones since your nose and eyes are now your daughter's hand; go where the repetition of the breakers grows easier to bear, no father to kill, no citizens to convince, and no longer force your memory to understand whether the dead elect their own government under the jurisdiction of the sea-almonds; certain provisions of conduct seal them to a silence none dare break, and one noun made them transparent, where they live beyond the conjugations of tense in their own white city. How easily they disown us, and everything else here that undermines our toil. Sit on your plinth in the last light of Colonus, let your knuckled toes root deep in their own soil. A butterfly quietly alights on a tyrant's knee; sit among the sea-eaten boulders and let the night wind sweep the terraces of the sea. This is the right light, this pewter shine on the water, not the carnage of clouds, not the expected wonder of self-igniting truth and oracular rains, but these shallows as gentle as the voice of your daughter, while the gods fade like thunder in the rattling mountains.
Well. Anything I say now would be anticlimactic. Thank you for reading from “Oedipus.” Not many writers are willing to share a work-in-progress. I can see, looking over your shoulder, that the page is still in your handwriting.
I guess we covered a bit of everything except the mischief of your poems—all the witticisms, the humor, the significant spelling, the diverse voices and dialects you do, differentiating the tone as superbly as the psychology of the speaker. You make me laugh, often, as I read. Do you laugh when you're writing, ever?
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 548
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 (and occasionally ponderous) voyage of discovery.
Part of the problem is his unyielding choice of line length (nearly always loose hexameters) and his admirable, even remarkable rhyme schemes, usually inventive near-rhymes on alternate lines. This dexterity is made to look effortless, but he frequently runs the risk of writing something close to prose. There are 67 poems in The Bounty and you cannot help desiring more variety.
None of which denies The Bounty its richness, its coherence, the way Walcott moves steadily between the external world of chaos and his own internal world. The collection opens elegiacally, with a reflection on his response to his mother's death, admiring but rejecting the distress of John Clare “who wept for a beetle's loss.” The principal section is a scholarly disquisition, in which rich images of his Caribbean homeland rub up against snapshots of industrial Europe.
If there is a theme to The Bounty, it is that these worlds are far from foreign, and that “the dark smudges of resignation around the coal eyes / of children who all look like Kafka” and the “winged moon [which] is pinned to its curtain like a night moth” inhabit the same universe. Walcott is less interested in the paradox of the differences he describes than in their strange seamlessness, which he sets out in anticipation of death.
There is a beautiful poem about being “blessedly invisible” in death, and refusing in life to define or dramatise nature:
I can see no past and foresee no future, for the stones shine in their stoniness, and the logwood thorns are waiting for nothing, not to be plaited into a crown …
The real treats of The Bounty are in the glimpses, the vignettes he creates with shattering metaphors. Sunlight creaks, rain is bright as drizzling banjos, nostrils nibble air, and in a lighted marina at night the yachts [are] studying their reflections in black glass. Some passages are gloriously colourful. Walcott is a studious, modest, almost deferential poet, who pauses only occasionally to chuckle. My misgivings about his steady, remorseless rhythm might just as easily be turned into praise for his patient, expansive and gently emphatic movement from one sequence to another.
The Bounty is extraordinary because of its sense of direction, its control, its structure. Its concluding lines, rejecting the vagaries of the public world for the intensity of the private, are among his most moving and tender:
This is the right light, this pewter shine on the water not the carnage of clouds, not the expected wonder of self-igniting truth and oracular rains, but these shallows as gentle as the voice of your daughter, while the gods fade like thunder in the rattling mountains.
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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 and America, as well as the various folk materials and songs of his own culture. His latest book, The Bounty, is an elegiac collection of lyrics, beginning with a combined tribute to his late mother and to the mad English Romantic poet John Clare. But his deepest nostalgia is reserved for memories of his childhood: the lush vegetation growing out of volcanic soil, the brilliant Caribbean colors, the unsurpassed pure blue sea and sky:
In late-afternoon light the tops of the breadfruit leaves are lemon and the lower leaves a waxen viridian with the shaped shadows greenish black over the eaves of the shops and the rust-crusted fences that are Indian red, sepia, and often orange; but by then the light has ripened and grass and the sides of the houses and even a rooster crossing a yard blazes like a satrap
The book's eponymous opening poem is written in terza rima, the verse form of The Divine Comedy. Like Dante, Walcott fashions a mystical journey through the near and distant past as he tries to envision the lives and deaths of people close to him in a context that will reveal some ultimate meaning to salve his loss. “Bounty” refers to many things—to a sense of abundance in nature, to the more precise meaning of a gift, to the premium paid by a government to encourage a crop or industry.
At one point the poet recalls the infamous Captain Bligh of the HMS Bounty, who was commissioned to bring the breadfruit tree from the South Pacific to the West Indies. Cast adrift in an open boat by his mutinous crew, Bligh reached the East Indies after a harrowing 4,000-mile journey, returned to England to testify against his sailors, then completed his mission. Walcott apparently wants to evoke Byron's poem inspired by the episode.
The poet conjures up John Clare wandering the 18th-century British countryside in his madness, imagining himself a spirit of the nature he loved:
torn, wandering Tom, stoat-stroker in his county of reeds and stalk-crickets, fiddling the dank air, lacing his boots with vines, steering glazed beetles
with the tenderest prods, knight of the cockchafer, wrapped in the mists of shires, their snail-horned steeples palms opening to the cupped pool—but his soul safer
than ours, though iron streams fetter his ankles. …
Clare becomes associated with the role of holy fool and is compared to Edgar in King Lear, who assumed the part of Mad Tom to loyally follow his master in exile on the wind-swept heath. Ovid, the patron saint of banished writers, is another lyric influence. Driven from Rome by Caesar Augustus, he ended his days in what is now Romania, mourning the southern landscapes he would never see again. Walcott considers that his own poem “crepitates” (in the sense of following Ovid's ticking meters) from the Roman's use of pastoral to invoke a lost Arcadian world of innocence as yet untarnished, a lost “Golden Age.”
Putting together all these references, the reader glimpses where this complicated threnody is going. The death of a parent can set us thinking about origins—not merely birth and childhood, but such formative forces as writers, places and ideas. In the throes of grief, we may even wish it were possible to become “unhinged,” to converse with the ghost of a mother, or simply find ourselves transported back to our early years when she was in her prime. Clare's own insanity contained the illusion that he was united with his long-dead sweetheart. She seemed to be part of the world of small creatures and plants on the moors where he wandered. For love of his sovereign, Shakespeare's Edgar gave up his very identity.
Bligh is more ambiguous in Walcott's vision: one of those repressive authority figures from the turbulent, mixed history of colonialism. He is the parent one rebels against, but, as Walcott acknowledges, “we first disobey / before we become what we challenged.” With age, we begin to exhibit the qualities we once resented in our progenitors. The poet and his mother are part of the “oppressed” natives of the Caribbean, yet no less than the whites they have been shaped by British and French influences on St. Lucia. Where would Walcott be as a pastoralist without the generous classical tradition of Ovid, the English heritage of Clare? What would have become of his island's economy and well-being without the benefaction of bread-fruit? After all, despite his sorrow and his awareness of the dark side of his Caribbean paradise, he can only be thankful for his homeland and a mother who taught him “to write of the light's bounty on familiar things.”
In “Homecoming,” Walcott extols the Francophone legacy of his part of the West Indies. “Signs” reflects on the political and cultural impact of the Continent. Sometimes, the poet waxes aphoristic: “Europe fulfilled its silhouette in the nineteenth century / with steaming train stations, gas lamps, encyclopedias, / the expanding waists of empires, an appetite for inventory / in the novel as a market roaring with ideas.” The same poem provides a scary evocation of Kristallnacht: In certain moods, “Civilization is impatience, a frenzy of termites / round the anthills of Babel, signaling antennae / and messages.” At heart this civilized and cosmopolitan poet is grateful for all the sources of his poetry, however, and unhesitatingly declares “No cry is exultant enough / for my thanks.”
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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 collection of poems since the epic Omeros (1990), The Bounty praises the natural abundance of the poet's native St Lucia, the goodness—la bonté—of life on earth, and the lives of some who have left it. But Walcott gives his title less exalted meanings as well, alluding to Captain Bligh's ship, to the tropical idyll its mutinous sailors found in the South Seas, and to the rewards of his own 1992 Nobel Prize: “Awaking to gratitude in this generous Eden / … my debt, in Yeats's phrase, to ‘the bounty of Sweden’ / that has built this house facing white combers. …” Filled with gorgeous language, with flashes of brilliance as well as flaws, these poems are ripe fruit, and a bounty in themselves.
Just as his title recalls a mutiny, Walcott's praise does not always taste sweet. “The great poetry of the New World,” he wrote in the essay “The Muse of History” (1974), is not innocent: “like its fruits, its savor is a mixture of the acid and the sweet, the apples of this second Eden have the tartness of experience.” The Bounty's theme contrasts with the form and the occasion of its poems: it is a book of elegies, and the shadows of loss and transience are what give the best poems their power. But these are not elegies in a conventional or narrow sense. Even the poems that memorialize particular people (the poet's mother, the poet Joseph Brodsky, a Trinidadian theatre friend) diverge in surprising directions, pulling in disparate elements: the Tourist Board, a roti shop and even—sacrilege for a West Indian?—“two packets of artificial sugar.” It is as though Walcott, who has often described the Caribbean's natural wonders as its answer to the great monuments of Europe, were intent on building these tombeaux, not of marble or granite, but out of the luxuriant, Lucretian vegetation of his native islands.
The book's most impressive achievement is the opening and title-poem, which begins with the arrival of dawn in St Lucia and threads together the death of the poet's mother with Dante, John Clare, Tom o' Bedlam and the contents of his fridge:
In His will is our peace. Peace in white harbours, in marinas whose masts agree, in crescent melons
left all night in the fridge, in the Egyptian labours of ants moving boulder of sugar, words in this sentence, shadow and light, who live next door like neighbours,
and in sardines in pepper sauce. My mother lies near the white beach stones, John Clare near the sea-almonds, yet the bounty returns each daybreak, to my surprise,
to my surprise and betrayal, yes, both at once. I am moved like you, mad Tom, by a line of ants; I behold their industry and they are giants.
Reticent about portraying “the veiled figure / of Mamma entering the standard elegaic” and suspicious that “our sadness tires them who cherished delight,” the poet's attention is drawn to the insects and flowers at her graveside. He recalls the figures of Tom o' Bedlam and John Clare and addresses them, emulating their madness and affection for the natural world amidst the “vegetal fury” of his tropical landscape.
But beneath there is knowledge and sorrow; the poem's seven sections trace the stages of grief, each sketching with a few deft lines a different aspect of the deceased amidst the praised and plentiful foliage. Even the images that run through the poem and exemplify nature's bounty, the labouring ants and the breadfruit “opening its palms,” register the injustices of history: the ants, as in Omeros, recall in their anonymous labours the slaves, and breadfruit, the poem reminds us, was transplanted to the West Indies as “slave food” by the likes of Captain Bligh (who set out on The Bounty to bring the trees back from Tahiti in 1787). In the poem's final lines, this dark past gives birth to bountiful day, to song:
As poor Tom fed his last crust to the trembling birds, as by reeds and cold pools John Clare blest these thin musicians, let the ants teach me again with the long lines of words,
my business and my duty, the lesson you taught your sons, to write of the light's bounty on familiar things that stand on the verge of translating themselves into news:
the crab, the frigate that floats on cruciform wings, and that nailed and thorn-riddled tree that opens its pews to the blackbird that hasn't forgotten her because it sings.
Both conceding (“although it sings”) and demonstrating (“since it sings”), that blackbird-cum-poet evokes the quandary at the heart of all elegies: does the song prove or disprove the sorrow? Walcott's most powerful bit of elegiac writing, the final chapters of his book-length autobiographical poem, Another Life (1973), confronted directly the death of his St Lucian mentor Harry Simmons. This extraordinary elegy for his mother moves away from its subject out of respect and scruple, yet its praise of a rampant, bountiful nature never lets us forget her passing: “earth rejoices in the middle of our agony, earth that will have her / for good.”
“The Bounty” is written in the same modified terza rima that Walcott used in Omeros; the sixty poems that make up the book's much larger second half also employ long hexametric and heptametric lines with alternating, often feminine rhymes (“cracks”/“as-maracas,” “horses”/“force is”) but forgo stanzas altogether. Numbered, mostly untitled and never running longer than a page, these poems take up from where Walcott's earlier Midsummer (1984) left off; they offer the older poet an all-purpose form to improvise, to meditate and to meander in. We see him in his working clothes, at home and abroad, seizing on rhymes, metaphors, puns, landscapes, spinning new lines, creating poems before our eyes. The obvious model is Robert Lowell's Notebook sonnets, and these poems share some of Lowell's grandness and confidence in attempting to convert the poet's daily minutiae and dross into poetry. Walcott, though, gives us less persona, less plot and more polish; if Notebook and Berryman's Dream Songs are diaries, The Bounty is a sketchbook.
But the poems are better seen as elegies, in the broader sense of being meditations written in a particular metre and place—after Homer, Walcott has now turned to the Romans (Ovid, in particular) for inspiration. Most present the poet in St Lucia, evoking a landscape drenched with more feeling than ever, his paradise lush and vivid but now tinged by loss—of friends (“The clouds change governments, / and Ben is gone, and John, Godfrey and Quentin”) and of the island's French patois (“It was so. We don't speak so anymore”). There are also sequences set in Spain, Italy, Trinidad and a newsreel Eastern Europe, a series of six “fictions” that imagine other lives for the poet, and a bittersweet gloss on Chekhov's The Seagull. The theme of nature's bounty is underscored by the other great unanswerables—God, grace, mortality—and the ins-and-outs of history and the poet's personal life are surveyed from afar:
Praise to the rain, eraser of picnics, praise the grey cloud that makes every headland a ghost […] two drops startle the flesh and the sun withdraws behind drapes like a king or president on the palace balcony who hears the roar of a square and thinks it is only the rain, it will pass, tomorrow will be sunny, praise to the rain its hoarse voice dissolver of shapes, of the peaks of power, princes and mountain slopes.
If such passages—there are many—are among the most memorable in the book, the idea behind them (“praise everything there is for being,” as Auden said) threatens to become doctrine. Fuelled first by a sense of colonial disinheritance and then by the black-or-white bind of racial politics, Walcott has written some of the best polemic and invective in English poetry since Yeats; the same passions animate many of his remarkable essays, due to be collected soon. (One recurrent thorn has been the black identity forced on him by American and British readers. “What the Twilight Says,” the title of his most revealing and revelatory essay, refers to the poet as well as the evening: he is both white and black, both day and night, and claims both as his heritage.)
But on this Bounty, there are no such mutinous outbursts, no caustic discontent. Instead, the certainty that poetry must praise leads the older Walcott to neglect at times how he praises, as if all offerings were equal before this new altar. Though he claimed in The Arkansas Testament (1987) that “only old age earns the / right to an abstract noun,” it is a right he abuses here, using too many big words that say too little (“the ecstasy of despair,” “the astonishment of self-contempt,” “the ambush of disgrace,” etc). There are also times when the search for a rhyme exhausts the syntax and meaning (for the sake of which rhyme, ethnic cleansing becomes “ethnic cleaning”), the tone falters and the poem turns wordy and sententious:
Because memory is less than the place which it cherishes, frames itself from nowhere except to say that even with the shit and the stress of what we do to each other, the running stream's bliss contradicts the self-importance of despair by these glittering simplicities, water, leaves, and air, that elate dissolution which goes beyond happiness.
Glittering simplicities deserve something better. Likewise, when Walcott salutes Brodsky with the claim “poetry is still treason / because it is truth,” we wish he had heard the pun in his resolutely unpretentious epitaph proposed pages earlier (“Here lies / D. W. This place is good to die in”), and we miss the younger Walcott who would have.
Still, one feels such flaws hardly concern Walcott. These poems come from somewhere else, and some may be destined there as well, the book seems to say: if all human works are by nature imperfect and provisional, let these go forth and take their chances. (It is noteworthy that two years after publishing Midsummer, Walcott pruned away almost half that book before including it in his Collected Poems). Walcott has always shown respect for Christian faith, and even argued that through slavery the New World slave came to possess a more vibrant living faith than his “exhausted, hypocritical” master: “What was captured from the captor was his God.” Or, as his alter ego Shabine says in “The Schooner Flight”: “I from backward people who still fear God.” Now that respect for faith seems to have become the thing itself; he uses words like “soul” and “heart” without apology, prays as well as praises, contemplates death, and counts his blessings, naming each as if in preparation to take it with him. And if faith has dangers for the poet, there are rewards—beautiful poems that ache with poignancy and wonder, with the poet loving that well which (he tells us) he must leave ere long:
Never get used to this: the feathery, swaying casuarinas, the morning silent light on shafts of bright grass, the growling Aves of the ocean, the white lances of the marinas, the surf fingering its beads, hail heron and gull full of grace, since that is all you need to do at your age and its coming serene extinction like the light on the shale at sunset, and your gift fading out of this page; your soul travelled the one horizon like a quiet snail, infinity behind it, infinity ahead of it, and all that it knew was this craft, all that it wanted— what did it know of death? Only what you had read of it, that it was like a flame blown out in a lowered lantern, a night, but without these stars, the prickle of planets, lights like a vast harbour, or devouring oblivion. …
“Tu réclamais le Soir; il descend; le voici,” wrote Baudelaire with the same quiet power. In the forty-nine years since he sent off a package of poems to a printer in Trinidad, Walcott has made himself into one of the two or three most important poets in English of the half-century. What is less often recognized is that he has produced most of his best work since his mid-forties, and much of it (The Arkansas Testament,Omeros) in late middle age. The Bounty is both a departure and an addition to this oeuvre: in the best of its sixty-seven poems (one for each of the poet's years), the twilight speaks and invites us to do what the poet does so ably: praise.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1978
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 Walcott has suffered, perhaps more than any other contemporary poet writing in English, from accusations that his work is too showy. Some of the accusations stick.
Much of Walcott's early work—‘Prelude,’ for example, and ‘A Far Cry from Africa’—is like the early, glam Auden:
my life, too early of course for the profound cigarette, The turned doorhandle, the knife turning In the bowels of the hours.
Again brutish necessity wipes its hands Upon the napkin of a dirty cause, again A waste of our compassion, as with Spain
It's a strain that still runs like a band of fool's gold through his new collection, apparent in the pompy, sequinned Sea and the Mirror-style terza rima of the first part of The Bounty and in gaudy monstrosities: ‘but today the repetitions; / the fog clouding the cobbles, the ethnic cleaning,’ where the allusion to Auden's ‘Spain’ is forgivable, but where the showy twist on ethnic cleansing is inappropriate and ugly, the kind of flourish which is only possible, as Orwell famously noted of an infamous phrase in Auden's poem, ‘if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled.’
In the early days Walcott's careless and gleeful plundering didn't really matter; it was a sign of nimble wit and high intelligence—‘THE FIRST PHASE,’ Pound writes in The ABC of Reading, ‘of anyone's writing always shows them doing something “like” something they have heard or read’—but in late middle age the thefts and borrowings seem eccentric and rather pathetic, like a wealthy old woman stealing cat food in a supermarket: it's unnecessary; it makes you want to avert your eyes.
There is a certain stiffness, too, in Walcott's continual invocations and declarations of intent. Long ago, with his first collection, In a Green Night (1962), he stated his aims in the poem ‘As John to Patmos,’ and again in ‘Islands’:
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,
I seek, As climate seeks its style, to write Verse crisp as sand, clear as sunlight, Cold as the curled wave, ordinary As a tumbler of island water
and in collection after collection he has reiterated these ambitions. The constant reminders are, one feels, not so much for the benefit of the audience as for that of the speaker, a rhetorical throat-clearing, the equivalent of a quick glance in the mirror—‘These lines that I write now,’ ‘Let it be written,’ ‘Let these lines’—before sailing out into the wider world, to meet, greet and impress.
