A Divided, Postcolonial Consciousness

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature, Derek Walcott is a major figure of contemporary literature. Scion of both the Anglo-European and the Afro-Caribbean heritage, he has conducted a lifelong struggle to integrate the divided self engendered by the duality of his legacy. Dedicated to art as a means of coming to terms with the colonial and postcolonial conditions of the Caribbean, Walcott has braved controversies and labored furiously to define himself as a citizen of the New World while maintaining vital links with the Old. Writing as both a West Indian and an American, he also offers imaginative insights into racial matters in the United States and the relationship between the United States and the developing world.

Derek Walcott’s career can be understood in the context of the colonial condition and marginalized predicament that he epitomizes but endeavors to redress. Descended from mulatto parents with a Methodist background, he was born in 1930 in St. Lucia, a small Caribbean island (under British rule until 1979) with a largely poor, black, and Catholic patois community. His situation as a “divided child” was complicated by the loss, at the age of one, of his father, a civil servant (also an amateur painter and poet). Thanks to his mother (a schoolteacher active in the local theater) and to the books and paintings that his father left behind, Walcott had an excellent education, and he began to write at a young age. He also learned to...

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Finding a Voice

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Walcott’s apprenticeship in poetry came to fruition with In a Green Night: Poems 1948-1960. The book’s title is derived from Andrew Marvell’s “Bermudas,” and many poems evoke the beauty of the islands, with echoes of François Villon, Dante, Catullus, and others. The most significant pieces, however, are those dealing with various aspects of colonialism and Walcott’s sense of cultural confusion. Examples include “Ruins of a Great House” and “Two Poems on the Passing of an Empire.” The often-anthologized poem “A Far Cry from Africa” is the most memorable in this group. Occasioned by the Mau-Mau Uprising and its bloody suppression, the poem dramatizes Walcott’s agony over the political and cultural tensions between the declining British Empire and the insurgent Africa. This poem exemplifies the divided voice that is the hallmark of much of Walcott’s poetry.

During the 1960’s and the 1970’s, at the height of the Black Power movement and the colonial campaign toward independence and self-determination, Walcott’s divided voice was heard but not readily appreciated by his fellow Caribbean natives with zealous nationalist sentiments. This was compounded by the fact that his earlier poems tended to be written in a high-style language that was formal, ornate, and replete with classical allusions, poetic devices, and complex rhyming schemes associated with the polite learning of colonial education. Although such a cultural...

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The Poet’s Odyssey

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

As Walcott’s ties with the United States became closer during the late 1960’s, the frequent plane flights over the Gulf of Mexico inspired him to use the image of the gulf as the title for his next book, The Gulf, and Other Poems, which was combined with The Castaway and republished as The Gulf in 1970. The title can be traced to an epigram in “Crusoe’s Journal” in The Castaway, where Crusoe states that there is “a great gulf fixed” between him and the (old) world he has come from. The “gulf” is both geographical and symbolic. Accordingly, many important poems in The Gulf deal with connections and disjunctions, especially those between the two Americas and between the New World and the Old (for example, “Elegy” and “Negatives”). Significantly, a new element in the book is Walcott’s use of the myth of Odysseus to explore the themes of home, homecoming, exile, memory, and art.

With the publication of The Gulf, Crusoe recedes into the background and becomes absorbed into the Odysseus figure. As a matter of fact, references to Odysseus started appearing even in the earliest of Walcott’s poetry, but their conscious use for thematization rather than embellishment came later. As such, the focus on Odysseus can be regarded as a pivotal point in Walcott’s poetic career. In contrast to Crusoe, Odysseus is a more suitable emblem for Walcott’s project of synthesis, since an important part of Odysseus’ character—as portrayed in Homer’s Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.)—is his stubborn resistance against forgetfulness and erasure; memory, instead of being a source of nostalgia to be indulged in, provides Odysseus with the creative impetus needed for the new beginnings and reconnections that are essential...

