spring 2008: volume 7: issue 2
Oxonian Review of Books

Also in this Issue:

Split in the Soul

Asiya Zahoor

Derek Walcott Selected Poems Faber and Faber, 2007 400 pages £16.99 ISBN 978-0571227105

Caribbean literature in English is a relatively young genre, having developed only in the late 1930s and 1940s. Usually shelved among the “other” literatures in most libraries and bookstores, this minor literary genre nonetheless contains some of the great names of contemporary literature, including Nobel laureate Derek Walcott.

Born in 1930 in the British colony of St. Lucia, Walcott received a “sound colonial education” (‘The Schooner Flight’) in the Methodist school before moving to Jamaica and Trinidad, where he founded the Trinidad theatre workshop in 1959. In the 1970s, he started teaching in the United States; he currently teaches creative writing at Boston University. Though an expatriate, he maintains ties with his homeland through his writings and frequent visits.

Walcott considers himself primarily a poet, but he is also a painter, essayist, and dramatist. Critics have approached his writings from various perspectives, as his work cannot be strictly categorised as, say, post-colonial or postmodern (in fact, Walcott’s writings problematise such theorisations). Although his concerns are primarily postcolonial, Walcott uses postmodern techniques like parody and pastiche as a weapon to strike back against the empire.

To quote its editor, Edward Baugh, the recent publication Selected Poems (2007) is a mere “distillation from the harvest”—“the pleasure of choosing was usually inseparable from the pain of having to leave this or that poem”. Baugh’s selections are compelling, however: the collection offers invaluable insight into Walcott’s poetic journey, drawing on poems from 13 collections from his sixty-year career.

Baugh's edition includes poems published in previous collections of Walcott’s works, including Selected Poems (1981) and Collected Poems (1992)—like the celebrated ‘The Ruins of a Great House’, ‘Tales of the Island’, and ‘Far Cry from Africa’—as well as Walcott’s more recent works, like ‘The Bounty’ (1997), ‘Tiepolo’s Hound’ (2000), ‘Prodigal’ (2004), and sections from his epic ‘Omeros’. The more recent poems serve as a commentary on his entire career, re-evaluating many of the concerns introduced in the earlier poems. As such, Baugh’s collection has a latent cohesive force, like a sequence of related stories in which images and metaphors develop throughout.

Throughout his work, Walcott has pondered reflexively about himself and his art and the collection as a whole allows us to trace his artistic evolution, as he explores the multiple possibilities of rhyme and meter, stanza forms, and language. The collection can be seen as a travelogue from mimicry through intertextuality to creativity—this is somewhat true of all postcolonial literatures. There are, however, significant difficulties involved in assimilating Walcott’s paradoxical and multifaceted poetic strategies into a discursive whole. Editors of his collections have repeatedly acknowledged the difficulty of bringing his poems together, while asking questions about the overall readability of his work. Wayne Brown’s comment in his introduction to the Selected Poems (1981) that Walcott’s poetry is an “exercise for an adventurous reader” echoes Baugh’s statement that the “adventure of reading Walcott is also an adventure in poetic style and form”. Indeed, throughout Walcott’s career, critics and readers have continually found his work impenetrable and obscure, criticising his alienating scholarly allusions, his digressive, over-elaborated metaphors and his attempts to squeeze all possible meanings from his tropes.

The question of accessibility relates to his initially reluctant use of patois. In ‘Tales of the Islands’, taken from the collection In the Green Night (1962), the poetic voice moves between Creole and standard English, finding a complex resonance in the way the poet blends lyrical and narrative modes:

The fete took place one morning in the heights
For the approval of some anthropologist.
The priests objected to such savage rites
In a catholic country; it was quite ironic.
[Chapter V]
Poopa, da’ was a fete! I mean it had
Free rum free whisky and some fellers beating.
… … … ….
Generation has its angst, but we has none’
And wouldn’t let the comma in edgewise.
[Chapter VI]

As Walcott moves towards artistic maturity, however, there is an unmistakeably increasing and confident use of patois in poems such as ‘Sainte Lucia’ (1976) and ‘The Schooner Flight’ (1979):

In the empty schoolyard
Teacher dead today
The fruit rotting
Yellow on the ground,
Dyes from Gauguin
the pomme-arc dyes
the earth purpule,
the ochre roads
Still waiting in the sun
For my shadow
Oh, so you is Walcott?
You is Roddy brother?
Teacher Alix son?
And the small rivers
With important names.
(Sainte Lucia).

Craftsmanship is very important to Walcott: although he does use free verse in some of the later poems, his essential commitment to classical form shines through. Critics have pointed to his mastery of iambic pentameter as creating a disparity between form and content. As contemporary Caribbean poet Edward Kamau Braithwaite explains, a “hurricane does not roar in pentameter”. Such poets would prefer calypso rhythms and oral drumbeats, which invoke a response from the local audience—an appropriate “representation”, in Braithwaite’s terms, “of a nation in revolution”.