At the end of this line there is an opening door that gives on a blue balcony where a gull will settle with hooked fingers, then, like an image leaving an idea, beat in slow scansion across the hammered metal of the afternoon sea, a sheet that my right hand steers— a small sail making for Martinique or Sicily.
And yet to criticise Walcott for being derivative, or for his showmanship, is both small and mean-minded. (‘Fear of imitation obsesses minor poets,’ Walcott has written, and not just minor poets, but major critics too—Helen Vendler has accused Walcott of ventriloquism.) His genius may be intermittent and may have taken a long time to emerge—his best work doesn't begin until 1973, with the publication of his fourth collection, the autobiographical Another Life—but most of his poems are well made, and a number are near perfect. In several of the chapters in Another Life, and in his pithiest volume, Sea Grapes (1976), and in parts of his epic, Omeros (1990), he manages to combine his book-learning and his affection for the natural world to produce poems of sensuousness and intelligence.
Which is not to say that his work now is any less showy. For those who prefer quiet and shade, The Bounty, Walcott's first post-Nobel collection, is an assault on the senses: even the banana-yellow dust-jacket is an eyesore. The collection opens with a fanfare of allusion, the first poem ringing a loud echo from ‘The Hollow Men’ and then a reminder of Isaiah's vision of Zion restored:
Between the vision of the Tourist Board and the true Paradise lies the desert where Isaiah's elations force a rose from the sand.
It's a big, bold blowsy note to open on, and not at all untypical. James Merrill, a poet of some breeding and considerable refinement, once remarked, in his essay ‘On Literary Tradition,’ that ‘it's a bit snotty to nudge the reader too obviously with references to Virgil or Eliot,’ but Walcott remains an unashamed nudger and snotter, a poet, one might say, without good manners: impudent, unapologetic and vulgar. This continues to put a lot of critical noses out of joint. You either like poems which are ostentatious, which list and boast and meander, which sometimes moralise and are nostalgic, or else you think they're in bad taste. Which is to say that you either like the bathos of something like this—
‘In la sua volontà nostra pace,’ In his will is our peace. Peace in white harbours, in marinas whose masts agree, in crescent melons
left all night in the fridge, in the Egyptian labours of ants moving boulders of sugar, words in this sentence, shadow and light, who live next door like neighbours,
and in sardines with pepper sauce.
—Or you find it rather embarrassing and outré. Enthusiasm is discouraged in Britain: schoolchildren are told not to be big-headed and taught to be very careful about using exclamation marks in their stories and essays (Walcott, of course, spikes his text with them—‘and that is / their bounty!,’ ‘come on now, enough!,’ ‘Bounty!,’ ‘ah yes!, don't interrupt!’), and in universities the Marys have won out over the Marthas: no waste, value for money, efficiency. Everyone now seems to prefer matt to shiny and to distrust sparkle of any kind—in furnishings, in food, in philosophy and in poets. We prefer the sombre, darker tones, moodily suggesting depth and history. Brilliance is usually acceptable only if it goes hand in hand with breeding (whence the popularity of Stephen Fry). Walcott does not fit the bill: he's an outsider and an overreacher and his work betrays a definite lack of cool; it sparkles and it shines.
But it doesn't have to be that way. There is a 1936 recording of Ella Fitzgerald with Chick Webb and his Orchestra performing the song ‘Shine,’ the young Ella's light, yet slightly strained and throaty voice perfectly matching the plaintive and defiant lyrics: ‘Cause my hair is curly … Cause my teeth are pearly … Cause I'm glad I'm living, / Take trouble smiling, never whine … Cause my colour's shady / And slightly different maybe / That's why they call me “Shine.”’ In the Thirties a Shine or a Shiney was a derogatory white term for a black American: the song appropriates the word and turns it around, in much the same way in which Shabine, the narrator of ‘The Schooner Flight’ in Walcott's The Star-Apple Kingdom (1979) rises above his own self-description as a nigger—
I'm just a red nigger who love the sea, I had a sound colonial education, I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me, and either I'm nobody, or I'm a nation.
The final ‘either/or’ here turns back on the phrase ‘just a red nigger,’ and forces it to choose between nobody or nation. This is what people mean when they talk about post-colonialism: the assertion of a positive identity in the face, and in the language, of insult; the triumph of nigger and shine.
And so Walcott's The Bounty shines on, in defiance of dull-wittedness, prejudice and the glums, a celebration of his native Caribbean, much of it concerned with the play of the sun on sea and sand, the firefly ‘that keeps striking matches,’ the wind that ‘shines white stones,’ the ‘stones that shone with stoniness,’ the ‘bright day, rippled morning.’ Glory is all around in these poems: the sun is ‘contained in a globe of the crystal dew,’ ‘great bursts of exaltation crest the white breaker’ and there is even bounty in ‘the light's parallelogram laid on the kitchen floor.’ For all that he keeps checking in with John Clare (‘John Clare, forgive me’), the real tutelary presence in the book is Hopkins, with Walcott keen to copy and to capture the flare of ‘God's Grandeur,’ that sense of the world ‘charged’ and ready to ‘flame out.’ For once the Swedish Academy hit the right note in its citation, awarding Walcott the Nobel Prize for a poetic oeuvre, as they put it, of ‘great luminosity.’
At times, admittedly, there's still more heat than light. An allusion to Kristallnacht, for example, in a series of disastrously bad poems about Europe in the new collection, simply does not work:
Grey faces are screening themselves (like the moon drawing thin curtains to the tramp of jackboots, as shattered glass rains diamonds on the pavement).
It's entirely the wrong connection to make, the shattered glass and diamonds suggesting an association between Jews and jewels, and between violence and beauty. And in several poems, including the otherwise unexceptionable ‘Christmas Eve,’ the twinkliness of language blurs into candle-waving cliché (‘candles that never gutter and go out in the breeze’). The poems may be polished but they sometimes lack the all-important inner light, the sparkle of truth.
And this despite the fact that Walcott himself has seen the Light, is a believer, a Christian, of sorts. In ‘A Letter from Brooklyn,’ from the collection In a Green Night, an old lady writes to the poem's narrator, ‘in a spidery style, / Each character trembling,’ about his dead father and about her confidence in the father's place in heaven: ‘So this old lady writes,’ the poem ends, echoing and affirming her childlike faith, ‘and again I believe. / I believe it all, and for no man's death I grieve.’ In The Bounty Walcott recalls singing hymns in church, and the hymns he remembers, significantly, are children's hymns: Mrs Alexander's ‘There is a green hill far away’ and ‘Jerusalem the golden,’ with its promise of halls of Zion ‘conjubilant with song’:
O sweet and blessed country, Shall I ever see thy face? O sweet and blessed country, Shall I ever win thy grace? Exult, O dust and ashes, The Lord shall be thy part: His only His for ever Thou shalt be, and thou art.
‘It was that verse about becoming again as a little child that caused the first sharp waning of my Christian sympathies,’ Larkin wrote, reviewing the Opies' Lore and Language of Schoolchildren in 1959. ‘If the Kingdom of Heaven could be entered only by those fulfilling such a condition I knew I should be unhappy there.’ Walcott's innocent exultations and his refusal to grieve run against the dominant religious and aesthetic temperament in Britain, where melancholy is preferred to affirmation, the deepening darkness of ‘Abide with me’ to the golden beams and rushing winds of ‘All creatures of our God and King.’ The negative, as Eliot has it in his essay on Dante in The Sacred Wood, ‘is the more importunate.’ Which perhaps explains why Walcott's poetry remains a challenge to taste: either his work is too rich, or our palettes are too delicate.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3330
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 men really had come too late for greatness:
But why are originals so few [today]? Not because the writer's harvest is over, the great reapers of antiquity having left nothing to be gleaned after them; nor because the human mind's teeming time is past. … Tread in [Homer's] steps to the sole fountain of immortality; drink where he drank. …
Young's optimistic advice proved hard to follow; and English-speaking poets (and critics) have only grown more obsessed with the sense of their belatedness. In much of the English and American poetry of the last two centuries, there is a growing sense that history is getting farther and farther away, that experience is contracting and the significance of thoughts and deeds diminishing. And the feeling of attenuation is as strong today as at any time since Young: a period that can find no more positive appellation for itself than “postmodern” is not one that will try to tread in Homer's steps.
But there is a poet now writing who has been intensely interested in the struggle with history, and with Homer. Even when Derek Walcott is not actually transposing the Iliad to the voluptuous shores of the Caribbean, he is urgently concerned with the past and his place in it. As an English poet who is racially and geographically separate from the English-speaking main, he has been forced to confront the problem of tradition and originality much more sharply than most writers of his generation. This has sometimes been a source of great bitterness to Walcott. But it has also been the root of his most enduring subject: the relation of the West Indies, his native place, to history.
Walcott has never tried to escape the fact that the islands are, in the most neutral sense of the term, lacking in History with a glamorous (and ominous) capital “H”: they lie outside the grand progression of classical and Renaissance Europe, their culture and language imported, not to say imposed. What has troubled him, for most of his career, is whether this deprivation is to be mourned or celebrated. For many years he seemed committed to celebration; but he was always too honest to conceal his desire to mourn.
In one sense, being outside History is a gift, because it allows the poet to escape the curse of belatedness. This is the note that Walcott struck in 1992 in his Nobel lecture, “The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory”:
Visual surprise is natural in the Caribbean; it comes with the landscape, and faced with its beauty, the sigh of History dissolves. We make too much of that long groan that underlines the past. … The sigh of History rises over ruins, not over landscapes, and in the Antilles there are few ruins to sigh over. …
The absence of the classic makes the Antilles a richer place. In the islands, Edward Young's advice is easier to follow. The Caribbean writer is innocent of ruins (though not of ruin); and Walcott has often seen himself in the role of Adam, naming things for the first time.
But this situation is also a hardship for the poet, for the simple reason that serious poets are besotted with allusion. Allusion is the most concrete way for a poet to assert his fellowship with the illustrious dead, with the language to which he has fallen heir; and such an assertion is at the heart of all poetic ambition. Some of the best poems in English, from Lycidas to The Waste Land, are heroic feats of allusion. And allusion requires, not landscape, but ruins (“These fragments I have shored against my ruins”); that is, it requires History. Walcott may proclaim the vigor and the beauty that accompany the naïveté of the Antilles; but he cannot help feeling the loss of allusive possibilities that naïveté brings with it.
Thus the subject of History never comes up in Walcott's poetry without a strong note of ambivalence and longing. We see this tone clearly in a poem like “Names”:
and children, look at these stars over Valencia's forest!
Not Orion, not Betelgeuse, tell me, what do they look like? Answer, you damned little Arabs! Sir, fireflies caught in molasses.
Orion and Betelgeuse, the allusive classical names, are denied to the children out of a sense that they are false, imported; yet the children's spontaneous answer, “fireflies caught in molasses,” is ignoble in comparison. The way Walcott can come out with that vicious, racially tinged “damned little Arabs”—he is both the chiding schoolmaster and the insulted student—speaks volumes about his bitter predicament; he is drawn toward both the teacher's knowledge of, and the child's freedom from, formal names.
Walcott's long struggle with Greece is part and parcel of this tortured situation. Walcott has tried mightily to fulfill Young's ambition, to walk with Homer on original ground; the Caribbean, in his poetry, is often a version of the Aegean. Indeed, his epic poem Omeros (1990) is nothing less than an attempt to recast the Iliad on St. Lucia, with the implication that the Caribbean is no less a setting for noble, heroic action than Greece. Yet, at the same time, Walcott's very insistence on the parallel implies a recognition of Homer's priority, which dashes the idea that the Caribbean is pristine territory, free from History. And Walcott has always been too honest and conscientious a poet to smooth over this ambivalence. His own lines from “Another Life,” written almost 20 years before Omeros, sum up the sources of his epic ambitions with the coldest insight:
Provincialism loves the pseudo-epic, so if these heroes have been given a stature disproportionate to their cramped lives, remember I beheld them at knee-height. …
The real pathos of Walcott's situation is that he cannot win the battle with History in the way he attempted in his Nobel lecture. This is partially because writing in English commits him to the history of English, to allusion, to tradition. (Even when Walcott writes bitterly about England, he is tender toward English.) But it is also because poetry itself, regardless of its language, thrives on self-consciousness, and history is a great, even primary source of self-consciousness. History gives places, people, and relations a content that the mind can react against; and poetry properly describes the mind's reactions against things. Without history, there is little for poetry to describe except, as Walcott says, “landscape.”
In fact, landscape is a crucial category for understanding Walcott. One of the things that makes a Walcott poem instantly recognizable is its natural ground: the star-apple and the frangipani, the ocean and the cloudless sky, the sugar-cane and the tropical rains. This is, in part, because Walcott is a painter as well as a poet—as he recounts in “Another Life,” his first artistic ambition was to be a great painter—and he has a heightened sensitivity to the appearances of things, to compositions, colors, patterns. Yet Walcott is also drawn to the description of landscape because it is a statement of minimal historical content (though one's language of description is a historical choice, a political choice, over which Walcott has agonized).
These twin imperatives toward landscape—the sensual and the historical, the phenomenal and the political—have had a formative impact on Walcott, not just on his subject matter but also on his verse technique. One of Walcott's most favored methods is accumulation, the characteristic mode of visual description: he places details together to build up a total picture. This can be literally a picture, a description of a tableau, as in “Sainte Lucie”:
from these sun-bleached villages where the church bell caves in the sides of one grey-scurfed shack that is shuttered with warped boards, with rust, with crabs crawling under the house-shadow where the children played house; a net rotting among cans, the sea-net of sunlight trolling the shallows …
One feels that this scene was conceived visually, rather than linguistically; the only rhyme in the passage is a visual rhyme (the net and the sunlight). And this additive technique can be found even when Walcott is not describing a picture:
Strange, that the rancour of hatred hid in that dream of slow rivers and lily-like parasols, in snaps of fine old colonial families, curled at the edge not from age or from fire or the chemicals, no, not at all, but because, off at its edges, innocently excluded stood the groom, the cattle boy, the housemaid, the gardeners, the tenants, the good Negroes down in the village, their mouths in the locked jaw of a silent scream.
This is social, not visual, observation; but the verse still acts like a description, adding on new details in each phrase. One effect of this can be to make the sentence run rampant over the line; and in Walcott's earlier poetry, especially, one often feels frustrated at the unpredictability of verse that is at odds with its syntax.
These, then, are the recurrent issues in Walcott's poetry, all related: history, landscape, technique. All of them surface again in his latest collection, The Bounty. Here, again we have poems that describe the look and feel of the Caribbean; poems that half-praise and half-lament the poet's cultural situation; poems whose long lines buck against the controls of rhyme and meter. But what is most striking in Walcott's book is the way in which all of these issues are transformed, suffused with a new calm and detachment. Walcott has always had the gift of seeing himself clearly. This is a gift that tends to produce irony, and his early poetry is often sardonic; but now the irony has mellowed into something larger and more rare. If irony is the voice of the young man, seeing himself and recoiling at the sight, The Bounty is the poetry of an older man, one who knows his character and situation and has come to accept them.
The first thing one notices about The Bounty is the form. Except for the title poem, a sequence in memory of the poet's mother, the poems here are laid out in solid blocks, with long lines and a very faint ABAB rhyme scheme: they are attenuated sonnets. The use of long lines and half-rhymes (sometimes not even half: he rhymes “Alighieri” with “allegory”) is not new in Walcott, and even this semi-sonnet form was used in Midsummer, which appeared in 1984. Midsummer contains some of Walcott's best writing, but there his sonnets sometimes had an oppressive echo of Robert Lowell's:
In the other 'eighties, a hundred midsummers gone like the light of domestic paradise, the hedonist's idea of heaven was a French kitchen's sideboard, apples and clay carafes from Chardin to the Impressionists …
These are Lowell's abstractions (the eighties, the hedonist) and overpacked pentameter lines. In The Bounty, however, the pentameter line is burst, the sentences spill over the line-breaks, and the rhythm and diction are original:
The teak plant was as stiff as rubber near the iron railing of the pink verandah at whose centre was an arch that entered a tenebrous, overstuffed salon with the usual sailing ship in full course through wooden waves, shrouds stiff with starch …
Here, again, there is the danger of wandering syntax; the sentence clashes with the line, and it is easy to get lost if one tries to sound the line-breaks too heavily. But Walcott is able to coax out of these edgy, long lines a marvelous, propulsive rhythm:
Bounty! In the bells of tree-frogs with their steady clamour in the indigo dark before dawn, the fading morse of fireflies and crickets, then light on the beetle's armour,
and the toad's too-late presages, nettles of remorse that shall spring from her grave from the spade's heartbreak. And yet not to have loved her enough is to love more,
If I confess it, and I confess it.
Only a few poets at any given time are capable of a distinctive style, much less a distinctive mature style; and Walcott's mature style, as evolved in Midsummer and further perfected here, is his best.
It is a mature style, even a late style, because Walcott, who is now 67 years old, is beginning to face the problems of age: death, but also the leave-taking from the world that a good death demands. Like much earlier Walcott, The Bounty has poems that address the problem of language, colonialism, and History; but there is also a new temper here, for which these problems seem less urgent, more like familiar and necessary limitations that Walcott has learned to live within. The death of his mother and of his friend Joseph Brodsky, who is also the subject of an elegy here, are reminders of Walcott's own mortality:
I imagine my absence; the fatigued leaves will fall one by one into soundless brown grass in drought and the raw ochre patches where lilac laces the hill and the shadows returning exactly some May as they ought, but with the seam of air I inhabited closed.
This resignation does not feel forced or rhetorical. It is genuine, and it seeps into almost every poem in The Bounty. In the title poem, Walcott considers what must become of his mother after death:
Nothing is trite once the beloved have vanished; empty clothes in a row, but perhaps our sadness tires them who cherished delight;
not only are they relieved of our customary sorrow, they are without hunger, without any appetite, but are part of earth's vegetal fury; their veins grow
with the wild mammy-apple, the open-handed breadfruit, their heart in the open pomegranate, in the sliced avocado; ground-doves pick from their palms; ants carry the freight. …
and here at first is the astonishment: that earth rejoices in the middle of our agony, earth that will have her for good: wind shines white stones and the shallows' voices.
What he is really describing here is the beloved dead being eaten by plants and insects; but he can accept this fate as “for good” in the sense of “positive” as well as “permanent.”
Or consider the following passage, where Walcott's resignation takes on a more somber tinge:
[the waves] are bringing the same old news, not only the death-rattle of surf on the gargling shoal, but something further than the last wave, the smell of pungent weed, of dead crabs whose casings whiten, and further than the stars that have always looked too small for those infinite spaces (Pascal) that used to frighten. I am considering a world without stars and opposites. When?
It is the “when?” that brings to this speculation the right note of doubt and urgency—Walcott is both questioning the possibility of “something further than the last wave” and asking, impatiently, for it to come at last.
This poetry of acceptance, of the facing of last things, would be remarkable from any poet; but from Walcott it is even more so, since it represents, at last, a victory in his war with History. Walcott's perpetual dilemma with regard to the Caribbean is occasionally present in this volume: “here we have merely a steadiness without seasons / and no history, which is boredom interrupted by war,” he writes in one poem. But more often the problem subsides into the background, and Walcott writes about themes that know no geography: death, resignation, loss, the limits of art. Many of Walcott's poems have spoken of the time just after he returns to the islands from abroad, but here the anxieties of that situation are being let go:
Can you genuinely claim these, and do they reclaim you
from your possible margin of disdain, of occasional escape … ?
Yes, they reclaim you in a way you need not understand: candles that never gutter and go out in the breeze, or tears that glint on night's face for every island.
The need for explanation falls away, the emotion remains. This coming to rest in the facticity of things is often used in contemporary poetry as a dodge, an escape from philosophical and psychological difficulty; but for Walcott it is more than that. It is not a means of attaining satisfaction, but a resigning of the hope of satisfaction. It is the breakthrough to wisdom.
This tone, the distinctive tone of The Bounty, emerges most clearly in the middle of the book, in the sequence “Six Fictions” and the following poems. In these poems, Walcott just about acknowledges that the terms of the Caribbean debate are no longer real to him:
He mutters to himself in the old colonial diction and he heard how he still said home not only to appease his hope that he would be there soon, but that he would come to the rail of the liner and see the serrated indigo ridges that had waited for him … There is no such person. I myself am a fiction, remembering the hills of the island as it gets dark.
