What the Twilight Says

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 332

A poet of extraordinary achievement, Derek Walcott uses the essay form to communicate both his enthusiasms and reservations about writers as diverse as Robert Lowell, Ernest Hemingway, C. L. R. James, V. S. Naipaul, Joseph Brodsky, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, Les Murray, and Robert Frost. Although Walcott clearly has his favorites, he is remarkably open to many different kinds of writing and points of view. His main criterion is that the writing is good. With a great writer Walcott can forgive much, even the racism he is dismayed to find in Robert Frost and V. S. Naipaul. In other words, Walcott has no patience with making writers hew to an ideological line.

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Walcott, a native of St. Lucia, identifies with writers who come from colonial lands and islands and who write in English or in French, the predominant languages of the Caribbean. Like James and Naipaul, Walcott has identified with the English tradition in literature. If he has not become a kind of English gentleman and settled in England—as Naipaul has done—Walcott has nevertheless spent a good deal of his time in white imperialist culture. He masterfully shows how writers such as James and Naipaul have enriched the English tradition, but he also turns to other writers- -such as Australian Les Murray—to show that colonials can continue to write from their own experience and express an indigenous culture.

For readers interested in the emerging literature and culture of the Caribbean, as well as the way new writing intersects with the old, Walcott offers “The Muse of History,” and “The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory.” These two essays, along with his concluding story, “Cafe Martinique,” provide the frame of WHAT THE TWILIGHT SAYS, the brooding consciousness of an island man who has found a home in a greater world.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCV, November 1, 1998, p. 466.

Boston Globe. November 29, 1998, p. F3.

Library Journal. CXXIII, October 15, 1998, p. 71.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, August 31, 1998, p. 53.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, January 3, 1998, p. 13.

What the Twilight Says

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1706

A poet of extraordinary achievement, Derek Walcott uses the essay form to communicate both his enthusiasms and reservations about writers as diverse as Robert Lowell, Ernest Hemingway, C. L. R. James, V. S. Naipaul, Joseph Brodsky, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, Les Murray, and Robert Frost. Although Walcott clearly has his favorites, he is remarkably open to many different kinds of writing and points of view. His main criterion is that the writing is good. With a good—or, better, a great—writer, Walcott can forgive much, even the racism he is dismayed to find in Frost, Naipaul, and Joseph Conrad. In other words, Walcott has no patience with making writers hew to an ideological line. He is disturbed when he finds a racist statement in one of Frost’s letters, for example, and he admits that his enthusiasm for the poet dims—but only temporarily, for Walcott deems Frost, along with William Butler Yeats, the best poet of rhythm and design in the twentieth century. In his Frost essay, Walcott strikes just the right balance between his personal feelings and his passion for poetry. If he is bound to condemn racism, he cannot help but praise fine art in the same writer. Literature—above all poetry—has a life of its own, Walcott implies: “There is a memory of imagination in literature which has nothing to do with actual experience, which is, in fact, another life, and that experience of the imagination will continue to make actual the quest of a medieval knight or the bulk of a white whale, because of the power of a shared imagination.” Literature is, in a sense, greater than the writer who produces it. If Frost and Naipaul have contributed greatness to the English language, Walcott cannot deny them their high place, no matter their personal shortcomings. If he believes the racism mars the writer’s work, as in Naipaul’s case, Walcott is eloquent on why that is so. Walcott’s belief is that Naipaul demeans himself by pretending to be sui generis, as though the Caribbean nurtured no other writer. Yet Walcott also concedes that many writers want to reject their origins and to sever ties to environments they consider part of their lesser selves.

A reverse case for Walcott is C. L. R. James, the great Caribbean writer, a historian of slavery and the Black Jacobins who overthrew it in Haiti, and also something of an Anglophile, a black man besotted with the game of cricket. Walcott is fascinated with James’s love of the English sport. How does a Marxist like James reconcile his political principles with his sporting instincts? For Walcott, this is almost no problem at all. James was a gentleman, and he took easily to those aspects of the English that epitomized civilization. That he admired certain English institutions did not negate James’s criticisms of imperialism and racism. Quite the contrary, James’s complexity makes him a more appealing writer and man to Walcott.

Walcott, a native of St. Lucia, identifies with writers who come from colonial lands and islands and who write in English or French, the predominant languages of the Caribbean. Like James and Naipaul, Walcott has identified with the English tradition in literature. If he has not become a kind of English gentleman and settled in England—as Naipaul has done—Walcott has nevertheless spent much of his time among white imperialist culture, and he has taught for many years, first at Harvard University and then at Boston University. He masterfully shows how writers such as James and Naipaul have enriched the English tradition, but he also turns to other writers—such as Australian Les Murray—to show that colonials can continue to write from their own experience and express an indigenous culture.

