By Ellen Olley
“For every poet, it is always morning in the world. History a forgotten, insomniac night; History and elemental awe are always our early beginning because the fate of poetry is to fall in love with the world, in spite of History.” ‘Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory’
When one reads the poetry of Derek Walcott, one cannot help but be transported. Like many other great artists before him, Walcott’s poetic process was instinctive. A segment would come to him, a couple of lines perhaps, and the journey would begin of the authentic construction of verse around this vignette. Much of his poetry captures this feeling of journey and development and it is this balance of the dynamic and the delicate which underlies the mastery of his work.
He is recognised as one of the great nature poets, the great post-colonial artists, but also one of the great love poets. These all come together in the joyous union when he writes of his beloved Saint Lucia, his home as a child and in death. In his poetry, Saint Lucia is prelapsarian Eden, never more so than in ‘The Season of Phantasmal Peace’, which his good friend Edward Baugh quoted substantially in Walcott’s eulogy. He carved out a literary culture for this Antillean paradise, taking on the “Adam’s task of giving things their names” (‘Another Life’).
However, his talent is best demonstrated in ‘Omeros’, the epic which would secure his Nobel Prize, awarded in 1992. Walcott takes the European Homeric epic form but sets it amongst the Caribbean islands of his youth. He takes a complex cast of characters and uses their individual journeys, both literal and emotional, to elegantly tease out the themes which haunt all of his poetry, conceptions of home, History, and the self, in a post-colonial world, as well as confronting his own poetic journey.
These themes are often placed in the conflict in Walcott’s dramatic early work. He explores the conflict between “Africa and the English tongue I love” (‘The Schooner Flight’) – his African heritage and the European oeuvre he so admires. He was heavily influenced by Milton, Shakespeare and Yeats, amongst others. However, he knows many of the European poets were ‘ancestral murderers’ too (‘Ruins of a Great House)’. Much of his work references this conflict in the oblique.
It was this treatment of heritage that brought significant criticism against Walcott in the middle of his career. This was the time of Black Power, and many of Walcott’s contemporaries sought to create a stark divide between the colonial and post-colonial world. They rejected European influence, writing in dialect and African-inspired forms.
Walcott, however, persevered with iambic pentameter and Standard English throughout his career, with Omeros as an obvious example of the enduring influence of his “sound colonial education” (The Schooner Flight). He suggests his identity was an amalgamation of both the colonial and post-colonial. This is best illustrated in ‘Ruins of a Great House’, where Walcott calms his rage at seeing the corpse of a slave by the realisation that Britain “too was once / A colony like ours”. “All in compassion ends”, he writes. This sentiment of reconciliation echoes through his poetry. In fact, it was this “compassion”, he once wrote semi-ironically, that was “supposedly inherited with he gift / Of poetry”. It is as if poetry provides Walcott with an opportunity to reconcile his History and his Self.
However, this “advocacy of reconciliation” (Thieme) was widely criticised by his contemporaries. Walcott’s response to this, as he explored in ‘The Schooner Flight’, was that to reject the colonial aspects of Caribbean history was tantamount to the rejection of African history by the colonists: “The first chain my hands and apologize, “History”; / the next said I wasn’t black enough for their pride.” He may have been “absolutely a Caribbean writer”, as he once said, but he was one that stood noticeably apart from his contemporaries.
Walcott’s legacy is yet to be decided. His memory outside of the literary world is coloured somewhat by unorthodox views and misconduct allegations. However, it is clear that his poetry and art will live on as an example of his prodigal talent in capturing the effervescence of his Antillean home.
Image: Nobel Prize Foundation Archive