In those last two lines, Walcott moves beyond the colonial problem, acknowledging that the persona which sees a combat between “home” and exile is “himself a fiction.” He is at home everywhere, or possibly nowhere; he is a man speaking to men.
This is the central attainment of The Bounty. (It has been building in Walcott's last two books of lyric verse, in Midsummer and The Arkansas Testament, of 1987, in some ways Walcott's best book.) And it is an attainment that has wider application than Walcott's own predicament as a “colonial”—a predicament that few of his readers share. For what it shows is that Walcott has overcome the problem of belatedness. He has not solved it, but it has ceased to be a problem. The obsession with History cannot be conquered; in this it is like all fears and impotencies, which turn direct assaults into aggravations of the problem. Rather, it yields to a general growth in wisdom, which allows the poet to see it as less central, less hindering an obstacle. In showing us this growth, which can appear here as a mysterious grace, Walcott offers all who come late a means of overcoming, or forgetting, that fact.
Consider, for instance, the problem of naming, which for Walcott has usually been linked to the problem of History—again, the Caribbean poet comes before history, and must name things for the first time. But in The Bounty the same theme has become both more general and more mysterious:
your devotion to pursue those bleached tracks that disappear into bush, in the rain— something of weight in the long indigo afternoon, the yam vines trying to hide the sugar-wheel's ruin; something unconnected, oblique as if, after the motion of history, every object we named was not the correct noun.
Here the task of naming is not political, it is almost mystical. The sense that everything in the world is misnamed, slightly obscured, is more a statement about reality and language than a statement about history. The hold of history on the spirit has been broken. Walcott has been, and will remain, a poet of the Caribbean; but at last his Caribbean has become a place in which a human life is lived, not a collection of satisfactory or unsatisfactory conditions for that life. What is most rewarding in The Bounty is the sight of a poet assured enough to address the largest themes without self-consciousness or hesitation, with all his powers. The steps are Walcott's, not Homer's; and that is why Walcott finds himself, in this book more than in any previous book, treading on classic ground.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 699
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, even Walcott's having been taught by his mother to respect the bounty and being taught to work to use it. The bounty is the gift of life in its varied aspects, including the ship The Bounty which brought the breadfruit from the Pacific to the Caribbean; the breadfruit itself becomes a surprising analogy to the tree of life.
These poems are filled with unexpected analogies, the making of analogies being part of the bounty as all creation is linked, as can be seen by the ant that will eventually help turn the dead into bread. Walcott's vision here is at times Jacobean in that the ingenuity of analogy can, as in his early master Andrew Marvell, be sardonic. There are echoes of Marvell among others, but the acknowledged model is John Clare, the supposedly mad Clare whose poetry, like Adam, names the natural world as good unto itself. Walcott has found in Clare a predecessor to his own attempts to praise by describing. Walcott, however, is not simple Clare; the effect is often different. His painter's eye for the exact color of a detail can result, like a brush stroke, in patches of abstraction.
The volume begins with “Between the vision of the Tourist Board and the true / Paradise,” which suggests a this-worldly realism. But the vision Walcott offers is of his mother, Alix, buried near the beach in St. Lucia, a rose in the desert, on analogy to Dante's vision that concludes the Paradiso. There is complexity and density, even hermeticism, in The Bounty. The contrasting pulls of clarity and of regarding poetry as the making of metaphors, of a religious vision and of wanting each thing to shine forth with its own inner essence, have always been there in Walcott's writing, but seldom as fully. Here there is insistent pressure throughout the volume: each of its parts seems almost of equal weight. It is easy to lose sight of themes and even the subject in a poem when each long line may have several shifts in focus. Although very different from those Dylan Thomasish poems of Walcott's early volumes, the new ones also expand the range of material and allusion by a rapid accumulation of analogies.
“The Bounty” is also a sequence of seven poems, an elegy commemorating Alix Walcott, which comprises the first part of the volume. It is followed by a second part divided into thirty-seven poems, several of which are themselves numbered sequences of poems. Each poem is twenty-one to twenty-five lines, often closely rhymed, of variable line length, usually hexameters of six metric feet. The volume covers the years after the publication of Omeros, during which time Walcott made trips to Spain and Italy as well as moving between Boston, Trinidad, and St. Lucia. Many of the poems have a twilight feel, as if he were awaiting death. There are elegies to Joseph Brodsky and other recently dead friends. The Bounty must be praised because it is necessary to be thankful, even to confess. At times Walcott seems in purgatory, life in Boston being exile from the Paradise of St. Lucia, where he now has built a home. His odyssey has concluded after years of wandering, but there are also confessions of continuing restlessness and desire. He is Oedipus at Colonus, Lear and Yeats in old age. These are not welcoming or always accessible poems; their complicated numbering and untitled presentation are confusing. The volume is, however, a major collection by one of the best writers of our age, who has a right to expect the reader's attention.
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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 to rhetoric.
Another question, in addition to wondering about irony, that engaged my attention while reading these books was whether poets chose to write what might be called the “situated” poem, or the “statement” poem. Both have long histories. An example of the statement poem might be Philip Larkin's “This Be the Verse,” which begins “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do.” The mum and dad are generic parents, the “you” is everyone. A situated poem in the same Freudian mode is Robert Lowell's “Man and Wife,” which begins, “Tamed by Miltown, we lie on Mother's bed; / the rising sun in war paint dyes us red.” The mum here is Charlotte Winslow Lowell of Boston, whose troubled psychological legacy is represented by an antique bed, part of the inherited “loot” that occupies so much of the poet's attention in Life Studies.
Situated poems are, accurately, associated with the modern era; think of “The Wild Swans at Coole” by Yeats: “The trees are in their autumn beauty, / The woodland paths are dry …” But then one remembers Wordsworth's “Tintern Abbey,” published in 1798, where the scenery of the Wye Valley triggers a reverie: “Once again / Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs, / That on a wild secluded scene impress / Thoughts of more deep seclusion.”
In truth the type goes back centuries. John Donne's “Nocturnal upon St. Lucy's Day,” 1633, begins, “'Tis the year's midnight, and it is the day's,” a location in time even more precise than Lowell's “These are the tranquilized Fifties, / and I am forty.” Yet even as early as the reign of James I, poets were clever enough to adopt the pose of general statement and then narrow it to fit a particular case, as Sir Walter Raleigh did in his touching and witty sonnet, “Three Things There Be,” a warning from the Tower to his profligate son.
Still, more than any other period in literary history, the twentieth century has favored the situated poem, with its reliance on imagery and particularity. …
The Bounty, by Derek Walcott, reveals the Caribbean-born Nobel laureate in a contemplative mood, reflecting on his life and on his island home, St. Lucia. In “Spain” and “Italian Eclogues” he expatiates on landscapes and cultures other than his own. He is at his best, however, when focusing on the two themes he has made indelibly his own: the island where he lives, and the way the culture and history of the Caribbean are fatefully intertwined with the geographically faraway continent of Europe. Walcott is a past master of the situated poem—situated as to place, culture, and history at many levels.
The writing here displays the defects of its qualities. The tone of unhurried contemplation, the long lines and blocks of verse allow Walcott plenty of breathing room; his poetry at its best rises to a grandeur hardly ever seen in these depressingly plainspoken days. The current book has its share of longueurs, however, and I think some of this may be attributed to Walcott's formal choices: page after page presents blocks of print unbroken into stanzas (though the title poem employs tercets and a rhyme scheme loosely based on terza rima). In an elegy to Joseph Brodsky he says, “You refreshed forms and stanzas.” Perhaps Walcott himself should consider returning to some of the marvelously varied technical experimentation of his early work.
But my impression is that he indulges himself here on purpose. The sameness of the verse form allows him, when the Muse is attentive, to go deeply into his moods and perceptions. Passages in this book are simply gorgeous—grand and inventive, down-to-earth and elevated at the same time. Here, from the title poem, is a variation on a line by Dante:
“In la sua volonta è nostra pace,” In His will is our peace. Peace in white harbors, in marinas whose masts agree, in crescent melons
left all night in the fridge, in the Egyptian labours of ants moving boulders of sugar, words in this sentence, shadow and light, who live next door like neighbours …
“The Bounty” is both an elegy for the poet's mother and a poetic credo in which lines of ants are an emblem for the poetic line: “let the ants teach me again with the long lines of words, / my business and duty, the lesson you taught your sons, / to write of the light's bounty on familiar things / that stand on the verge of translating themselves into news …”
If cultural theorists have reduced postcolonial experience to a massive yawn, that's not Derek Walcott's fault. His evocations of the imperial center as sensed from a distant colonial outpost—humorous, celebratory at times, perceptively critical but never strident or posturing—are among the glories of late-twentieth-century poetry. The four-part sequence “Signs” shows that Europe's mythic presence in the mind of the colonial subject has not ceased to excite Walcott to some of his best writing:
Europe fulfilled its silhouette in the nineteenth century with steaming train-stations, gas-lamps, encyclopedias, the expanding waists of empires, an appetite for inventory in the novel as a market roaring with ideas. Bound volumes echoed city-blocks of paragraphs with ornate parenthetical doorways, crowds on one margin waiting to cross to the other page …
Today's bright idea in cultural criticism is to reduce everything to “commodity”; Walcott shows he is aware of that idea, but demonstrates that the interplay between ideas and goods, art and power, setting and spirit, the insubstantial and the quantifiable, is much more complex and interesting than the essentially Marxist notion that art is an effluence rising from the push and shove of economics: “We become one of those, then, / who convert the scarves of cirrus at dusk to a diva's / adieu from an opera balcony, ceilings of cherubs, cornucopias / disgorging stone fruit, the setting for a believer's / conviction in healing music …” Walcott has always been, in the broad sense, a believer; and that is what makes his poetry, at its best, such powerful spiritual nourishment.
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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 phases during the fifty years of his writing career to date. Initially, reflecting the locations in which it was published or performed, responses came almost exclusively from within the Caribbean region; after his poetry was published in Britain and the United States, it increasingly attracted the attention of metropolitan critics; and the award of the Nobel Prize in 1992 substantially augmented the critical output on his work, particularly his poetry.1
From the outset, criticism of Walcott's writing has been dominated by discussions of its cultural politics. Early on, it was often reductively characterized as Eurocentric in orientation; more recently it has been embraced by post-colonial theorists, who have seen it as engaging with many of the preoccupations which they have brought to the fore during the last two decades. In one sense there is an appropriateness about both of these responses, in that, despite his rejection of conventional political discourses, Walcott's early work is centrally concerned with the divisions in Caribbean society and, in more recent years, the writing's Odyssean attempt to claim a space outside the political domain has offered a significant alternative to oppositional historiography and aesthetics. Moreover, despite his distrust of abstract theorizing, Walcott's emphasis on Adamic naming as a strategy for (re)claiming one's world from the colonizer, his career-long concern with eroding Manichean binaries and his development of a poetics of migration all strikingly anticipate subsequent developments in post-colonial theory.
However, to pigeon-hole his work in any of these ways can be to obscure the complex and subtle ways in which he approaches such issues and to occlude the cultural specifics from which and about which he writes. Emphasis on the supposed European orientation of his writing and the contrast frequently made with Edward Kamau Brathwaite invariably obscures the extent to which he creolizes European forms.2 The present study has attempted to correct this misreading by showing that his reworkings of European pre-texts such as Robinson Crusoe, Tirso de Molina's Trickster of Seville and Homer's epics are neither complicitous nor adversarial, and by illustrating his increasing emphasis on the dismantling of binary structures through his exploration of the Odyssean predicament. So far, his poetry has been much better served by critics than his drama, though this has to some extent been remedied by the recent appearance of two important studies of the plays: Bruce King's detailed account of the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, Derek Walcott and West Indian Drama: ‘Not Only a Playwright But a Company’: The Trinidad Theatre Workshop 1953–1993;3 and Judy Stone's chapter, ‘Classical Theatre’ in Theatre: Studies In West Indian Literature,4 which, in addition to providing an assessment of Walcott's plays, is, like King's book, an extremely valuable source of information for details about performances of the plays. One area of his work still remains seriously neglected: his essays. Even though the essays may seem to be no more than an off-shoot of the verse and drama, Walcott is arguably the finest prose stylist the anglophone Caribbean has yet produced, though his distrust of narrative, which he associates with linear historiography,5 has prevented him from attempting extended prose fiction and impeded recognition of his genius as a prose writer. Essays such as ‘What the Twilight Says: An Overture,’ ‘The Muse of History’ and his Nobel Prize lecture, ‘The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory,’ are classic statements on the problematics of Caribbean theatre, historiography and culture, which not only merit serious critical attention, but also book publication to make them accessible to a larger readership.
Although Walcott's first volume of verse, 25 Poems, was published in 1949, it was not until the late 1970s that his work received book-length attention. Prior to this, studies of his poetry in particular concentrated on issues of cultural affiliation and the contrast with Brathwaite had already become commonplace by the time Patricia Ismond produced her essay ‘Walcott versus Brathwaite,’6 an important statement on a supposed opposition which echoed earlier antithetical pairings of writers such as George Steiner's ‘Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky?.’ In her essay Ismond contrasted Walcott's alleged ‘humanism’ with Brathwaite's ‘mission of protest,’7 coming to the conclusion that Brathwaite's ‘protest … remains weaker, in the final analysis, than Walcott's kind of assertion.’8 After the publication of Another Life in 1973, commentators devoted a good deal of attention to the Adamic project which Walcott outlined in this volume, a vein of criticism which is well illustrated by Michel Fabre's “Adam's Task of Giving Things Their Names: The Poetry of Derek Walcott.”9 Through these early years Walcott's drama remained largely neglected in academic circles, while a considerable body of Caribbean reviews offered (very mixed) responses to performances of the plays, sometimes praising Walcott for his engagement with issues central to the development of an autonomous regional culture, sometimes taking him to task for his alleged obscurity.10 At the same time, Walcott's own Trinidad Guardian reviews provide valuable insights into his practice, both by discussing it directly and also through their comments on other writers' work and the directions in which he feels Caribbean theatre and culture should be moving.11
Edward Baugh's monograph Derek Walcott: Memory as Vision: Another Life12 was the first book-length study of any aspect of Walcott's work, when it appeared in 1978. It locates Another Life within the specifics of Walcott's St. Lucian upbringing and puts particular emphasis on the poem's subtle representation of how perception operates and how memory is shaped into ‘vision.’ Baugh provides factual information about the background to the poetic autobiography and sensitively sketches in several of the main concerns of the poem: Walcott's abandonment of painting for poetry, once he realized that his real gift lay in metaphor; his attempt to wipe the historical slate clean and create a new aesthetic from this tabula rasa; and his belief in the need for the Adamic project.
Another monograph followed shortly afterwards. As a by-product of Walcott's being awarded the Welsh Arts Council's International Writers Prize in 1980 and a conference on his work, held to mark this award at Gregynog in the same year, Ned Thomas produced a bilingual (English and Welsh) study of Walcott's poetry.13 Like Baugh, Thomas takes pains to outline the social and geographical circumstances from which Walcott's poetry has emerged, while also stressing its international accessibility. He argues that while the poetry must be read against Walcott's St. Lucian background, this needs to be done in terms of the particular poetic vocabularies that inform it. In addition to discussing parts of Another Life, Thomas's monograph looks closely at two poems which have been favorites among Walcott commentators, ‘Ruins of a Great House’ and the then recently published ‘Schooner Flight.’ Although a brief study, it is notable for its attempt to develop parallels between Walcott and contemporary Welsh and Australian writers and represents a pioneering attempt to discuss Walcott as a post-colonial poet. Thomas also addresses the question of Walcott's indebtedness to European forms, problematizing the issue of whether borrowings leave the writer in danger of being assimilated in an interesting manner.
Robert Hamner's Derek Walcott (1981)14 offers a general introduction to Walcott's life and work within the constrictions of the format of the Twayne World Authors Series. It is notable as the first study to offer a discussion of Walcott's published and unpublished plays and, although the information provided is sometimes sketchy, it was a landmark in Walcott criticism at the time when it appeared, predating King's and Stone's accounts of Walcott's drama by over a decade. Hammer also offers useful information on other aspects of Walcott's work which remain neglected, especially his early Caribbean-published volumes of poetry15 and his journalistic writing for the Trinidad Guardian. Like Thomas, he discusses the issue of Walcott's ‘assimilation,’ taking the view that the multiple nature of the influences on which he draws enables him to avoid imitativeness. Hamner achieves flexibility within the format of the series in which he is writing and the book remains the most informative single-authored book on the first three decades of Walcott's writing, if not the most critically incisive.
Between the late 1960s and the late 1980s a number of collections of essays on Caribbean literature provided general introductions to Walcott's work. These included Kenneth Ramchand's essay in his own An Introduction to the Study of West Indian Literature (1976),16 Mervyn Morris's essay in Bruce King's West Indian Literature (1979)17 and John Thieme's and Stewart Brown's essays, on Walcott's plays and poetry respectively, in David Dabydeen's Handbook for Teaching Caribbean Literature (1988).18 Earlier, Cameron King and Louis James had contributed a perceptive essay on the contemplative aspects of Walcott's verse to the first significant collection of essays on anglophone Caribbean writing to appear in Britain, James's The Islands in Between (1968).19
In the 1990s international interest in Walcott's work, which had gradually been growing, particularly in the United States after he had partly settled in Boston, dramatically increased with the publication of Omeros in 1990 and the award of the Nobel Prize in 1992. This paved the way for more specialist studies of his work. Stewart Brown's 1991 collection, The Art of Derek Walcott, includes twelve new essays on specific aspects of Walcott's work, mostly particular volumes of his verse, although there are also dedicated essays on the early and late plays which, like most of the articles published on the drama, lack the detailed background knowledge to be found in King's and Stone's subsequent books.
Robert D. Hamner's 1993 Critical Perspectives20 is an attempt to provide an extensive archive of Walcott material within the pages of a single volume. It is the most useful source-book of writing by and about Walcott to have appeared thus far; and brings together several of Walcott's own essays and interviews, along with critical pieces by others, which range from fully-fledged academic articles to ephemeral but fascinating reviews. The selection from Walcott's own essays favours those that had hitherto had a limited readership. Thus ‘Leaving School’ is included, but not ‘The Muse of History’; and Walcott's 1965 talk ‘The Figure of Crusoe,’ which provides an interesting companion-piece to The Castaway, is printed for the first time. The critical pieces are grouped into four chronologically-ordered sections, ranging from the juvenilia to Omeros and although some of the selections are poor in quality, the sheer volume and diversity of the material included makes it possible to appreciate the range and development of Walcott's work, albeit through the mediating vision of critics, without having to call on the services of several specialist libraries. Hamner's partially annotated secondary bibliography is the most useful to have appeared to date; the primary bibliography supplements the more exhaustive listings provided in Irma Goldstraw's two thorough bibliographies of Walcott's own writings.21
Rei Terada's American Mimicry (1992)22 advances the study of Walcott's poetry by demonstrating how its self-conscious use of language complements a vision which interrogates notions of geographical centres and ideas of originality. For Terada, Walcott's American ‘mimicry … replaces mimesis as the ground of representation.’23 Unlike most of the other books on Walcott, American Mimicry abandons any attempt at an introduction to Walcott's poetry as a whole in favour of a discussion which outlines some of its problematics and sees him as a postmodernist writer whose thinking displays affinities with post-structuralist theory. Such an approach is sanctioned by the numerous metaliterary references in Walcott's work, which have become particularly prominent in his poetry of the last fifteen years, but are to be seen in both the poetry and the plays from very early on. Terada's remapping of Walcott's cultural and geographical horizons sees him as promulgating a new cartography in which New and Old Worlds exist in a symbiotic, mutually constitutive relationship.