Not that Walcott does not feel an enormous sense of loss because of the depredations of colonialism—including what it has done to his own sensibility: “I am only one-eighth the writer I might have been had I contained all the fragmented languages of Trinidad.” His powerful love for his broken heritage is expressed in this poetic sentence: “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.”

Like many writers, Walcott is hostile to biography. In a fascinating essay on Robert Lowell, he suggests that writing the poet’s biography inevitably turns him into a character in a story, with the poet’s poetry becoming a subplot. Thus the most important aspect of the poet’s life, his work, is subordinated to accounts of his often messy, complicated life. It is understandable that Walcott should want the focus on the poetry, yet he himself provides his own biographical reading of Lowell, and biographical readings of other poets also grace many of his other illuminating essays. Biography, per se, is not really the issue, although Walcott thinks it is. His unspoken objection to biography is that it is so often written by nonpoets, writers who are not part of the poetry club, or writers who did not know the poet. “I knew Lowell,” Walcott seems to imply, and this provides Walcott with a privileged platform. So it does. Yet Walcott does not seem to realize that he too is limited by his participation in the club, and the plots he constructs for Lowell, for Naipaul, for James, are for all of their sensitivity also a way of turning other poets’ work into stories, with poetry as the subplot—no matter how many lines Walcott quotes. Moreover, there are Walcott’s character sketches of Lowell and his wife Elizabeth Hardwick: What is he doing if not shifting the focus to personality, to the world of poetry and salons that writers such as Lowell and Hardwick foster, conclaves of writers who naturally build up a network that would attract the attentions of biographers. It does not seem to have occurred to Walcott how much writers are implicated in the creation of their biographies, even when they protest the existence of such books.

One of Walcott’s least satisfactory essays is one that he evidently considers his best: “What the Twilight Says,” a rumination on the Caribbean writer, the island artist, the poet in search of a usable tradition at home but also on a quest to absorb as much of the mainland, mainstream culture, as he can. A poet with considerable experience in the theater (he has always wanted to write hit plays, as evidence his recent collaboration with Paul Simon), Walcott tries to dramatize the psychology of actors in Jean Genet’s The Blacks, for example, who hesitate to acknowledge their images. It has to be a complex experience to perform in a play by a white Frenchman exploring aspects of blackness. Some of Walcott’s sentences seem to strain, to try to encompass too much, or to strike an attitude: “An actor feels a play through his nerves, not through the brain, and his instinct is to feel his body move, to tingle towards gesture, towards promiscuous exchange with fellow actors.” This sentence may describe what actually happens, but it seems imprisoned in its own rhetoric. Surely actors feel with both their brains and their nerves—and how could brains and nerves be separated, anyway? Perhaps Walcott exaggerates to make a point, but somehow the process of acting seems disserved by Walcott’s assertions.

The urge to turn prose into poetry sometimes gets the better of Walcott. Does it really mean very much to say that poetry is “perfection’s sweat”? There is a gilding that brightens his prose but also makes it seem too honed. Thus poetry “must seem as fresh as the raindrops on a statue’s brow” and combine the “natural and a marmoreal; it conjugates both tenses simultaneously; the past and the present, if the past is the sculpture and the present the beads of dew or rain on the forehead of the past.” Did the poet sigh with pleasure after concocting this elaborate conceit? It seems too much like writing that wishes to force the reader to stand back and admire it—like that poetic statue.

Walcott’s densely metaphorical prose raises questions about what the essay should be. In part, such questions are a matter of taste. Surely by classical canons of the essay form Walcott seems, sometimes, static, reveling in his figures of speech rather than advancing an argument. Yet for tastes more readily open to playing with prose, that regard the essay less as an argument than a work of literature itself, Walcott’s pieces will seem deft and innovative.

What is undeniable is Walcott’s power to confirm the necessity of poetry. He thinks of the poet as a kind of Robinson Crusoe searching for his necessary nouns that are his life support. However poets fail as persons and products of their culture, the “fate of poetry,” Walcott maintains, “is to fall in love with the world, in spite of History.” Indeed, literature and history are often pitted as opposing categories in Walcott’s essays. He never denies that writers are products of their ages, yet great writers do transcend their times because of their loyalty to literature, to the inspiration that has made them greater writers if not always greater selves. It is curious that Walcott, for all of his disappointment with biography, does not see that it helps to measure the greatness of the writing against the lesser, if essential, writer’s life.

For readers interested in the emerging literature and culture of the Caribbean, as well as in the way new writing intersects with the old, Walcott offers (besides “What the Twilight Says”) “The Muse of History” and “The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory.” These three essays, along with his concluding story, “Café Martinique,” provide the frame of the book, the brooding consciousness of an islander who has found a home in a greater world.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCV, November 1, 1998, p. 466.

Boston Globe. November 29, 1998, p. F3.

Library Journal. CXXIII, October 15, 1998, p. 71.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, August 31, 1998, p. 53.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, January 3, 1998, p. 13.

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