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Synthesizing Caribbean Consciousness

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Both Sea Grapes and The Star-Apple Kingdom suggest that the poet has located the Caribbean as the center of his consciousness. With the publication of The Fortunate Traveller, which is directly related to Walcott’s frequent travels between the two Americas, it is increasingly evident that he no longer operates on the basis of being “divided” as a person and “split” as an artist, but rather on his new synthesis, the Caribbean consciousness that is at the very core of his existence. St. Lucia, the center of his universe, is where he begins and must return. Alluding to The Unfortunate Traveller (a picaresque tale by Thomas Nashe dated 1594) with a degree of irony, the book rehearses the bittersweet pleasures of exile and travel and attempts to resolve the dilemma by exploring the differences between the North and the South in terms of geography, politics, economics, culture, and so forth. Divided into three sequences (North I, South II, and North III), the book follows a circular pattern typical of a journey with return, though it is also important to note that the persona here is an Odyssean figure with the qualities of a picaro as well. Walcott’s Aegean-evoking Caribbean home is placed at the center, at which the myth of Odysseus reappears (in the lyrical “Map of the New World” and the carnivalesque “The Spoiler’s Return”).

The most important poem in North I is “North and South,” in which Walcott meditates on his psychological break with the British Empire, on the predicament of the African diaspora, and on the problem of racism. In North II, the most important poem is the title piece, “The Fortunate Traveller,” in which the poet—by way of self-mockery—dramatizes the disparity between the industrialized nations and the developing nations, expresses his disgust with colonialism and comes to the bitter conclusion that “The heart of darkness is not Africa./ The heart of darkness is the core of fire/ in the white center of the holocaust.” As “England recedes” (“The Fortunate Traveller”) and as the poet is “falling in love with America” (“Upstate,” from North I), the dualistic existence that has dogged Walcott for many...

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Omeros and After

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Walcott’s magnum opus emerged in 1990 in the form of Omeros, an eight-thousand-line narrative in terza rima stanzas (of mainly iambic hexameter lines). This postcolonial text immortalizes the poet’s home island, St. Lucia—a neglected outpost of empires and the site of contestations (St. Lucia is by personification the black Helen over whom France and Britain battled fiercely for imperial control). The poem revolves around Achilles’ rivalry with Hector to win the love of Helen and his transatlantic (and transhistorical) journey back to West Africa, while leaving behind in the Caribbean his friend Philoctete to tend to an incurable wound in the leg. This complex, multilayered narrative, endowed with epical ramifications, exemplifies the colonial history of the Caribbean as an atrocious tragedy, remembered for the genocide of Amerindians and the slavery of Africans. As the protean poetic figure of Omeros suggests, this is also a tragedy to be survived nonetheless by means of exilic quests for existential meaning, as well as cultural engagements and reconciliations with the legacy of colonialism. Inspired by and responding to canonical authors such as Homer, Virgil, Dante, John Milton, Walt Whitman, James Joyce, and Stephen Crane, Walcott has created a world in which heroism is largely enacted by ordinary people (mainly fishermen of African descent), whose struggles for survival and legitimacy are dignified in this postcolonial odyssey, an “epic of the dispossessed.”

Walcott’s poetic output after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature appears to refocus decisively on the self, as the poet reflects and meditates on the meaning of his life experiences as an artist and an individual, addressing inevitably issues of ultimate concern. Tiepolo’s Hound, a book-length poem, traces the Caribbean artist’s search for identity by way of comparison and contrast between the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro (born in St. Thomas, 1830; died in France, 1903) and the narrator himself. As a failed painter, the...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Baugh, Edward. Derek Walcott. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. In the introductory, chapter Baugh addresses the issues and directions pertaining to Walcott’s writing in the cultural and historical contexts of the Caribbean; five other chapters deal with Walcott’s major poetic output up to The Prodigal. Also included is a useful chronology of Walcott’s life and career from 1930 to 2005.

Baugh, Edward. Derek Walcott—Memory as Vision: “Another Life.” London: Longman, 1978. Focuses on Walcott’s autobiographical poem.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Derek Walcott. Philadelphia:...

(The entire section is 536 words.)