The amount of critical writing available on Walcott is now very considerable and this survey only offers a brief overview of some of the landmarks and the more readily available material. As indicated above, significant criticism of the drama is still comparatively sparse and only Hamner, King and Stone have hitherto been prepared to engage with the difficulties of trying to survey his vast dramatic output, some of which is fugitive and much of which has gone through numerous revisions. King offers a minutely detailed account of Walcott's involvement with the Trinidad Theatre Workshop and includes a wealth of information on particular performances and reviews. His thoroughness has provided the groundwork for future studies. Stone's fifty-two page chapter on Walcott's ‘Classical Theatre’ is similarly informative and also deals with plays unconnected with the Theatre Workshop. Its location within a general book on West Indian theatre helps it to contextualize Walcott's dramatic art and it offers rather more by way of critical analysis than King does. Both books have made a major contribution to the study of Walcott as a dramatist, in some cases making a readership that was previously unaware of just how prolific he has been as a playwright familiar with the range and extent of his dramatic writing.
To a far greater degree than is the case with the poetry, Walcott seems to see his plays as ‘works in progress’ and he has constantly returned to them, either revising them or recasting aspects of them in new forms. Arguably this reflects the extent to which he regards his dramatic utterances as provisional, gestures towards statements rather than statements themselves; and this can perhaps be related to his stagings of identity,24 which again always seems to be malleable and dialogic in his hands. Plays are, of course, always reinvented in performance, whereas poems take on the stasis conferred by print when committed to the page and so perhaps this is inevitable. However, it is noteworthy that Walcott has, as it were, pursued two almost separate and parallel careers in these two genres, since it would seem that neither has enabled him to pursue his imaginative concerns satisfactorily on its own.25 This, too, can perhaps be read as an expression of the Odyssean tension in his work, now being enacted through his response to genre, with the kinetic impermanence of dramatic performance complementing the stasis provided by the printed poem, even when it is about restless journeying.
In dealing with aspects of both the poems and the plays in some detail and attempting to demonstrate their shared concerns, as well as the very significant ways in which they differ, the present book has endeavoured to see Walcott as a whole, while recognizing that what emerges from such an attempt to describe totality is a layered portrait of a writer who, more than most, thwarts attempts at essentialist categorization. Through the two interlocking theses which I have pursued in the course of this discussion—Walcott's attempt to erode Manichean binaries in favour of a continuum model of culture and identity; and the development of a poetics of migration—I hope to have shown the extent to which his artistic journeyings have provided a solution not only to his own personal dilemmas, but also to the problem of formulating an appropriate Caribbean aesthetic practice. Ironically, since his quest for such a practice began as a response to a very specific ‘marginalized’ situation, this has emerged as a position which seems to have global valency at the turn of the millennium, at a time when essentialist categorizations have been interrogated not simply by the collapse of empires and physical migration, but also by the emergence of strains of cultural theory which Walcott was anticipating in his very earliest work.
An Internet search undertaken shortly before the completion of this book yielded nearly a quarter of a million references to Walcott!
See Chapter 1.
Bruce King, Derek Walcott and West Indian Drama: ‘Not Only a Playwright But a Company’: The Trinidad Theatre Workshop 1953–1993, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.
Judy J. Stone, Theatre: Studies In West Indian Literature, London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1994, 91–142.
See, for example, his poem ‘The Man Who Loved Islands,’ where he writes, ‘that tired artifice called history / which in its motion is as false as fiction, / requires an outline, a summary. I can think of none’ (FT, 38); and my discussion of this poem in ‘Alternative Histories: Narrative Modes in West Indian Literature (with particular reference to Derek Walcott and V. S. Reid),’ Britta Olinder (ed.), A Sense of Place: Essays in Post-Colonial Literatures, Gothenburg; Gothenburg University Commonwealth Studies, 1984, 142–50.
Originally published in Caribbean Quarterly, 17:3/4, 1971, 54–71; repr. in Robert D. Hamner (ed.), Critical Perspectives on Derek Walcott, Washington: Three Continents Press, 1993, 220–36. Ismond attributes the origin of the imperative to choose between the two poets to Edward Lucie-Smith, Hamner (ed.), Critical Perspectives, 220.
Michel Fabre, ‘“Adam's Task of Giving Things Their Names”: The Poetry of Derek Walcott,’ New Letters, 14:1, 1974, 91–107.
For example, two reviews of Ione included in Hamner (ed.), Critical Perspectives, 113–17.
See Robert D. Hamner's bibliography in Critical Perspectives, 411–30, for details of Walcott's Guardian journalism; and Chapter 3, note 73 above for details of articles relating to the future direction of Caribbean theatre.
Edward Baugh, Derek Walcott: Memory as Vision: Another Life, London: Longman, 1978.
Ned Thomas, Derek Walcott: Poet of the Islands/Derek Walcott: Bardd yr Ynysoedd, Cardiff: Welsh Arts Council, 1980.
Robert D. Hamner, Derek Walcott, Boston: Twayne, 1981.
Stewart Brown's, ‘The Apprentice: 25 Poems,Epitaph for the Young,Poems and In a Green Night’ in Brown (ed.), The Art of Derek Walcott, Bridgend, MidGlamorgan: Seren Books, 1991, 13–33 is the other notable discussion of this early poetry to have appeared to date.
Kenneth Ramchand, An Introduction to the Study of West Indian Literature, Sunbury-on-Thames, Middlesex: Nelson, 1976, 108–26.
Mervyn Morris, ‘Derek Walcott,’ Bruce King (ed.), West Indian Literature, London: Macmillan, 1979, 144–60.
David Dabydeen (ed.), A Handbook for Teaching Caribbean Literature, London: Heinemann, 1988, 86–95 and 96–103.
Cameron King and Louis James, ‘In Solitude for Company: The Poetry of Derek Walcott,’ Louis James (ed.), The Islands in Between, London: Oxford University Press, 1968, 86–99.
Hamner (ed.), Critical Perspectives.
Irma E. Goldstraw's Derek Walcott: A Bibliography of Published Poems with Dates of Publication and Variant Versions 1944–1979, St. Augustine, Trinidad: University of the West Indies Research and Publications Committee, 1979; and Derek Walcott: An Annotated Bibliography of His works, New York; Garland, 1984.
Rei Terada, Derek Walcott's Poetry: American Mimicry, Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992.
For example, in Pantomime, but throughout his work. See particularly Chapter 5.
Having abandoned the idea of being an artist when quite young, he has also continued to paint water-colours throughout his life and has produced a considerable body of non-dramatic prose writing.
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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 Trinidad to telling of Lowell's death in a taxi when returning to New York, Walcott is himself constructing a history, although of the kind found in Pasternak's autobiography, moments of memory presented nonchronologically.
This is the method of a modernist poet writing prose. It is best to read this book of republished essays on the model of the Lowell essay, a crafted prose poem in which the parts imply more than they say. The ordering of essays in the book is similar to Walcott's methods of building a sequence of poems or his assembling a new volume of poetry; the sections are arranged subtly to pick up echoes and distant harmonies of their motifs. The movement back and forth, tensions between, and simultaneous presence of a modernist aestheticism and issues of decolonization propel the book.
The presentation, title, and arrangement of contents of a Walcott book have by now become conventional. The painting reproduced here on the cover belongs to his Boston period and ironically contrasts the tropically colored jackets of a row of books inside his study with the snow outside the window. The contrast is unfortunately less striking than intended because of the brown paper used for the dust jacket. “What the Twilight Says,” the first essay in [What the Twilight Says,] was originally the introduction to Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays (1970) in which the twilight signifies the sun going down on the British Empire, the end of an era. Here it has an additional elegiac significance—a record of the concerns, friendships, and major positions taken during the era when Walcott and Caribbean literature established a place on the world's cultural map.
“What the Twilight Says” belongs to a time when Walcott was trying to establish a world-class theater company in Trinidad, a director's theater, a Port of Spain version of Brecht's Berlin Ensemble. Walcott was director, playwright, and scene designer, and he expected improbably that he and others would live on the profits. “Twilight” is beautifully written poetic prose, continually changing time and place, circling around various themes, obscurely personal, even opaque, the opposite of V. S. Naipaul's transparency and directness. Walcott's essay is a reply to what Naipaul had been saying about the West Indies—that nothing of value was created or was likely to be created. It concerns Walcott's own attempt to create something of value, but tells it in such a way that most readers will have little idea that Walcott is alluding to twenty years of building drama companies on three islands, and that the essay was written during a time when he had angrily resigned from his Trinidad Theatre Workshop yet was leading it on a tour to several islands. On St. Lucia he returned to places important to his youth, mentioned in the essay and in his magnificent autobiographical poem Another Life, on which he was working at the time.
What the Twilight Says begins with three discussions of Caribbean culture and art, followed by the second part which is comprised of essays on individual writers and by a third part consisting of a short story, the only one Walcott has published. “The Muse of History” (1974) asserts a Whitmanesque Adamic new start to replace the burden of history, especially dreams of avenging slavery and returning to Africa. The Caribbean sea ever changes and brings the world's cultures together to a region where all races are castaways needing to start again. In the Nobel-prize lecture, “The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory” (1993), itself a small book of epiphanies, Walcott looks back with pride on such a vision and acknowledges what it missed—the culture of the Asian Indians. It concludes with Walcott's Wordsworthian “joy when a writer finds himself a witness to the early morning of a culture” and memories of himself as a child writing, in an exercise book, “framed stanzas that might contain the light of the hills on an island blest by obscurity, cherishing our insignificance.”
These essays are meant to be read as autobiography. They are related to his poems and plays and are concerned with some of Walcott's influences (Hemingway), friendships (Lowell, Brodsky), his goals and themes, and obsessions (Naipaul). The essays on Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, Les Murray, and Robert Frost are notable for Walcott's concern with the significance of craft in the development of each poet. They can seem obvious, even inflated, but come powerfully alive when Walcott discusses the poetic line, use of compound words, tone, pitch, diction, pronunciation, and caesura. Consider some examples: 1) Of Frost's “Something there is that doesn't love a wall” Walcott proclaims: “That rapid elision or slur of the second half of the line is as monumental a breakthrough for American verse as any experiment by Williams or Cummings. It dislocates the pivot of traditional scansion.” 2) “Larkin continued to rely on the given beat of the pentametrical line throughout his career. He shadowed it with hesitations, coarsened it with casual expletives, and compacted it with hyphens … to the point where a hyphenated image, with its aural-visual fusion, was powerful enough to contain a minipoem in itself.” 3) “The hyphenated image is not colloquial, but Larkin's achievement is to make it sound as if it were, as if such phrasing could slip into talk.”
Such poet talk may seem far from West Indian concerns, but it was such mastery and innovation that Walcott needed before he could find his own voice as a Caribbean poet. In “A Letter to Chamoiseau,” a review of Texaco, Walcott is divided between his admiration for the novel and his distrust of the Parisian rhetoric and theories behind it. French Caribbean patois is different, difficult for him to speak correctly. This leads to “Café Martinique: A Story” in which a St. Lucian author argues with his Martinican double, a fit conclusion for a poet's book with its densely packed expressions, subtle associations, and winding structure.
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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 reflecting twenty-seven years (1970–97) of critical study have been grouped into three sections.
The first section contains the title piece, “What the Twilight Says,” which encapsulates Walcott's conception of the postcolonial or New World, as he calls it. The inheritance of the Caribbean man, he says, is both African and European. He cannot go back to Africa, and he cannot be European or “white,” so he must become a new man who will create literature from the fusion of African and European heritages. Walcott elaborates on this thesis in “The Muse of History.” He claims that the slaves were not converted to Christianity against their will. They converted themselves, adapting not only their masters' religion but also their language. That is where the poetic tradition of the New World begins. “This is the benediction that is celebrated, a fresh language and a fresh people,” he tells the audience in his 1992 Nobel Lecture, titled “The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory.” He exhorts his fellow Caribbeans in “Café Martinique: A Story”—the sole piece in the third section of the book—to end the bitterness of colonialism and move ahead, to begin afresh in an “Adamic” way.
In the second section Walcott discusses several of the leading authors from around the globe, analyzing their literary productions. Comparing Patrick Chamoiseau's novel Texaco (1992) to James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), he lavished high praise on the Martinican artist. Others in the good graces of the poet include Robert Lowell, C. L. R. James, Joseph Brodsky, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, Robert Frost, and Les Murray. Hemingway turns out to be just a good writer; V. S. Naipaul is in the doghouse for his “abhorrence of Negroes” and “hatred of Trinidad,” for the modern writer, according to Walcott, requires a “vaster, total, raceless compassion.”
In light of his laudable view of the modern writer, Walcott's criticism of Naipaul is understandable. But how will he move ahead with the vocabulary of the imperialists on his back, the poet does not tell us. He does not challenge the imperialists' jaundiced construction of race. The British imperialists proclaimed themselves as a “white” race, not unlike the Nazis' proclamation of Aryanism later. Worse, they promoted a Semite, an Afro-Asian, an Aramaic-speaking Palestinian as a “white” God. This was sheer perversion of human history, a fabrication, an artificial construct, which D. H. Lawrence liked to call “white bunk.” The imperialists also claimed Christianity as a Western religion, when Christ himself was not a Western man. We know what great Europeans like Voltaire and Matthew Arnold said on this subject; and Iris Murdoch, one of the leading twentieth-century British thinkers, asserts that Christianity is not even suitable for the West. Such critical assessment of the imperialists' pretensions is not found in Walcott's essays, which are replete with the vocables of the imperialists, as if the world began with the British Empire. Walcott's new Caribbean man, if he wants to write secular universal literature, will need a new vocabulary that must come from the histories of nations and not from the prevarication of “the perfidious Albion,” to quote José Saramago, the 1998 Portuguese Nobel laureate. If the new Caribbean man cannot rid his language of the vocabulary of the imperialists, he will unfortunately be no better than Naipaul's “mimic men.” And that will be worse, for that will be the ultimate triumph of British imperialism.
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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 withdrawal of Empire and the beginning of our doubt” it is Baudelaire's crépuscule—“the tropic bug in the Paris fog”; it is the poet's mixed heritage, antithesis and ambivalence, “the pause / between dusk and darkness, between fury and peace” it is the spirit-level of the races, languages and cultures that have colonized, settled or been forcibly or otherwise transported to the archipelago so pointedly known to Europe as the West Indies—“a twilight eager to complete itself.”
Above all, it is an oracle as old as literature; and Walcott has never been afraid to listen for what it might say through the Bible, Homer, Ovid and a whole pantheon of recent poets whose voices he has echoed until relatively late in his career. A man of talent born in a place too small to contain his ambition, educated beyond the reach of his countrymen, his destiny as a poet has taken the measure of a deepening solitude, in which he resembles Les Murray, whom he calls “Roman” in one of his reviews, where “Roman” is a code for the predicament of the colonial poet writing in the language of Empire: “‘Romans’—he smiled—‘will mock your slavish rhyme, / the slaves your love of Roman structures.’” These same classical rhetorical influences have left his lines, in moments of failed concentration, strained or ornamental. What the Twilight Says works through what it means to cleave to an ideal of writing, and it is a significant parallel that much of Walcott's best poetry—notably Omeros (1990) and The Bounty (1997)—is his latest.
Walcott grew up as an English-speaking Methodist in Castries, the only town of any size in the colony of St Lucia, a Catholic island with a francophone patois (though The Bounty declares, “We don't speak so anymore”) and an oral, not scribal culture. It is not surprising that he turned as a young writer to the theatre—a more obvious form of expression for a “divided child,” though in itself a further division of his time and attention—under the torment of the heresy that “twilight had set me apart.” In talking about the difficulties of the very idea of theatre in the West Indies, and in motivating actors unsure whether they could be more than “mimic men,” Walcott dramatizes the choices that faced him at nineteen: “an elate, exuberant poet madly in love with English, but in the dialect-loud dusk of water buckets and fish sellers.” If sovereignty seemed bound up with the lingua adamica, that consonance between the secret names of things and their sounds, he was also learning that literature could all too easily be found loitering, “in the pathos of sociology, self-pitying, and patronized.”
Much of his poetry is in fact self-questioning, a running commentary on a possible tradition. Not that tradition is ever a matter of choice. Walcott notes that those in awe of tradition—“which is alert, alive, simultaneous”—may actually be mesmerized by history; in the Caribbean, that may be no more than “the history of an emotion.” It is a limiting prospect which puts him on his guard. He is continually wary of those who can find ways to take Caliban's island from him and tell him to be grateful for it, of the “benign blight” and the tropical tristesse that thinks “a culture based on joy is bound to be shallow,” of those who see the ocean of language stretching from Hemingway's watering holes in the Florida Keys and García Marquez's boyhood Colombian coast as “illegitimate, rootless, mongrelized.” When it comes down to it, Walcott's poetry is as personal as anyone else's; it takes what it needs, reconstituting itself from the shards of the archetypal culture-pots. Typically, the act of reconstitution requires more creative intelligence and effort than what preceded and guided it: “if the pieces are disparate, ill-fitting, they contain more pain than their original sculpture.”
The convoluted and sometimes exasperated title piece of this book—originally the “overture” to Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays (1970)—was written at a turning point in Walcott's career; it was around this time that he came to prominence with his book-length autobiographical poem, Another Life. It marks, roughly, the juncture at which his inheritance as a “divided child” on St Lucia ceased to be perceived as liability or entrapment, a “malarial enervation.” Now that post-colonialism is firmly entrenched in the academy, the biggest favour we can do him is to read him as he feels his way out by going in deeper, avoiding the dogma of those who write out of a nostalgia for the status quo ante, like the “V. S. Nightfall” lampooned in The Fortunate Traveller. No less discounted by Walcott are outright anti-colonialism and négritude, which he dismisses as “an infantile desire to hide in those skirts … away from technology deep in maternal Africa,” or cosmopolitan-inspired explorations of the exotic, in which the subconscious has been displaced from archaeology to geography: “la mer / out of Gauguin by the Tourist Board.” Musing in his Nobel prize address on a performance of Ramleela, the Hindu epic, seen in Trinidad, he says:
All of the Antilles, every island, is an effort of memory; every mind, every racial biography culminating in amnesia and fog. Pieces of sunlight through the fog and sudden rainbows, arcs-en-ciel. That is the effort, the labour of the Antillean imagination, rebuilding its gods from bamboo frames, phrase by phrase.
The essay is not a distinctive, gossipy mode of intellectual inquiry for Walcott as it was for Brodsky; he seems rather to be writing richly subjective prose poems where the kind of imagistic logic that keeps a poem rapt causes his prose to clot; it would take a sea-change to transform the gob of spit spied on the floor of a tin-shed in the title piece into a “mesmeric gritted oyster of sputum.” Remarks on technique, however, are insightful, for example his repeated demonstration of the “benedict” Larkin's prowess at condensing imagery in unflashy adjectival clusters. Facts are occasionally skewed; Hugh Gaitskell was never British prime minister, and Soviet Russia could hardly be called a “self-idealizing democracy.” Walcott's review of the Trinidadian writer C. L. R. James is welcome, as is the most vivid and good-humoured piece in the book, a “letter” to the Martiniquan writer Patrick Chamoiseau about his novel Texaco.
This piece, and its companion story “Café Martinique,” reveal Walcott's debt to his French connections, especially St-John Perse and Aimé Césaire, and to the “pale blue silhouette” of Martinique visible across the channel from St Lucia. Both islands have a common patois, though names for common things differ. Tart comments are reserved for what he perceives as subtle renonçant tendencies (Martinique is officially an outreach of the French Republic) and the countervailing attempt to deny linguistic origins in the writing down of Creole (kweyol). Since Walcott's own verse has been taxed as being too “literary,” it is instructive, again, to gain a sense of the ramifications of his struggle to effect a balance between imagination and collective memory, personal coherence and community—decomposing, as he calls it in “The Spoiler's Return,” the distance between written and oral, high and low, French and English, black and white. For it is the twilit fate of poetry to have to recompose it all, “to fall in love with the world, in spite of History.”
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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 thinking, in the arrogance of my youth, that if such dull people had been his life, he could barely claim to have had one. I don't think I ever saw him again or spoke to him directly. But I still remember his nearly haunted voice and what it carried: how precarious and how precious our connections with others are.