Against such tendencies, Walcott’s poetry clearly reflects his rootedness in European tradition and literature; his acceptance of that heritage is, however, never whole-hearted. His poems explore the inner conflict between native culture and an imperial tradition imbibed from books, dramatising both a personal and historical quest for identity. Themes of exile, estrangement, and isolation predominate, although Walcott’s consciousness of his poetic obligations towards his homeland spurs reflections on the Caribbean culture and society, as well as beautiful, multifarious description of its landscape.

Walcott’s poetry is highly self-exploratory, an effort to relate his own experience as a poet to the larger literary world through his personification of various literary archetypes. He is at once Crusoe, Friday, Shabine, Adam, Stephen Dedalus, and Odysseus. Colonised like Friday, learning his master’s language to turn it against him, he also resembles Crusoe in the sense that the island he inhabits is not his native land—he has come from somewhere else. As such, he is a lonely wanderer like Stephen and Odysseus. All these figures metamorphose into each other, acquiring new meanings.

As regards the themes, one of the central concerns of Walcott is the legacy of Caribbean history, or its non-history and cultural fragmentation. The Caribbean artist has no ancestral myths, no glorious past to look back to—and yet, paradoxically, no subject has occupied the Caribbean artist so much as his own history. Like Joyce, Walcott considers history a kind of nightmare, but it takes a central role in his poems, not as a documentation of dead facts but as a living presence. In the 'The Schooner Flight’, Shabine, an autobiographical representation of Walcott and the Caribbean nation, meets History personified. The sailor poet tries to relate himself to History but it does not recognise a Creole:

I met History once, but he ain’t recognise me,
A parchment Creole…
I confront him and shout, Sir Shabine!
They say I’se your grandson. You remember Grandma,
Your black cook, at all? The bitch hawk and spat.
A spit like that worth any number of words.
But that’s all them bastards have left us words.
[The Schooner Flight]

The Caribbean has been portrayed as an illegitimate child of history because of its paucity of written records; to western historiography, it is a lacuna, a dark void. As a Caribbean artist, Walcott tries to fill in the gap with his literary and pictorial efforts. The landscape in Walcott’s poetry is an alternative to those traditional monuments which stand witness to the history of a civilisation:

Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
In that grey vault. The Sea .The Sea
Has locked them up. The Sea is History.
[The Star-Apple kingdom (1980)]

Since the Caribbean has few monuments and a tangled history, the celebration of landscape works to reconstruct a dialectical relationship between nature and culture. However, Walcott is optimistic: he makes a creative use of his nation’s absent history by casting himself as an Adam of the New World, giving names to his surroundings. He is face to face with a nature whose objects demand fresh meanings, which his poetry provides with arresting new metaphors. These metaphors are not stagnant but dynamic, lending continuity to his work.

‘Omeros’ (1990), one of his most famous works, reformulates his earlier concerns. The poem is considered his tour de force and was specially mentioned by the Swedish academy while awarding Walcott his noble prize. It is modelled on Homer’s Odyssey though there are echoes from Joyce’s Ulysses, and Dante’s Divine Comedy as well. Walcott uses terza-rima like Dante, dividing the poem into cantos. Even God speaks in creole now:

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 crucification
[Omeros xxv, i]

Walcott reinvents Homer’s classical characters but strips them of their grandeur, making Achilles a fisherman and Helen an ordinary black lady. His use of epic style serves two purposes. First, it defines his work against a “postmodern” distrust of great works and grand narratives. Second, it allows him to undermine classical genre distinctions which categorise epic in terms of serious action and larger-than-life characters. In this way, Walcott not only rejects cultural servitude but also asserts cultural difference. It is a revolt against the Eurocentric universal claims made on behalf of western canonical master narratives. It is not mimicry, as many critics think, but rather a parody of the epic form in a postmodern sense.

Walcott’s later poems, such as ‘Tiepolo’s Hound’ and ‘The Prodigal’, are more reflective, recapitulating the experience narrated in the earlier poems. They bring the reader back to the point were he had started. Here Walcott prepares for yet another journey. But this time both the poet and the reader have sharper vision than that of a merely ‘Fortunate Traveller’.

Baugh’s edition gives readers a comprehensive account of Walcott’s journey through life and art, bringing together Walcott’s personal and political concerns. Through these poems the poet has succeeded in mixing up a fresh, Creole aesthetic which accommodates both the indigenous and the western culture. Having read through this selection, we end where we started, but with a renewed sense of the gulf that has bridged from one end of the sea to another:

And always certainly, steadily, on the bright rim
Of the world, getting no near, the more
the bow’s wedge shuddered towards it, prodigal,
that line that shines from that other shore. (Prodigal)
Copyright © 2008 Oxonian Review of Books