Before I lapse into Streisandish rhapsodies about people who need people, let me turn to the subjects of this review: five books of prose by poets, two of them deliberate memoirs and all including at least some implicit autobiography. We learn a good deal about the authors of these texts, much of it fascinating and even valuable. Yet equally fascinating is what these books offer about the people around the authors—their friends, colleagues, rivals, lovers, wives, and ex-wives. Reading them one after another, I found myself pondering again the significance of the sheer, inevitable reality of our each being born into one specific position in the world. Whatever that place, and the trajectory our lives take from there, these texts suggest that our social location has a great deal to do with how we address the world—what we notice and ignore, what we consider natural and odd, what we accept or feel compelled to change if we can.
My first impulse was to couch all this in terms of privilege—what it means to have it, or not to have it, or to see (or think you see) it in others. These poets invite such consideration partly because their own lives have been so various in many ways, their work and opinions equally so. If they all might in some ways be seen as privileged—surely for their native gifts, some for the circumstances of their lives as well—every one is at some pains to offer a sense of his or her marginality and struggle. I suspect that such a felt sense of oppression or difficulty—call it what you will—is much more important to a poet's work than the often envious judgment of others. We can easily enough judge some of these poets—and even more of their friends and mentors—as privileged, but there is more to learn by avoiding such simplified politics and investigating more carefully their positions and connections and convictions. …
All poets, I suspect, hope that their prose will lead us back to their poems. Derek Walcott's What the Twilight Says sent me back to his epic Omeros with a new appreciation for the depth and subtlety of its ambitions. The most compelling section of Twilight is the first, with its three obliquely autobiographical essays in a rich, even baroque style: “When dusk heightens, like amber on a stage set, those ramshackle hoardings of wood and rusting iron which circle our cities, a theatrical sorrow rises with it, for the glare, like the aura from an old-fashioned brass lamp, is like a childhood signal to come home.” From the start, Walcott grapples with the poverty and deprivation of the islands—especially his birthplace, St. Lucia in the Lesser Antilles—and how such suffering might be “made lyrical”: “In the tropics nothing is lovelier than the allotments of the poor, no theatre is as vivid, voluble, and cheap.” Set apart from the poorest of the poor, intellectuals like Walcott must also contend with a sense of cultural poverty, of the need to assimilate the classics in compensation and yet also penetrate the amnesiac darkness of Caribbean history “to record the anguish of the race.”
Walcott was born into a complicated position; as he notes, the terms Ashanti and Warwickshire represent his two grandfathers' roots. Entangled in the islands' history of slavery, racism, and suffering, he is drawn to radicals such as the social critic Frantz Fanon and the poet Aimé Césaire, both born on neighboring Martinique. Yet his own vision is too complex and ambivalent for straightforward activism. He finds not only “the wish to be white” but also the “longing to become black” inadequate responses, mere “careers.” His desire is for a deeper, more culturally engaged identity, and so he regrets that the islands have not “been fed long with the mulch of cultures, with the cycles of tribalism, feudalism, monarchy, democracy, industrialization.” A banal “return to the bush” will not suffice, and English literature is also difficult, “hallowed ground and trespass.” Anger may be a start, however imperfect. The book's first (and title) essay ends with a searing evocation 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. Choice grows more melodramatic with every twilight. When twenty years ago we imagined cities devoted neither to power nor to money but to art, one had the true vision. Everything else has been the sweated blurring of a mirror in which the people might have found their true reflection.
Walcott writes with nearly stunning intensity of the island life, its heat and beauty and poverty, its race and class antagonisms, and his determination to wrestle from it an art equal to its complexities. The specifics of privation on St. Lucia are far different from those of northern Vermont, but Walcott shows some distant affinities with Carruth as he muses on the compensations of growing up with too few books, theaters, and museums, with “simply not enough to do”: “[D]eprived of books, a man must fall back on thought, and out of thought, if he can learn to order it, will come the urge to record. … There can be virtues in deprivation, and certainly one virtue is salvation from a cascade of high mediocrity, since books are now not so much created as remade.”
When Walcott turns his attention to other writers, his views are similarly intense and provocative. He assesses Robert Lowell, for instance, with an admiration that only barely avoids idolatry. Writing generously about the difficult last years of Lowell's life and career, he notes that “Lowell blessed others before he blessed himself.” Less convincingly, he claims that “after Imitations Lowell had reached a happiness in his work in which all poetry was his. He had made the body of literature his body, all styles his style, every varying voice his own.”
If loyalty occasionally overwhelms judgment, Walcott's editorial “we” also strains its bonds at times, as when he writes, “We love [Philip] Larkin, and that is it, simply.” This “we” does not include me—I have never had a simple response to Larkin, though I do love many things about his work. But such excesses are preferable to excessive timidity, and I feel richly compensated by the many abrupt insights these essays toss off, often casually. Walcott is especially astute on the pitfalls of trying to write at the very highest levels: “As their lines become marmoreal, poets hear their own echo as oracles. This happened to Eliot with The Four Quartets, to Stevens in the plummy vacancies of his later work, to Pound as he began to screech, even to Williams once he felt the laurel tightening on his forehead.”
The sharp and stimulating analyses Walcott offers of Hemingway, Frost, Naipaul, and Joseph Brodsky are too complex to summarize briefly here, but they are worth investigating. This book makes no claim to systematic “coverage” or an overarching thesis, but its overriding obsession with the place of the provincial in the world gives it coherence. When Walcott writes of Naipaul that “the provincial, the colonial, can never civilize himself beyond his province,” he speaks for himself as well. Given Walcott's sophistication, his literary friendships, and his worldwide connections, the claim may seem a bit disingenuous. Yet beneath it lies, I think, a fierce and admirable effort not to be “civilized” entirely away from his colonial past, not to suffer the “absorption into what is envied” that he sees as Naipaul's fate. Walcott's Nobel lecture muses on persistence and transformation within the polyglot island culture, in a passage that might serve as a manifesto for his own work and that of many others in our polyglot age:
Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole. The glue that fits the pieces is the sealing of its original shape. It is such a love that reassembles our African and Asiatic fragments, the cracked heirlooms whose restoration shows its white scars. This gathering of broken pieces is the care and pain of the Antilles. … Antillean art is this restoration of our shattered histories, our shards of vocabulary, our archipelago becoming a synonym for pieces broken off from the original continent. …
Biologists use the term “microenvironments” to describe the significant variations within what may seem a single landscape. The north and south sides of a boulder, for example, may have very different levels of temperature, sunshine, even rainfall, and therefore may support far different sets of flora and fauna. Careful, precise attention is needed even to notice, much less to understand, such small but crucial realities.
The same is true, I would suggest, within human lives. The work of poets and writers is largely devoted to portraying such microenvironments with the greatest possible depth, passion, and exactness. Such work often reveals the counterintuitive contraries that run within our stereotypes and habitual sets: the compensations of apparent privation, the costs of privilege, the importance to lives and careers of specific events, people, and relationships. The mark of the true writer is to scant neither the truth within the stereotypes nor that within the contraries, but somehow to bring them all to us. This is no mere dualism, but a continuum of many forces and levels of reality—geographic, financial, sexual, familial. To define a position, to know one's true place in the world, is never an easy thing. But from it all else follows.
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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.
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 whole summers to the World Cup. I was once a hopeless fan for the hapless Lancers (who were in the same league as the moneyed Cosmos) and now I'm a raging fan of their successors, the Rochester Raging Rhinos (who won the 1999 US Open Cup). In the old days, as we sat on the bleachers, we could hear at least five separate languages spoken by our neighbors. Italian, Spanish, Russian, I could recognize. The others were what? Greek, Serbo-Croatian, Ukranian? Who knows. The Lancers' game was not beautiful to watch; they were not good enough for that. But sometimes an individual play would stand out: the ball placed perfectly, the players imagining the ball—no, becoming the ball—in order to let it find its way into the net. The crowd would rise of one accord. That's how I knew. When the crowd rose to its feet, its many languages were one. What we had simultaneously witnessed could only be called elegance.
I can't think of anyone who uses the term “elegant” as matter-of-factly as a mathematician. “That's an elegant proof”—and other mathematicians know exactly what is meant. Mathematical elegance takes many forms. Sometimes the proof is short, moving straight to the point with surprising ease and clarity. Sometimes it meanders, picking up nuance along the way, until the result is a proof that expands and enlarges the original premise. Sometimes it is surprising, coming from an angle so different from what is expected that it demonstrates the versatility—and variety—of logic. Sometimes it is referential, building on the accumulated knowledge of the field. Often it contains a metaphorical aspect, bringing together in a symmetric way ideas that do not appear to be directly connected.
My mathematician friend tells me that elegance is overused as a term, that perhaps it is better to think of proofs as “satisfying.” That word, he contends, allows for a messy or unwieldy proof that has genuine importance, for the hundreds of pages of the proof of Fermat's last theorem (possibly the Ulysses of mathematics) that demand further scholarly analysis and exegesis. There is even room, he says, for the “outrageous” proof, the one that goes against all intuition.
What might be the definition of elegance in poetry? It's not merely fastidious adherence to form or high-toned rhetoric or elevated diction or lofty subject matter that makes for elegance. That would be a sociological definition, perhaps. Poems build their own aesthetics, and the standard of elegance varies to fit each one. Like mathematical proofs, poems sometimes move without an extraneous gesture; sometimes they eddy and circle in spirals of sound and accumulated nuance. They can surprise with metaphor that opens up the world. Even with the rise of public readings, there is usually no crowd to rise to the occasion. There is only the lonely reader, caught in his or her own sense of what has happened. So how do we know what we've experienced? And yet we know. We know we know. And we know we have no words to describe that deep sense of satisfaction. Others have tried—Dickinson's taking off the top of your head, Frost's ice riding on its own melting—but those senses are theirs, and ours resist formulation, though still we strain for it. In the end, we hope to find someone—anyone—to whom we can say “let me read you something,” and then we hope that whatever magic struck us will strike again. …
Derek Walcott's Tiepolo's Hound is a more interesting and complicated disappointment [than Yehuda Amichai's Open Closed Open]. Beautifully produced, with twenty-six full-color reproductions of Walcott's paintings to accompany its one long poem (164 pages of couplets), the book lays claim to elegance from the outset. In what Walcott continually admits is a “fiction,” he chronicles the life of the artist Camille Pissarro, a Sephardic Jew born in St. Thomas who left the island to become a painter in Paris. Self-conscious in the extreme, the poet, as narrator, intrudes on his tale with the consciousness of postcolonial theory. The word colonised proliferates, suggesting that Pissarro betrayed his native land in favor of more “artistic” landscapes.
But what is native to one who is already outside, or transplanted? So Walcott, both under the cover of his subject and in the guise of narrator, confronts the issues of Art and origin. He describes the techniques of the various Impressionists in such a way as to give a brief art history lesson, invoking Cézanne, van Gogh, Courbet, and Corot, among others, to say nothing of the now-problematic Gauguin. Yet somehow the paintings—and the painters—rarely come alive in the telling: “There is something uxorious in Pissarro's landscapes, / as if his brush had made a decorous marriage // with earth's fecundity; her seasons and gates, / the snow-streaked mud of fabrics whose soft cage // held Vuillard and Bonnard in the speckled interiors / of the bourgeois sublime, wine, linen, bread, and flowers …” They serve as idea, as painter in the abstract, just as Pissarro serves as concept of exile, as emblematic outsider.
What would have been Pissarro's fate had he stayed? Would he have become an obscure painter of the Caribbean? His position is not lost on Walcott. Referring over and over to his couplets (which rhyme not in the traditional closed fashion, but ab//ab//cd//cd, etc., employing a dominant iambic beat and enough pentameters to establish a pattern from which to depart), Walcott alerts the reader to his knowledge that as he “mounts the stairs of the couplets” he is using borrowed Western forms with which to examine his nameless origins. Wresting conclusions from the reader, Walcott recounts his struggle to create an art that is not derivative, that is true to his “roots.” But all art is derivative. Nothing comes untainted by the imposed name: not the breadfruit or the frangipani or the poplars shivering in the fields of France. At some time, someone stamped each thing with the thumbprint of its signifier; at some time, someone gave up the essence of simply being to the process we call Time. (Sometime someone invaded France …) And Time, as Walcott admits in this poem, “is not narrative”; it “continues its process even for the masters …”
The disappointment I feel here is that instead of taking off the top of my head, the poem calls forth my love of argument. It says, in verse, what Walcott has said better in critical prose, in a review of a new anthology of Caribbean writing in The New York Review of Books (15 June 2000): “That was the afflicting torment of successful colonials, that the deeper our education, the more it moved us away from the people. As it divided, though, so it enriched.” I recognize in Tiepolo's Hound a slick academic version of what I have formerly loved in Walcott. Where is the painterly quality of “Midsummer, Tobago” with its pure imagery that evokes both place and feeling? I find echoes in phrases (“Heat. Scorched boulders.”) that instantly expand into intellectualized description, not evocation (“Dust in the rutted roads, / stumbling to the crunch of gravel, clay shards, and shale, // mica or quartz in the sun, dry, papery reeds / of leaves whose hues vie with autumn's. I swore: I shall // get their true tints someday. Time, in its teaching, / will provide the bliss of precision …”). And where is the energy of the patois that brought to life the island life? Gone, into the realm of analytic statements on the nature of loss. Where is the driven energy of “The Train” or the sustained drama of Omeros? And where is there room for the reader's participatory insight?
Walcott's presiding assumption is that there is an equivalency between the blank page and the gessoed canvas. But if a picture says more than a thousand words, then Walcott's paintings have the last say. They punctuate the difference in the two modes, showing us the color and shape of island life. For all its elegant presentation, Tiepolo's Hound breaks no new ground—and every soccer player knows that the goal often comes from a surprising variation on a set play. …
I think I am still holding in my mind some sense of the form of elegance. The poetry of poetry. On the radio, the sportscaster calls the plays. In my mind's eye, I see the game unfold. Players I have come to know move on an imaginary plane. The ball laces the field. The team has found its form, the announcer says. For a moment, the game is beautiful.
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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 matched by its/her passivity. What remains is of course beautiful, but it is a beauty achieved at the expense of the person. The familiar narrative is announced in terms of her (or its) shadow, appearance rather than substance, object rather than subject:
The duel of these fishermen was over a shadow and its name was Helen.(1)
The entire poem is written in hexameters, and Helen's (or “its”) second utterance is made of a hexameter famously not her own:
“Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away,” she croons, her clear plastic sandals swung by one hand.(2)
The woman's voice is traditionally and, to us, offensively subordinated to her beauty, and it is a mere truism to say that, in Western art and literature, men act and speak, women are, and are looked at. The one who represents has been normatively male; the one represented, whether as nude or Virgin, heroine or slut, has been female, not so much, we might argue, for thematic reasons than as a function of the division between the one who represents and the one who is represented.
That division would lead us to understand that the Madonna became the dominant theme of medieval painting not as a result of an otherwise inexplicable cult of the Virgin, but as the cause of that cult: male artisans and craftsmen, charged with the task of representation, define themselves and their craft by opposition. What is represented is not craft but grace.
This constitutive division of gender between the male who represents and the female who is represented takes on a thematic rendering from the very beginning. Just as the Madonna is surrounded by male saints whose adoring gaze replicates within the pictorial space the gaze and the veneration of the (male) viewer, so Homer presents Helen not directly to the reader but as she is presented to the old men of Troy, and indirectly through their reactions:
And catching sight of Helen moving among the ramparts, they murmured one to another, gentle, winged words: “Who on earth could blame them? Ah, no wonder the men of Troy and Argives under arms have suffered years of agony all for her, for such a woman. Beauty, terrible beauty! A deathless goddess—so she strikes our eyes!”(3)
Thus, within a work of art or literature, the figure of a woman becomes a second-order work of art, admired within the work we are reading or viewing, by a male figure himself represented therein. Rather than lamenting this fact, which we may do, from a historical and political perspective, we should acknowledge that, aesthetically, the internal, represented spectator, and the internal, doubly-represented aesthetic object (the woman), make for the most intricate aesthetic and cognitive challenges. Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady (1881) is exemplary of the playful, self-reflexive and, at the same time, intensely ethical exercise in the aesthetic sacrifice of the person to the object, of the (representing) voice to the (represented) silence.
“Sacrifice” is of course a charged term, for it implies that necessity or beneficial consequence is involved. In political terms we had better say subordination, or repression, or worse. But in aesthetic terms we are right to speak of sacrifice, for it is the work of art which we honour and value even as we deplore the object-hood to which the person has been reduced or “sacrificed.” (To the extent, of course, that “the person” has any “ethical being”: here the hold of mimesis continues to cloud our thinking.)
The voice of the one who represents is strongly contrasted with the silence of the one represented: the mysterious and enigmatic silence of the Mona Lisa is emblematic of the very deed of representation. Yet there is, we should note, a difference between the figuring of silence in fiction and in poetry, especially in epic. Novelistic prose is possessed of the remarkable linguistic feature known as erlebte Rede or style indirect libre, or free indirect discourse, whereby the voice of another may be incorporated into the narrator's speech, two voices fused indistinguishably. Not only other persons, but even inanimate objects may be said to have thoughts. That is after all the point and theme of Chapter 42 of The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel in front of the fire, meditating, and apprehending all, without voicing a single word.
Free indirect discourse is not an effect to be striven for, but rather something that occurs almost inevitably with fiction. It may explain why ekphrasis, such a prestigious topos of poetry, is so seldom found in fiction. An object of description refuses in fiction to remain an object, to stay passive, but somehow answers back, becomes animated, acquires, as we say, a life and a voice of its own, interfering verbally with the narrator's voice. We see this occurring with the buildings in Dickens's London, the wind and the moorland in Wuthering Heights, Hardy's Egdon Heath, or any number of fictional landscapes. This is, one could argue, not a calculated thematic effect on the part of the novelist, so much as the result of the conjunction of “descriptive prose” and “novelistic discourse.” What is described takes on a voice—which might explain why people in “real life” are no less interesting than their fictional equivalents, while actual landscapes, cityscapes, furniture, things, are always, after and outside a novel, somewhat disappointing.
Poetry, we might say, has as its task to keep subject and object distinct because it is the literary form of Greek philosophy: Aristotle's Poetics are in some sense the guarantor of Aristotle's Metaphysics. The novel, by contrast, confuses them and us, and is the literary form of modernity, of both imperialism and democracy.
Bakhtin argues that the novel arises from the breakdown of the “classical public wholeness of the individual … A differentiation between biographical and autobiographical forms had begun.”4 In Homer, Bakhtin continues, “There was as yet no internal man, no ‘man for himself’ (I for myself), nor any individualized approach to one's own self. An individual's unity and his self-consciousness were exclusively public. … The individual was completely on the surface, in the most literal sense of the word.” In short, there is in Homer no thinking without speaking, and no speaking without addressing. There is therefore no possibility for representing silence.5 Isabel by the fire is an impossible scene in epic; it (or she) is the very consummation of the possibilities of the novel.
And what is forever refreshing in Homer is the sense of narrative without internal motivation, a narrative determined purely by external factors, the visible and the vocal. As Schiller discerned, in the discontent of his awed fascination with Homer:
even in reading, our hearts pause, and gladly detach themselves from the object in order to look within. But of all this, not a trace in Homer. … As though he possessed no heart in his bosom, he continues in his dry truthfulness.6
Our pleasure in reading novels is in part to be derived from the illusion, or the assurance, that we might have access to another person's mind and heart. The fictional representation becomes itself the best evidence (as in Schiller) for the presumption of a heart in the characters, as in the writer: a “look within.”
Such access to another's mind in fiction, rather than in epic, tends to open up also an access to the mind of things, or of the landscape: that such things or views should have a heart is no more absurd than that people should—and in fiction no more infrequent.
The novel, it is often remarked, is the most successful form of cultural export: post-colonial politics is seldom embarrassed by the novel as genre, not even by the novel as vehicle of grievance. Newly-independent nations have founded their traditions on works of fiction as Greece and Rome grounded themselves on epic. Poetry, by contrast, seems always archaic (its perpetual, designated weakness vis-a-vis the novel). Modern poetry (Eliot, Pound, David Jones) insists on its modernity by keeping up with the novel, in a process which Bakhtin labelled “novelization,” while at the same time unbarring its archaic traces. Yet, even in modernist verse, the dialogism so distinctive of the novel, and so central to the loose unstructured texture that typifies the genre, is not often to be noticed.
In Omeros we find harmony, closure, structure, thematic unity, everything that we hope to find in poetry and in epic, with none of the ironic disclaimers and compositional disruptions to which modern poetry has accustomed us. Its play with voices appears to be conventional, its distinction between diegesis and dialogue would seem recognizable to Aristotle.
“This is how, one sunrise, we cut down them canoes.” Philoctete smiles for the tourists, who try taking his soul with their cameras. “Once wind bring the news
to the laurier-canelles, their leaves start shaking the minute the axe of sunlight hit the cedars, because they could see the axes in our own eyes.
Wind lift the ferns. They sound like the sea that feed us fishermen all our life, and the ferns nodded ‘Yes, the trees have to die.’ So, fists jam in our jacket,
cause the heights was cold and our breath making feathers like the mist, we pass the rum. When it came back, it give us the spirit to turn into murderers. …”(7)
Already we find in this introductory passage a sort of phonetic or accentual disruption. The effect is dramatic, in the sense that one cannot read aloud Philoctete's speech without assuming an accent: “Wind lift the fern” is not speakable in Received Pronunciation.8 This passage is ascribed to Philoctete: by contrast, the narrator's own language, the diegesis, is always “correct.” Yet it is through the narrator's voice that we learn of “the tourists, who try taking his soul with their cameras.” The syntax is correct, but the sentiment, whether ascribed or shared, is “primitive,” as is the idea that the ferns might nod their assent. (It would be a mistake to treat this as an instance of Ruskin's “pathetic fallacy.”) On first reading, one might decode the phrase to separate our narrator from Philoctete, and to restrict to Philoctete the savage belief, of “the primitive mind,” that a photograph can steal the soul. Yet in the very next section we have the narrator's description of the chopping down of trees—playing with Horace, Satires, Book I, 8: “Olim truncus eram”—and the building of canoes, a narration uninterrupted by dialogue:
The logs gathered that thirst
for the sea which their own vined bodies were born with. Now the trunks in eagerness to become canoes ploughed into breakers of bushes, making raw holes
of boulders, feeling not death inside them, but use—(9)
Here the trees are animated even in their death, animated by a desire to be of use, and through that desire, presumably, they become canoes. We must now reconsider the poem's opening verse, because if our narrator believes this about trees, he may as well believe that the camera steals the soul.
We have already said, after Bakhtin, that the Homeric world knows no interior life or inner world, that the unity of the individual is complete on the surface. Here in Omeros we have a world full of Homeric echoes, yet one with a rich and mystifying inwardness: epic and novel combined without the obvious signs of “novelization.” And we must make explicit our view that the novel is, at the linguistic level, considerably more animistic and primitive than the Homeric epic: access to another's mind—the staple of fiction—is the very condition of animism.
Where there is inwardness, there will be echo. Where there is echo there must be an inner space, the recess of its latency.
The figure of echo is complicated. It is both outward: there is no real voice there, no presence of a person; and it is inward, in that what produces an echo must contain it.10 The figure of synecdoche is in this way a type of echo, and we see how echo poems (George Herbert's “Heaven” is a well-known example) are constructed by removing one word from within an outer enclosing word: delight/light, enjoy/joy, pleasure/leisure, persever/ever.11 Echo is thus a literal or phonetic synecdoche, a word contained within a word, part of one word that can be taken for the whole of another.
Helen's very first words in Omeros are subject to this sort of echoic repetition:
Helen said: “Girl, I pregnant, but I don't know for who.” “For who,” she heard an echoing call, as with oo's for rings a dove moaned in the manchineel.(12)
And the poem's title is unfolded in the same fashion:
A wind turns the harbour's pages back to the voice that hummed in the vase of a girl's throat: “Omeros.”
“O-meros,” she laughed. “That's what we call him in Greek,” stroking the small bust with its boxer's broken nose. …
… I said, “Omeros,”
and O was the conch-shell's invocation, mer was both mother and sea in our Antillean patois, os, a grey bone, and the white surf as it crashes
and spreads its sibilant collar on a lace shore. Omeros was the crunch of dry leaves, and the washes that echoed from a cave-mouth when the tide has ebbed.
The name stayed in my mouth.(13)
We find in this remarkable passage the word “Omeros” being emptied of its component sounds, and the word that contains—as envelope/synecdoche—is figured in “the vase of a girl's throat,” a conch-shell, a cave-mouth, and “my mouth.” Catachresis (known misleadingly as incorrect usage, or as dead metaphor) is never deliberate, and needs no motive: it is always the child of necessity.14 Yet its use here is insistent: what else can we call the entrance to a cave but its “mouth”? And what else to call “my mouth”? Other things in this poem have mouths, though they speak not: the cannon, itself an “iron log,” “mounting, mounting, until its mouth touched the very first branch” (83), and the conventional catachresis of the “cannon's mouth” (102). At first the canoes do not speak, though “their nodding prows / agreed with the waves to forget their lives as trees” (8); but when Achille is in his entranced Africa, or Lethe, “For hours the river gave the same show / for nothing, the canoe's mouth muttered its lie” (134). We attend to “the mouth of the cauldron” (246) and the mouth of sundry other vessels, one of which vessels is this craft, of poetry. The poem's dedication alerts us to this recurrent pun: “For my shipmates in this craft. …”15
The mouth is not only that through which we speak; it is the opening in any vessel, necessary if an echo is to be produced. The mouth is for both speech and echo, the sign of either a presence or an absence within the vessel. It is only by convention that words denoting parts of the human body are considered not to be catachresis, to be as it were the literal terms from which metaphor spreads, or takes off. Only by convention, by our blindness to catachresis, does a human mouth signify a presence within. Yet the mouth of a beautiful woman, aesthetically objectified, begins to resume its status as catachresis for, say, the opening of a vase.16
The same Greek girl from whom the narrator first heard the name of Homer is recalled at the end of Book 5 (out of 7), in Boston:
I climbed steps, I read buzzers, searched from the pavement again for that attic where
a curved statue had rolled black stocking down its knees, unclipped and then shaken the black rain of its hair, and “Omeros” echoed from a white-throated vase.(17)
Just a few pages later, the poet/narrator is proposing a cinematic version of this poem's story:
Cut to a woman's hands Clenched towards her mouth with no sound. Cut to the wheel of a chariot's spiked hubcap. Cut to the face
of his muscling jaw, then flashback to Achille hurling a red tin and a cutlass. Next, a vase with a girl's hoarse whisper echoing “Omeros,”
as in a conch-shell.(18)
We began with “the vase of a girl's throat” and we have arrived at “a vase with a girl's hoarse whisper”; the only mouth in this section of cuts is that to which the woman clenches her hands “with no sound.”
These transformations, in what the poet calls “my reversible world,”19 have been achieved by catachresis and synecdoche. It is worth noting that synecdoche is the very trope of reversibility, by which container may stand for contained, and vice versa. We should insist that catechresis is not “dead metaphor”—as a kind of lazy deviation from the “literal”—but rather involuntary or unmotivated metaphor; it is equally important to insist that synecdoche is a type of metonymy. We thus find, in the play of catachresis and synecdoche on the figure of the vase, an elaborated model of Roman Jakobson's theory of poetic language as the transposition of—or the interference between—the metaphoric and metonymic poles.20
Presented with the figure of a vase, we are no longer surprised at the silence of Helen—a silence which does not exclude a capacity for echo. Yet the girl-vase-vessel who speaks the name “Omeros” is an unnamed Greek girl, with Asiatic features, not the Helen of St. Lucia (that island's name, Walcott's own birth-place, is a gift to one who would claim kinship with Homer and Milton). The named, dark Helen is introduced thus, at a café:
I felt like standing in homage to a beauty
that left, like a ship [vessel], widening eyes in its wake. “Who the hell is that?” a tourist near my table asked a waitress. The waitress said, “She? She too proud!”
As the carved lids of the unimaginable ebony mask unwrapped from its cotton-wool cloud, the waitress sneered, “Helen.” And all the rest followed.
Among its many senses, that last sentence almost caps, by its own subtle echo, Yeats's astonishing half-line:
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower, And Agamemnon dead.
The indirect presentation of Helen by way of the tourists and the waitress accords with Lessing's observation that Helen's beauty is not described directly but must be inferred from the responses of those around her.21
Walcott's presentation of his Helen is not only indirect, but it makes explicit its means of indirection, its masks, shadows, and echoes:
I saw her once after that moment on the beach when her face shook my heart, and that incredible stare paralysed me past any figure of speech,
when, because they thought her moods uncontrollable, her tongue too tart for a waitress to take orders, she set up shop: beads, hair-pick, and trestle-table …
Her carved face flickering with light-wave patterns cast
among the coconut masks, the coral earrings reflected the sea's patience. Once, when I passed her shadow mixed with those shadows, I saw the rage
of her measuring eyes, and felt again the chill of a panther hidden in the dark of its cage that drew me towards its shape as it did Achille.
I stopped, but it took me all the strength in the world to approach her stall, as it takes for a hunter to approach a branch were a pantheress lies curled
with leaf-light on its black silk. To stand in front of her and pretend I was interested in the sale of a mask or a T-shirt? Her gaze looked too bored,
and just as a pantheress stops swinging its tail to lightly leap into grass, she yawned and entered a thicket of palm-printed cloth, while I stood there
stunned by that feline swiftness, by the speed of her vanishing, and behind her, trembling air divided by her echo that shook like a reed.(22)
The insistence on echo and shadow is, however, not just a tribute to Homeric indirection. It also gives us a clue to a further complexity, for Omeros seems to rank itself among those recensions of the Homeric story that suppose Helen to have been a figment: “Helen the Eidolon or ‘Phantom,’ whose story is that there was no such story.”23 There are two Helens in Omeros, the named black girl, and the unnamed Greek one. The poem thus exploits the non-Homeric story, first told by Stesichorus, mentioned by Herodotus and Euripides, treated by Sophocles in Philoctetes,24 and twice cited by Plato in the Phaedrus, that is was only a phantom, a mask, a shadow that caused the trouble between Menelaus and Paris, and that the real, substantial Helen stayed all the while in Egypt. This tradition was given renewed life by Flaubert in The Temptation of St. Antony, where her presence is conjured into being by Simon Magus. That, incidentally, should give a clue to Helen's presence in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus: as a vision, a shadow, a phantom, she is there less for her beauty than for her “conjurability.” Ernst Bloch suggests that the motivation of the myth may be ascribed to the absolute or utopian hope which can be vested only outside of objective reality.25 The one serious attempt in modern English literature to address this theme is H. D.'s much-neglected Helen in Egypt published in 1961, whose prefatory note is worth citing at length:
We all know the story of Helen of Troy but few of us have followed her to Egypt. How did she get there? Stesichorus of Sicily in his Pallinode, was the first to tell us. Some centuries later, Euripides repeats the story. Stesichorus was said to have been struck blind because of his invective against Helen, but later was restored to sight, when he reinstated her in his Pallinode. … According to the Pallinode, Helen was never in Troy. She had been transposed or translated from Greece into Egypt. Helen of Troy was a phantom, substituted for the real Helen, by jealous deities. The Greeks and the Trojans alike fought for an illusion.26
And H. D.'s poem takes up the theme of the phantom, shadow, reflection:
Alas, my brothers, Helen did not walk upon the ramparts,
she whom you cursed was but the phantom and the shadow thrown of a reflection(27)
The two Helens in Omeros, Asiatic and African, Greek and Egyptian, seem to be shades, if one can put it so, of the dark and fair Iseults of the Tristan legend:
You were never in Troy, and, between two Helens,
yours is here and alive; their classic features were turned into silhouettes from the lightning bolt of a glance. These Helens are different creatures,
one marble, one ebony. …
but each draws an elbow slowly over her face and offers the gift of her sculptured nakedness, parting her mouth.(28)
And where there are two, there is not one original and one copy; or if there are, we cannot tell the copy from the original, the shadow from the form that casts it. It is the predicament of Narcissus:
He [Achille] brooded on the river. The canoe at its pole, doubled by its stillness, looked no different from its reflection, nor the pier stakes, nor the thick trees inverted at the riverline, but the shadow-face
swayed by the ochre ripples seemed homesick for the history ahead, as if its proper place lay in unsettlement. So, to Achille, it appeared
they were not one reflection but separate men—(29)
Nor can we tell from the shadow whether it is cast by flesh or marble:
any statue is a greater actor than its original by its longer shadow(30)
and “Only silhouettes last.”31 We might speculate that the confusion occasioned by reflection is not unlike, and may itself reflect, the impossibility of ascribing identity to voices in the free indirect discourse of dialogism.32
Helen is employed as a maid by the Plunketts, an expatriate couple, he a retired Major who fought with Montgomery in North Africa, she (Maud) of Irish origin: Plunkett serves the function of the internalized male gaze, the represented gaze of admiration and desire which makes of Helen a representation within a representation. Helen, as seen by the Major, is described in terms of her shadow, and in terms of the confusion, or identity, between her shadow and herself:
he could see her shadow through the sheets of laundry and since she and her shadow were the same, the sun behind her often made her blent silhouette seem
The next time we see Helen, through the eyes of the fisherman, Achille, the presentation is slightly different, for it is the shadow rather than the body that is possessed of agency:
It was still moonlight, and the moonlight filled the sheen
of the nightgown she entered like water as her pride shook free of the neck. He saw the lifted wick shine on the ebony face, and the shadow she made
on the wall. Now the shadow unpinned one earring, its head tilted, and smiled. It was in a good mood. It checked its teeth in a mirror, he watched it bring
the mirror close to its eyes.
What is a shadow but an entirely exteriorized body, a body without inwardness, without a mind? “A shadow of himself,” we say of someone numbed to silence. Yet this shadow is substantial, a body. As we have watched the transformation of an echo into the vase from which it issued, so we witness here a shadow becoming its own substance. Insubstantiality has been transformed into statuesque solidity, by the reversibility of synecdoche, and by the doubling of metonymy.
Shadows, like reflections, should be given privileged linguistic status, for they involve both likeness and proximity, both metaphor and metonymy. That is to say, there are two necessary conditions for shadows and reflections: that the shadow or reflection resemble what causes it, and that the shadow or reflection exist only in proximity to or in contiguity with that which is its cause. Nothing else visually, apart from shadows and reflections, so insists on the holding together of the metaphoric and the metonymic.34
Yet if we leave the spatial, visual field, and enter into the acoustic and temporal realm (the world of those under the patronage of St. Lucia), we must admit, to a most exclusive linguistic club, the echo. The condition of membership is that the phonetic effect depends on both resemblance and contiguity. The echo must acoustically resemble the word which is its cause, and it must fade, pine away into non-being, when not in proximity to its cause. As the twoness of the original and the copy (in the visual-spatial world) leads, duplicitously, to a confusion between them, or (same thing) to an identity of one with the other, so (in the aural-temporal world) an echo after a voice makes it hard to tell voice and echo apart.
Again we listen in to the acoustic chain of echoes, and understand why the echo issues from a container, and why that container has a throat. And we can attempt an answer to the sharp question posed by Maud Plunkett:
What was it in men that made such beauty evil?
Beauty (the feminine, the represented) is objectified, silenced, permitted only to echo the male voice. Yet this is no simple tale of the oppressors and the oppressed. As we are also told: no colony can be free of the Empire's guilt. If every poem is an echo, then all our cultural and aesthetic training teaches us to look for echoes, whether we are post-colonial poets or expatriate retired officers:
He [Plunkett] found his Homeric coincidence. “Look, love, for instance, near sunset, on April 12, hear this, the Ville de Paris
struck her colours to Rodney. Surrendered. Is this chance or an echo? Paris gives the golden apple, a war is fought for an island called Helen?”(35)
Plunkett, the British expatriate, decides that their maid, Helen, is part of the pattern of echoes:
If she hid in their net of myths, knotted entanglements
of figures and dates, she was not a fantasy but a webbed connection. …(36)
He undertakes his historical research on the War of the Antilles precisely out of his fascination not with Helen “herself” (he would not admit to that sort of improper personal interest) but with Helen as figure and echo:
So Plunkett decided that what the place needed was its true place in history, that he'd spend hours for Helen's sake on research.(37)
Our narrator, a native of the islands, in contrast to Plunkett, is complicit with Plunkett in the silencing of Helen, even in “Not his, but her story. Not theirs, but Helen's war.”38 For even the concession of “Not his, but her story” will only place her in the focus of his gaze, so that Plunkett will enact yet again the representation of Helen as the type of beauty. It is men who make the beauty evil by representing it, though they have little choice when representation is figured as a masculine craft, and when our entire civilisation endorses the echoing of aesthetic values.
Meditating on the vase as the figure for Helen in Omeros one is tempted to outline a topos with a tradition: the vase as the figure of the silenced woman. Keats's urn is the epitome of the silent: “Thou still unravished bride of quietness, / Thou foster-child of silence and slow time.” Its compound synecdoche (unseen emptiness of town, unseen emptiness of unseen urn) makes silence both reflective and contained, as if we might one morning hear an echo of silence:
What little town, by river or sea shore, or mountain-built with peaceful citadel, Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And its punning catachresis: “O Attic shape! Fair attitude!” guides us echoically to hear an apostrophe to Helen in:
Thou, silent form, dost tease us. … out of thought As doth Eternity …
Browning's “The Statue and the Bust” (one of the few English poems in consistent terza rima, to which Walcott's poem alludes and from which it strikes echoes) knows almost too well what is involved in the animation of art:
The true has no value beyond the sham: As well the counter as coin. …
Browning's example would be indispensable for Henry James's portraits and representations. We should also invoke Stevens's “Anecdote of the Jar” in this line of figuration whose argument is that the vase, shapely, beautiful woman, is the woman portrayed, and thereby silenced. A singularly clear instance, transparent in its own almost embarrassing directness, is William Cowper's ode “On the Receipt of my Mother's Picture Out of Norfolk” which opens precisely with a lament at the silence of the woman portrayed:
Oh that those lips had language! Life has passed With me but roughly since I heard the last. Those lips are thine—thy own sweet smiles I see, The same that oft in childhood solaced me; Voice only fails, else how distinct they say, “Grieve not, my child. …”
The unspeaking lips of a portrait are not far from the unspeaking lips, and the throat, of a vase. Most dramatically, there is in The Winter's Tale the transubstantiation of Hermoine—not a transformation, for her shape, her outline, her silhouette, that which would cast a shadow, remains unchanged. The negation of the difference between that which lives and that which is its copy, between object and subject, between voice and echo, is most poignantly posed in Leontes's question:
What fine chisel Could ever yet cut breath?(39)
(A question which we may have heard echoed in “the trembling air / divided by her echo.”) The cutting of breath—the manifestation and utterance of animation—is forever beyond the artist's power, an enduring taunt of artistic futility.
But it is equally impossible to pursue the opposite line, to see the world artlessly, without figures, beyond figuration. Just as the narrator of Omeros is unable to forget Homer:
When would it stop, the echo in the throat, insisting, “Omeros”; when would I enter that light beyond metaphor?(40)
For three years, phantom hearer, I kept wandering to a voice hoarse as winter's echo in the throat of a vase!(41)
so the narrator is unable to see the Plunketts's black maid as merely a woman, whose name is merely her name, without echo or resonance.
The narrator again acknowledges the similarities between Plunkett and himself—what all men share—similarities that extend to the research of the one and the epic of the other:
Plunkett, in his innocence,
had tried to change History to a metaphor, in the name of a housemaid; I, in self-defence, altered her opposite. Yet it was all for her.
Except we had used two opposing stratagems in praise of her and the island; cannonballs rolled in the fort grass were not from Olympian games,
nor the wine-bottle, crusted with its fool's gold, from the sunken Ville de Paris, legendary emblems; nor all their names the forced coincidence
we had made them. There, in her head of ebony, there was no real need for the historian's remorse, nor for literature's. Why not see Helen
as the sun saw her, with no Homeric shadow, swinging her plastic sandals on that beach alone, as fresh as the sea-wind?(42)
The sun, light, St. Lucia, is matched by the sea, mer, for these are the inhuman elements of light and life, innocent of human tradition, culture, memory, aesthetics, poetics:
The ocean had
no memory of the wanderings of Gilgamesh, or whose sword severed whose head in the Iliad. It was an epic where every line was erased
yet freshly written in sheets of exploding surf. … It never altered its metre to suit the age, a wide page without metaphors.(43)
A world without metaphors, humanity as free of figures as the sea and the sun would be, were they “truly” represented: the desire for this is the theme rehearsed with elegant obsessiveness by Wallace Stevens. The peculiar fun of Stevens's poetry lies in its cheerful confidence in its own failure to reach “that light beyond metaphor,” that one can practise for ever and without risk a poetic quest whose goal is securely unattainable:
The poem of pure reality, untouched By trope or deviation.(44)
Yet, in Stevens, one cannot desist, and one must look down on those who abandon the quest. Likewise in Walcott, the recognition that one's subject has been objectified is of no help at all in restoring the subject, in seeing the person (in Arnoldian phrase) as in herself she really is. Tropes objectify, but they alone make representation and knowledge possible; at their most subtle, intricate, devious, the trope of echo transforms a woman into a vase, herself/itself both sculpture and echo. The poet's question:
Why not see Helen as the sun saw her, with no Homeric shadow, swinging her plastic sandals on that beach alone … ?
may then serve as a most luminous gloss on Stevens's disdain for Mrs. Pappadopoulos, “So-and-So Reclining on her Couch,” who is heard to say:
One walks easily The unpainted shore, accepts the world As anything but sculpture. Good-bye, Mrs. Pappadopoulos, and thanks.
One cannot walk the unpainted shore, any more than one can see what the sun sees, or follow the rhythm of the ocean. Nor can one figure a beautiful woman as anything but a reflection of Helen and an echo of Homer—a vase, with a throat, an echo-chamber, or an echo-chamber-maid. More disturbing is the converse: one can hardly figure anything except as a woman. We might say, recalling Bakhtin, that the condition of primal epic is precisely to be free from echo, and that “novelization” takes over as soon as echo is heard. With echo all language becomes potentially parodic. Echo is the first parody, and the novel begins in parody. Epic is the vase, whose echo is the novel. That is the irreversible synecdoche, that Walcott must follow Homer, must be contained within Homer, to be detached and individualized only as an echo. They meet, climatically, and Omeros, or rather his marble bust, speaks:
“Love is good, but the love of your own people is
“Yes,” I said. “That's why I walk behind you. Your name in her throat's white vase sent me to find you.”(45)
And as Walcott comes after Homer, he becomes himself as the woman or the child to the originary voice of the man:
And my cheeks were salt with tears, but those of a boy, and he saw how deeply I had loved the island.
And Omeros nodded: “We will both praise it now.” But I could not before him. My tongue was a stone at the bottom of the sea, my mouth a parted conch
from which nothing sounded. …(46)
As for those plastic sandals, even such a banal detail holds echoes that reverberate through the poem. The plasticity belongs of course with the metamorphic, Ovidian theme. And one may venture that Helen carries or wears sandals for the same reason that monastics wear them. The silence that Helen shares with monastics may be, in an unfigured sense, mere coincidence, but there is a deep logic in catachresis: a sandal, unlike a shoe, has no tongue.
By contrast, the women carrying coal are not objects of aesthetic representation, though, in an echo of Helen on the ramparts, it is an old man, the poet's father, who “spoke for those Helens of an earlier time”:
The carriers were women, not the fair, gentler sex. Instead, they were darker and stronger, and their gait was made beautiful by balance. …(47)
In a remarkable elaboration of the metaphorics of poetic metre, the poet's father assigns the task:
Kneel to your load, then balance your staggering feet and walk up that coal ladder as they do in time, one bare foot after the next in ancestral rhyme. …
Look, they climb, and no one knows them; they take their copper pittances, and your duty
from the time you watched them from your grandmother's house as a child wounded by their power and beauty is the chance you now have, to give those feet a voice.
Even to those women, slaves, victims, the exploited and, for all their treading, the down-trodden, can a voice be given. But to Helen, to fair Helen, the beautiful, the aesthetic, the very type and first occasion of representation, no voice can be given: throughout western history, from Homer to Omeros, the representation of beauty depends on a central cavernous silence. In tongueless plastic sandals lurks an echo of many scandals.
Derek Walcott, Omeros (London: Faber, 1990), Book One, Chapter III, Part I, p. 17.
Omeros, Book One, Chapter VI, Part II, p. 34.
Homer, The Iliad, translated by Robert Fagles (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990), pp. 133–34 (Book III, lines 185–190).
M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, edited by Michael Holquist (Austin, TX and London: University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 133.
See G. E. Lessing's discussion of inarticulate noise (rather than of silence) in the “piteous outcries” and “whimperings” in the Philoctetes of Sophocles: “whole long lines full of papa, papa … which must have been declaimed with quite other hesitations and drawings-out of utterance than are needful in a connected speech.” Laocoön, translated by W. A. Steel in Laocoön, Nathan the Wise, Minne von Barnhelm (London: Dent, 1930), ch. 1, p. 7. Sophocles's Philoctetes treats of the “shadow-Helen”; see nn. 23–6. For a useful account of the role of Philoctete in Omeros, see Carol Dougherty, “Homer after Omeros: Reading a H/Omeric Text,” in Gregson Davis, ed., The Poetics of Derek Walcott: Intertextual Perspectives, special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 96, no. 2 (Spring 1997), pp. 339–47.
Friedrich Schiller, “Naive and Sentimental Poetry,” in Naive and Sentimental Poetry and On the Sublime: Two Essays, translated by Julias A. Elias (New York: Ungar, 1966), p. 109.
Omeros, Book One, Chapter I, Part I, p. 3.
As Walcott himself has noted of the poem's opening line: “There are people at Oxford, or Harvard maybe, who are going to have to read this thing [line repeated in broad Creole accent]. And then I said, yes, that's how it has to be—but the Empire doesn't give in that easily.” “Reflections on Omeros” (edited transcript of lecture given at Duke University on 19 April 1995), in Gregson Davis, ed., The Poetics of Derek Walcott, p. 246.
Omeros, Book One, Chapter I, Part II, p. 7.
See, more than once, John Hollander, The Figure of Echo: A Mode of Allusion in Milton and After (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1981).
One of the most memorable, if not the most delicate of these envelope-words, a visual rather than acoustic echo-pair, is Humbert Humbert's: “The rapist was Charlie Holmes; I am the therapist.” Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1955), Part 2, chapter 1, p. 147; see also Part 1, chapter 27, p. 112.
Omeros, Book One, Chapter VI, Part I, p. 34.
Omeros, Book One, Chapter II, Part III, p. 14.
For an excellent discussion of catachresis, see Jean-Jacques Lecercle, The Violence of Language (London: Routledge, 1990), pp. 55–60.
See also Omeros, Book Six, Chapter XLV, Part II, p. 227: “My craft required the same / crouching care …” and Book Seven, Chapter LVIII, Part II, p. 291: “a desk is a raft / for one, foaming with paper, and dipping the beak // of a pen in its foam, while an actual craft / carries the other. …” Note how “craft” generates from within, by an echo-rhyme, its own metaphorical “vehicle,” “raft”; and see, on “c/raft,” Carol Dougherty, “Homer after Omeros,” p. 353.
See the outstanding essay by Owen Barfield, “The Meaning of Literal” in The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1977), pp. 32–43. What Barfield calls the achieved literal—“literalness is a quality which some words have achieved. … it is not a quality with which the first words were born” (p. 41)—we will call catachresis.
Omeros, Book Five, Chapter XLIII, Part III, p. 219.
Omeros, Book Six, Chapter XLV, Part III, p. 230.
The “reversible world” translates “le monde renversé,” a term often associated with the Baroque, ultimately to be derived from Baltasar Gracian. See Barbara Babcock, ed., The Reversible World: Symbolic Inversion in Art and Society (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978).
On Jakobson, metaphor and metonymy, see Charles Lock, “Debts and Displacements: on Metaphor and Metonymy,” Acta Linguistica Hafniensia (C. A. Reitzel, Copenhagen: special issue on Roman Jakobson), Vol. 29 (1997), pp. 321–37.
G. E. Lessing, Laocoön, ch. 21, p. 79, and n. 5 above. See also Bakhtin, Dialogic Imagination, p. 351.
Omeros, Book One, Chapter VI, Part III, pp. 36–7. This passage exemplifies Lessing's account of Homer's technique: “Homer, I find, paints nothing but continuous actions, and all bodies, all single things, he paints only by their share in those actions, and in general only by one feature,” Laocoön, ch. 16, p. 56.
In the phrase of Gregory Nagy, “Foreword” to Norman Austin, Helen of Troy and Her Shameless Phantom (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), p. xi. Austin's work provides the most thorough scholarly treatment of the topic.
Walcott discloses: “… to have Philoctete as a character, although Philoctetes is not, as far as I remember, a major character in the Odyssey, is to have a play by Sophocles jamming with a poem by Homer.” “Reflections on Omeros,” p. 242.
Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, translated by Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice and Paul Knight (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986), Volume One, pp. 184–86.
H. D., Helen in Egypt (New York: Grove Press, 1961; New York: New Directions, 1974), p. 1. H. D. died on 27 September 1961, just after the poem's publication: see The Letters of John Cowper Powys to Frances Gregg, edited by Oliver M. Wilkinson (London: Cecil Woolf, 1994), Volume One, p. 237. A popular treatment of this theme was a romantic novel, The World's Desire (1890), written by Andrew Lang and H. Rider Haggard. The collaboration was initiated when Lang had written to Haggard: “I can't feel quite certain that Helen ever went to Troy. In Herodotus and Euripides only her shadow goes.” See Roger Lancelyn Green, Andrew Lang: A Critical Biography (Leicester, UK: Edmund Ward, 1946), pp. 124–37. It is reported by the Egyptian poet M. M. Badawi that the English poet and scholar John Heath-Stubbs, while working in Alexandria from 1955 to 1958, wrote a verse-drama, “Helen in Egypt,” “of which a dramatic reading was given before its publication in the house of a friend”; I have not been able to locate a copy of this work. See Aquarius, no. 10 (“in honour of John Heath-Stubbs,” 1978), pp. 25–7.
H. D., Helen in Egypt, p. 5. The link between Omeros and H. D.'s Helen in Egypt has been made by Charlotte S. McClure in “Helen of the ‘West Indies’: History or Poetry of a Caribbean Realm,” Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. XXVI, no. 2 (Fall 1993), pp. 15–6.
Omeros, Book Seven, Chapter LXII, Part II, p. 313.
Omeros, Book Three, Chapter XXVI, Part II, p. 141.
Omeros, Book Five, Chapter XLI, Part III, p. 210.
Omeros, Book One, Chapter VI, Part I, p. 33.
That Bakhtin's “dialogism” corresponds in large part to free indirect discourse may be deduced from V. N. Volosinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, translated by L. Matejka and I. R. Titunik (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986); see Charles Lock, “Double Voicing, Sharing Words: Bakhtin's Dialogism and the History of the Theory of Free Indirect Discourse” in the journal Dialogics (Sheffield, UK), forthcoming.
Omeros, Book Two, Chapter XVIII, Part II, p. 97.
Further on shadows, see Charles Lock, “A Returning of Shadows,” Literary Research/Recherche Littéraire (No. 29: Spring-Summer 1998), pp. 15–26.
Omeros, Book Two, Chapter XIX, Part I, p. 100; see also Book One, Chapter V, Part III, p. 31: “the island was once / named Helen; its Homeric association // rose like smoke from a siege.”
Omeros, Book Two, Chapter XVIII, Part I, p. 95; “webbed” plays and plies between text as texture and Zeus as swan, whose copulation with Leda engendered Helen of Troy.
Omeros, Book One, Chapter XI, Part I, p. 64.
Omeros, Book One, Chapter V, Part III, p. 30.
Shakespeare, The Winter's Tale, Act V, scene iii, line 78.
Omeros, Book Six, Chapter LXIV, Part III, p. 271.
Omeros, Book Seven, Chapter LXIV, Part II, p. 323.
Omeros, Book Six, Chapter LIV, Part II, p. 271.
Omeros, Book Seven, Chapter LIX, Part I, pp. 295–96.
Wallace Stevens, “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” ix.
Omeros, Book Seven, Chapter LVI, Part III, p. 284.
Omeros, Book Seven, Chapter LVII, Part I, p. 286.
Omeros, Book One, Chapter XIII, Part II, p. 74.
I am grateful to Line Henriksen for bibliographical assistance in the preparation of this essay.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2293
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 Metaphysical poets because they reminded him of Laforgue and Corbière.
Graves, on the other hand, was linked to Marvell as though by natural right, as direct inheritor of a peculiarly English lyric tradition: classical, witty, idiosyncratic, pure. It was this tradition that Walcott had absorbed as a student in the British West Indies: “Like any colonial child,” he wrote in his essay “The Muse of History,” “I was taught English literature as my natural inheritance. Forget the snow and daffodils. They were real, more real than the heat and oleander, perhaps, because they lived on the page, in imagination, and therefore in memory.”
The British Empire may have had many failings, but in its glory days no one was sent out to administer the Pax Britannica without a solid grounding in the classics, and the colonial schools and colleges benefited accordingly. Walcott himself has said that his education “must have ranked with the finest in the world. The grounding was rigid—Latin, Greek, and the essential masterpieces, but there was this elation of discovery.” It was also, by modern standards, sternly old-fashioned. At Oxford, fifty years ago, English literature stopped at the death of Keats, and I assume it was to different at the University of the West Indies. If you were interested in what followed or—God forbid—in contemporary writing itself, you read it on your own time.
Walcott was indeed interested and duly served his apprenticeship with Eliot and Auden, but his heart wasn't in it. He is not an experimental poet and has never been easy with the fast-talking, hard-edged high anxiety that gives the Modernist writers their peculiar sense of strain. His natural style is melodious, meditative, and even-paced, closer to Yeats than to Eliot or Pound, closer still to the Victorians—closer, in fact, to grand Victorians like Tennyson and Arnold than to their maverick proto-Modernist contemporaries like Clough and Hopkins.
Walcott has something else in common with these earlier masters: he writes long poems, poems with plots and characters and intricate philosophical themes. The long poem is not an art form that has fared well in the last hundred or so years. Pound tried it because he was determined to write the Great American Poem but—to me, at least—the Cantos are a gigantic magpie's nest stuffed with shiny objects, more like the journal of an eccentric scholar than an epic, and with no more inherent structure than, say, Berryman's daybook of griefs and gripes and hangovers, the Dream Songs. The most important long poem of the twentieth century is The Waste Land, though it is not long by Victorian standards; it runs to a mere 433 lines, and Eliot is said to have added the endnotes in order to pad the thing out to book-length. In other words, The Waste Land is a short poem that feels long because it traverses such a dense inner space.
Walcott has never been interested in that kind of jagged compression. His abiding preoccupations are complex and contemporary—exile, alienation, and the troublesome area where black culture and identity meet white—but he deals with them from an aesthetic distance and his plangent, ruminative tone of voice needs length in which to flourish. He is also a craftsman, a sophisticated technician who likes to ring changes on that most traditional of meters, the iambic pentameter, and is fascinated by rhymes, half-rhymes, and assonance. Although his work itself is in no way old-fashioned, it seems, like his classical education, to belong to a steadier, more spacious period before poetry became a specialized, minority interest and was, instead, as much a part of the general culture as the novel. You simply read it differently: silently but out loud, as it were, for the civilized and civilizing pleasure of listening to the music in your head.
Omeros (1990), Walcott's Caribbean variations on Homeric themes, is a long book—350 pages of terza rima.Tiepolo's Hound, which is also written in a technically demanding form—alternatively rhymed couplets, a/b//a/b—is only half that length, but it is complex and multilayered, and it evolves slowly, like a novel. It is a poem about exile and obsession and art, and it explores these themes through the stories of two lives, Walcott's and Camille Pissarro's told in parallel, each illuminating the other.
They make a good pair: born in the West Indies exactly one hundred years apart and self-exiled to colder climates, two craftsmen doggedly devoted to their art and working against the current fashions. Both of them were outsiders from the start—children with talent and ambition in indolent backwaters, internal exiles whether they left home or stayed put. Their family backgrounds added to the confusion. Pissarro's was Sephardic Portuguese in what was then the little Danish colony of St. Thomas, in the Antilles, and he moved to the France when anti-Semitism was about to erupt in the Dreyfus affair. Walcott arrived in the States at the height of the civil rights movement and his beginnings were even more complicated than Pissarro's. His peculiarly English education, he once wrote, meant that “my generation had looked at life with black skins and blue eyes,” but that was only half the story. His father was an Englishman, his mother West Indian; they were middle-class, English-speaking, and Methodist in a British colony, St. Lucia, where the fishermen and peasants were Catholic and spoke Creole French. Walcott eventually came to regard his complex heritage as a source of strength:
I'm just a red nigger who love the sea, I had a sound colonial education, I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me, and either I'm nobody, or I'm a nation.
But that wry confidence didn't come easily and the contradictions he was born to haunt his work.
The exile always carries his homeland with him, though not necessarily as a paradise lost. Walcott is particularly eloquent about the way Pissarro's tropical childhood enhanced the chilly beauty of Paris and made it delectable, sharpening his appetite, modulating his palette, opening his eyes to a different order of light:
O, the exclamation of white roses, of a wet grey day of glazed pavements, the towers
in a haze of Notre Dame's silhouette in the Easter drizzle, lines banked with flowers
and umbrellas flowering, then bobbing like mushrooms in the soup-steaming fog! Paris looked edible:
salads of parks, a bouillabaisse of fumes from the steaming trees in the incredible
fragrance of April …
Walcott writes about painting subtly and with insight because it, too, is part of his inheritance. His father was a civil servant who painted in his spare time, but he died when the poet was a baby and Walcott got to know him by poring over the handful of paintings and art books which he left behind:
From my father's cabinet I trace his predecessors in a small blue book: The English Topographical Draughtsmen.
his pencil studies delicately firm as theirs, the lyrical, light precision of these craftsmen—
Girton, Sandby, and Cotman, Peter De Wint, meadows with needle spires in monochrome,
locks and canals with enormous clouds that went rolling over England, postcards from home,
his namesake's county, Warwickshire. His own work was a double portrait, a cherished oval
of his wife in oil, his own face, with a soft frown that seemed to clarify the gentle evil
of an early death. A fine sketch of a cow, a copy of Millet's The Gleaners, Turner's
The Fighting Téméraire, the gathering blow of a storm with tossing gulls, more than a learner's
skill in them, more than mimicry, a gift.
“These objects had established my vocation,” Walcott wrote in a 1965 essay called “Leaving School,” “and made it as inevitable as that of any craftsman's son, for I felt that my father's work, however minor, was unfinished.”
Walcott duly took over where his father had left off. He started out as a painter as well as a poet and continued painting long after his literary reputation was established Tiepolo's Hound is illustrated by a not particularly relevant selection of his watercolors, and on the back of the book is a photograph of the handsome young poet at his ease. Walcott's pictures are bright and delicate and pleasing, but they have none of the authority of his verse, as he himself readily admitted in an interview on British television:
There's a very big difference between someone who can paint pretty well and somebody who's a painter. … It's how the paint is moved along recklessly, you know, without any caution. And although I can paint pretty competent water-colours I just don't have that bursting confidence. … It's all very Methodist.
Methodist and also methodical: he is, by temperament, a devoted craftsman who studied the masters and labored at his technique, and not just when he was learning to paint. Even now, as a mature poet, he goes out of his way to make things difficult for himself, setting himself technical goals—book-length poems in tricky rhyme schemes—that few other contemporary poets would even attempt. But craft is only a necessary first step. The amateur painters labor to acquire it, but true artists, like Pissarro, take it for granted. For them, technical assurance and economy become something more mysterious: an instinct for the precise brushstroke in the precise place that brings an image suddenly to life.
This mystery is the dominant theme of Tiepolo's Hound. Walcott sensed it first at an art show in New York:
I remember stairs in couplets. The Metropolitan's marble authority, I remember being
stunned as I studied the exact expanse of a Renaissance feast, the art of seeing.
Then I caught a slash of pink on an inner thigh of a white hound entering the cave of a table,
so exact in its lucency at The Feast of Levi, I felt my heart halt. Nothing, not the babble
of the unheard roar that rose from the rich pearl-lights embroidered on ballooning sleeves,
sharp beards, and gaping goblets, matched the bitch nosing a forest of hose. So a miracle leaves
its frame, and one epiphanic detail illuminates an entire epoch …
This moment of revelation became the poet's obsession, as though by studying the single slash of color that made Tiepolo's “spectral hound” leap out of the frame he could unravel the mystery of genius. The trouble was, he could never find the picture again, however diligently he visited exhibitions and trawled through art books:
I riffled through the derisive catalogue determined that the fact was not a vision.
(The dog, the dog, where was the fucking dog?) Their postures wrong. Nothing confirmed my vision.
He even made a pilgrimage to Venice, but grudgingly, with his patience wearing thin:
Devoted as a candle to its church, the thigh flared steadily, more affliction
than quest now, I would end my search …
Cowardice, stubbornness, indifference made too much of the whiteness of the hound …
When he drew a blank in Venice it occurred to him that maybe he had mistaken the artist; the creature was Veronese's, not Tiepolo's. So he started over, again to no avail. And the more he searched, the deeper the mystery became.
Walcott tells this story in tandem with Pissarro's as two versions of the same quest, one misguided and frustrating, the other resolved, though not in the heart-stopping way Walcott would have predicted when he first saw Tiepolo's hound. For Walcott, Pissarro represents genius without flamboyance, the artist as craftsman, plugging away at his vision of light—light in Paris, light in Pontoise, endless subtle variations on a single luminous theme, “so modest, so sublime!” His life was bleak and impoverished, his paintings didn't sell, and only a handful of fellow artists recognized his gift. In old age, his hands were crippled by arthritis and he was almost blind, but he went on painting to the very end.
This is the secret Walcott was looking for: stubborn persistence allied to craftsmanship so habitual and refined that it becomes an instinct, a way of seeing; not the sudden flash of inspiration or High Renaissance drama, but a steady devotion to the world as it is:
some critics think his work is ordinary, but the ordinary is the miracle.
Ordinary love and ordinary death, ordinary suffering, ordinary birth,
the ordinary couplets of our breath, ordinary heaven, ordinary earth.
This is cool and measured and beautiful, and perhaps that's what Walcott means by “Methodist.” In the poet's imagination Tiepolo's hound embodies the careless, flamboyant talent both he and his father lacked as painters. Pissarro's meticulous genius is less starling in comparison, but it is what Walcott is after in his new poem:
A silent city, blest with emptiness like an engraving. Ornate fretwork caves,
and the heat rising from the pitch in wires, from empty back yards with calm breadfruit leaves,
their walls plastered with silence, the same streets with the same sharp shadows, laced verandahs closed
in torpor …
Walcott is doing in words for his beloved St. Lucia what Pissarro did in paint for the French landscape—fixing it in time with “lyrical, light precision,” modestly and without fuss.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3055
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 fringes of literary society may, then, be an advantage to a poet's literary culture. He sees no reason not to converse directly with the authors he knows only from books, he does not need his passport stamped by London or New York. This is the freedom that allowed Keats, the Cockney poet, to be the most direct heir of Shakespeare; and the freedom that drove Derek Walcott, as a child on Saint Lucia, to envy a blind neighbour, thinking of “Homer and Milton in their owl-blind towers.”
Walcott's continual theme, from his first poems to his very latest, has been the struggle to reconcile that freedom with the bonds of race and history. He has seldom seemed to doubt his powers; his is an enormous gift, perhaps the greatest of any poet now alive, and his career is an almost uninterrupted progress in mastery. The doubts were rather about his place, and assailed him from both sides: the condescending exclusivity of whites, the nationalist exclusivity of blacks. His early experience of English literature was a dissonance of sympathy and mistrust:
I had entered the house of literature as a houseboy, filched as the slum child stole, as the young slave appropriated those heirlooms temptingly left with the Victorian homilies of Noli tangere.
But later, when the Antilles gained their independence and a new black ruling class took over, Walcott found himself suspect:
I had no nation now but the imagination. After the white man, the niggers didn't want me when the power swing to their side. The first chain my hands and apologize, “History”; the next said I wasn't black enough for their pride.
As Bruce King explains [in Derek Walcott: A Caribbean Life], in his extensively researched but still limited biography, Walcott's family were part of the mulatto class whose brief moment in the sun came, fortuitously, just as he was entering adulthood: “mulattos belonged to an elite below the whites and replaced them before themselves being challenged by black nationalism and those representing the poor.” Both of his grandfathers were of European descent, Dutch on the mother's side, English on the father's; both of his grandmothers were of African descent. Warwick Walcott, who died in 1931 when Derek and his twin brother Roderick were one year old, belonged to the class of “professionals, editors, journalists, teachers … [who] were likely to be mulattos”; he was also an amateur poet and painter, whose example his son both followed and fought. (This is one of many similarities between Walcott and V. S. Naipaul, whose father was also a model and a warning.) His mother Alix was also a model and a warning.) His mother Alix was a teacher in the English Methodist school—socially a commanding position on Saint Lucia, which Walcott would later call “a black French island somnolent in its Catholicism and black magic”—and, as King writes, Derek was “raised in genteel poverty while belonging to an elite.”
His sense of his status and mission was confirmed by the literary world into which he exploded, still a teenager, in 1948. The Empire was winding down, the “brown elite” emerging into positions of power; and Walcott's first, self-published book, 25 Poems, was welcomed with an enthusiasm a young poet in England or America can only imagine. A published account of a reading he gave in 1951 is representative: “the lone figure of a man standing on an intellectual promontory in the ocean of time. A solitary figure. … He may be the prophet. … In fact, we feel it in our bones.” His work was read on the BBC's Caribbean Voices programme; his verse plays were performed on several islands; in 1958, when the short-lived West Indian Federation was inaugurated, he was the natural choice to write the official pageant.
The dilemma that was to consume him, for most of his thirties and forties, was the smallness of the stage on which he received such applause. It was, as he wrote in his essay “What the Twilight Says,” “the inevitable problem of all island artists: the choice of home or exile, self-realization or spiritual betrayal of one's country.” In part, this was a financial problem: King, who seems to have had access to every cheque register and deposit book Walcott ever kept, shows how pitifully small were the fees he received from West Indian publishers and theatres. But more, it was a problem of recognition, of centrality, and so intimately bound up with questions of race, nation and history.
Walcott's fateful choice was to make America, rather than England, his second home. It was by no means an obvious decision. Politically and culturally, Saint Lucia was a British dependency—the syllabus of the University College of the West Indies, where Walcott took his BA, was imported wholesale from the University of London—and Walcott held a British passport for much of his life. If he had won Saint Lucia's one scholarship for study abroad (it went to a dentistry student instead); if a bureaucratic error hadn't blocked his postgraduate scholarship to Bristol; if, when London Magazine and Jonathan Cape began to publish him in the early 1960s, he had set his sights on London—he might well have followed the Naipaulian path. Bruce King says that “he seemed to know that staying in the West Indies was essential for his writing,” but the matter is even clearer than that: Walcott has written quite explicitly, “I felt, I knew, that if I went to England I would never become a poet.”
Instead, through the 1960s and 70s, he was drawn into New York's orbit. Robert Lowell sponsored him among the New York intellectuals, and he had some initial success off-Broadway, winning an Obie award in 1971 for his play Dream on Monkey Mountain. Farrar, Straus and Giroux became his publishing home—leading, incidentally, to a thorough confusion between the British and American editions of his books, reflected in his 1986 Collected Poems. And King shows, in great detail, how Walcott laboured to build a constituency in the US with endless, arduous, low-paying reading tours to minor colleges; he was on the road almost constantly through the late 1970s, until finally settling in Boston as a professor in 1982.
King's interest, as he admits, is primarily in the mechanics of Walcott's career: “how poets support themselves, what a literary career [means], how great publishing houses become great, how Nobel Laureates are chosen, what it would mean to try to live in the West Indies as a poet or dramatist.” He is a master of this subject; every fee Walcott received, every reading he gave, every production of his plays is catalogued here, and King's discoveries will certainly be indispensable for any future biographer. The devotion to Walcott that inspired such voluminous research is evident throughout. King is also illuminating in his focus on Walcott's “Caribbean Life,” sketching in the historical background and charting the difficult progress of his Trinidad Theatre Workshop, to which Walcott devoted so much energy, though it never achieved the financial or institutional success he hoped for. And he has uncovered some curious roads not taken—in the mid-1970s, King says, Walcott talked with the soft-core pornographer Russ Meyer about playing Jesus in a film.
Unfortunately, King has neither a talent for nor, really, an interest in literary criticism or biographical synthesis. Walcott the man appears fleetingly in this book, usually glimpsed from afar; King has a secretarial deference, and does not venture to explain or even describe Walcott's personality. His wives are similarly nullified, and his children appear almost not at all, even though Walcott has written with bitter frankness, in Omeros, about his domestic unhappiness:
All I had gotten I deserved, I now saw this,
and though I had self-contempt for my own deep pain, I lay drained in bed, like the same dry carapace I had made of others, till my turn came again.
It could not lift the heavy agonies I felt for the fatherless wanderings of my own sons, but some sorrows are like stones, and they never melt,
though our tears rain and groove them, and the other ones, the marriages dissolved like sand through the fingers, the per mea culpa that had emptied all hope …
the love I was good at seemed to have been only
the love of my craft and nature; yes, I was kind, but with such certitude it made others lonely, and with such bent industry it had made me blind.
King's avoidance of such questions is less an admirable reticence than a simple default, interrupted only by unhelpful and ominous remarks such as: “Drink, unfaithfulness, obscenity, violence, were ways for a time to tap the uncontrolled chaos of emotion, to turn his conflicts and repressions into art, as well as offering momentary relief from stress.” Certainly one is left with the impression of a difficult, proud, aggressive temperament; and though King seldom makes the connection, it is not hard to see how Walcott's circumstances could have led to occasional “drink and violence.” His responsibilities were, from his youth, crushing; he was not just writing poetry but, to a large degree, creating a culture in which that poetry could be appreciated. There were, even in cosmopolitan Trinidad where he lived for decades, no publishers for his books, no established theatres for his plays, and above all no money. And there was the terrible doubt, born of cultural and racial stereotypes, that such things could ever exist in the Caribbean. In typically oblique prose, Walcott has given a powerful portrait of his situation in the 1960s:
He alone would roll the Sisyphean boulder uphill, even if it cracked his backbone. The fuel of his ambition was no longer love but the ecstasy of nervous exhaustion and drink. … There were fights with actors coarser than anything imaginable, where exasperation reduced to tears, whose violence annihilated all self-respect. But even these explosions were better than the myth of the organic, ineradicable tsetse, the numbing fly in the mythically different blood, the myth of the uncreative, parasitic, malarial nigger, the marsh-numbed imagination that is happiest in mud.
It is not necessary to know the details of those fights and tears, and some future biographer is sure to give them; still, the near-total absence of psychology from King's book leaves it strangely numb.
More significant by far is King's failure to give the biography of Walcott's poetry. About editions, proofs, advances and reviews he is expert; about style he is casual, even lackadaisical, writing, for instance, that “I remember reading The Star-Apple Kingdom and feeling that this was the best book of poetry that had come my way in years.” When King tells us, in the first chapter, that Walcott “has continued to regard Art as imitation, a copy, in which the work of others is a model, and part of a tradition,” running together four quite distinct things—or, later, that the poet “appears to be aiming at that essentializing of immediacy, individualization, and thing-in-itself-ness that has been characteristic of many New World writers”—we know that we cannot look to him for critical insight.
The evolution of Walcott's style is the central interest of his poetry, since his themes have remained remarkably constant over his entire career. His task has been the assertion, almost by force of will, that the deficiency of the Antilles—the absence of history, except the grim chronicle of slavery and extermination—is in fact its greatest gift. The islands' natural beauty is not just the setting of Walcott's poetry, but its principle: he has always attempted to appeal over the head of history to the astonishing beauty of the Caribbean, which he proposes as a paradise out of time. (Walcott's lifelong ambition to be a painter—his latest book, Tiepolo's Hound, reproduces twenty-six of his oils and watercolours, to accompany a long poem about Camille Pissarro—is, one feels, a corollary attempt to step back from the verbal to the visual, which is universal and pre-political.) In 1947, this theme appeared in “As John to Patmos”:
This island is heaven—away from the dustblown blood of cities; See the curve of bay, watch the straggling flower, pretty is The wing'd sound of trees, the sparse-powdered sky, when lit is The night. For beauty has surrounded Its black children, and freed them of homeless ditties.
It is a remarkable poem for a seventeen-year-old to have written; its imitation of Hopkins, and the Shakespearean epithet “sparse-powdered,” are tokens of the rhythmic and plastic powers to come. But the attempt to cure the “homelessness” of the New World by claiming it as a “heaven” does not change; it can be found, fifty-three years later, in Tiepolo's Hound:
… the sun that plunges fissures in the fronds
of the feathery immortelles, on a dirt track with a horse cart for an equestrian bronze.
There is no history now, only the weather, day's wheeling light, the rising and setting
seasons: young Spring, with her wet hair gone grey the colour of forgetting
This consistency means that the interest in Walcott's poetry is less in its ideas than in its language. Generally, Walcott's abstract ideas are a little too abstract, either too vague or too schematic; he seldom prosecutes an argument from beginning to end, and in his longer narrative poems—Omeros, especially—his attention wanders from the story at hand. The essentially visual organization of many poems—the willingness to slide from image to image, idea to idea, in a series of loosely connected subordinate clauses, syntax clashing with line—can baffle the reader's attention. In keeping with his painterly attitude, it may be best to read Walcott's poems as various treatments of a single subject, like Pissarro's “300 Versions of Visions of Pontoise.”
Walcott's single greatest strength—a legacy, again, of his early, easy intercourse with the greatest poets—is his confidence to risk an elevated style. In “Ruins of a Great House,” a poem from the mid-1950s that is one of his first mature works, Shakespeare's rhetoric has not been quite assimilated; but the ambition that swallows Shakespeare whole is thrilling:
Ablaze with rage I thought, Some slave is rotting in this manorial lake, But still the coal of my compassion fought That Albion too was once A colony like ours, “part of the continent, piece of the main,” Nook-shotten, rook o'erblown, deranged By foaming channels and the vain expense Of bitter faction.
He also read Auden and Eliot early on, and through them Donne and Marvell; the result was the over-knotted ambiguities of “In a Green Night.” The real breakthrough in his style was when he came to read (and know) Robert Lowell, in the early 1960s; he has said that Lowell made him drop the capital letters from the beginning of his lines, a token of a larger informality. On a thousand less gifted poets, the influence of Life Studies was almost wholly malign, as Lowell's careful relaxation of form became mere laxity. Walcott is perhaps the only inheritor of Lowell to equal his rhetorical force, able to combine ease with strength. With his 1984 book Midsummer—whose semi-sonnet, notational form pays homage to Lowell's History and The Dolphin—Walcott came into his full powers; and it is his work of the past fifteen years, including The Arkansas Testament,Omeros,The Bounty and now Tiepolo's Hound, that makes his real stature clear. (Almost all of that work comes after his Collected Poems, making a new Complete Poems a necessity.) The Midsummer poem about the Brixton riots makes the contemporary classical, in a way that only the greatest poets can achieve:
And, for me, that closes the child's fairy tale of an antic England—fairy rings, thatched cottages fenced with dog roses, a green gale lifting the hair of Warwickshire. I was there to add some colour to the British theatre. “But the blacks can't do Shakespeare, they have no experience.” This was true. Their thick skulls bled with rancour when the riot police and the skinheads exchanged quips you could trace to the Sonnets, or the Moor's eclipse. Praise had bled my lines white of any more anger, and snow had inducted me into white fellowships, while Calibans howled down the barred streets of an empire that began with Caedmon's raceless dew, and is ending in the alleys of Brixton, burning like Turner's ships.
The distance between “nook-shotten, rook o'erblown” and “Caedmon's raceless dew” is that between an imitator of Shakespeare and a successor to Shakespeare. And Omeros, though it does not really hold together for its whole length, contains some of Walcott's best writing. The griot's song, a visionary recollection of the Middle Passage, combines richness of language with a Dantesque precision and indignation:
When inspected, our eyes showed dried fronds in their brown irises, and from our curved spines, the rib-cages radiated
like fronds from a palm-branch. Then, when the dead palms were heaved overside, the ribbed corpses floated, riding, to the white sand they remembered,
to the Bight of Benin, to the margin of Guinea. So, when you see burnt branches riding the swell, trying to reclaim the surf through crooked fingers,
after a night of rough wind by some stone-white hotel, past the bright triangular passage of the windsurfers, remember us to the black waiter bringing the bill.
A fuller account of Derek Walcott's life will have to wait for another biographer, and indeed may not be possible until he has made the final emigration. But his poetry is his true testament, the record of his victorious struggle with language and history, and the epigraph to that testament can be taken from Walcott himself: “It is the language which is the empire, and great poets are not its vassals but its princes.”
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 578
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 inherent in language and naming, the artist as exile, and the role of culture in contemporary life. Like much of his poetry, this poem excels when craft and vision coalesce with resonant exactitude, as when Walcott describes the painter Camille Pissarro's desire to leave the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, where his family had settled from Europe: “He dreaded the nightmare of remaining forever / in his uncle's odorous shed, keeping ledgers straight; / its African torpor with spasms of endeavour; / the sea's blue door locked at the end of the street.” Replete with couplets to savor, Tiepolo's Hound brilliantly encompasses narrative and lyric, impersonal history and intimate examination of the personal life.
In Tiepolo's Hound Walcott examines two lives, Pissarro's and his own. On an early visit to New York, Walcott viewed a painting by either Tiepolo or Veronese, and this formative event propels a narrative about Pissarro and Walcott's shared experience of exile, artistic achievement, and living “a divided life” between the cultural influence of Europe and the Caribbean: “Then I caught a slash of pink on the inner thigh / of a white hound entering the cave of a table, / so exact in its lucency at The Feast of Levi, / I felt my heart halt.” As much as this introduction to “the art of seeing,” to finding something miraculous in the ordinary detail, stirs Walcott's passions, a sense of loss also inspires his poem: “because even as I write, / … I have never found / its image again, a hound in astounding light. / Everything blurs.” Walcott focuses on the life of Pissarro and on his own efforts to rediscover the pleasure, insight, and inspiration he found when he saw Tiepolo's hound; but he also writes about the social and artistic world of the Impressionists, and delineates the influence of painters—masters like Tiepolo, Veronese, Pissarro, Gauguin, and amateurs like Walcott's father—on his own progress as painter and poet.
For all this book's attention to the historical, social, and personal dimensions of art—which is augmented by reproductions of Walcott's painting of Caribbean landscapes and social scenes—Walcott reaches most deeply into his and the reader's heart when he reflects with calm and devastating clarity on his residual doubts, failures, and longings for an art greater than his poetry already is: “There is another book that is the shadow / of my hand on this sunlit page, the one / I have tried hard to write, but let this do; / let gratitude redeem what lies undone.”
Tiepolo's Hound soberly affirms art, inspiration, creativity, historical awareness, personal introspection, and the necessity to honor the ordinary—that dimension of lived experience which Walcott values highly in Pissarro's paintings, in the leg of Tiepolo's hound, in the canoes, leaves, rocks of his own paintings—in language of extraordinary beauty, precision, and power: “the ordinary is the miracle. / Ordinary love and ordinary death, / ordinary suffering, ordinary birth, / the ordinary couplets of our breath, / ordinary heaven, ordinary earth.”