A view of one’s own

By Brendan de Caires

Selected Poems, by Derek Walcott, ed. Edward Baugh
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, ISBN-10 0-374-26066-4, ISBN-13 978-0-374-26066-8, 307 pp

Derek Walcott, by Edward Baugh
Cambridge Studies in African and Caribbean Literature, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-55358-X, ISBN-13 978-0-521-55358-2, 254 pp

Derek Walcott

Derek Walcott. Photo by Susana P. Alonso, courtesy Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Not long after the University of the West Indies was founded, Professor Philip Sherlock, vice-principal of University College, was travelling through Bog Walk in Jamaica. As he admired the view, he turned to his colleague Kenneth Croston, the university’s first professor of English, and said, “Beautiful, isn’t it?” Croston, an Englishman, replied: “It’s like a meaner sort of Wye Valley.” A bright young undergraduate named Derek Walcott was listening to this conversation, and he understood instinctively the assumptions behind this faint praise. Many years later, at a reading of “The Star Apple Kingdom”, the poet remembered for his Trinidadian audience how much the Englishman’s tone had annoyed him. At the time, it had felt as though “the Jamaican landscape [could] break its ass trying but it would never quite achieve the effort required . . .[it should] have shrunk itself, tipped its hat, and said: ‘Sorry, Professor Croston, that is the best we could do today.’”*

Luckily, Walcott had some ideas about how to help the landscape do better. At first, he tried to work it up in paint, to turn it into something that could be felt along the heart and in the blood, but quite soon he realised he would never attain the natural grace of his friend and rival Dunstan St Omer, the Gregorias of Another Life. Instead, he would “brave new waters” in the “antique hoax” of poetry and confront men like Professor Croston on the ground they knew best. He would take a literary tradition they treated as their own, and show them what it might mean to compose lines about Tintern Abbey in a Caribbean setting. While doing that, he would show them how West Indians might mimetically “reverse” some of history’s nightmare, by cultivating a genius for deep play within their wounded legacies. He would weave a new and beautiful tapestry out of the poetry of Eliot, Pound, and Dylan Thomas, and then move on to Auden, Spender, MacNeice, and Yeats; he would almost single-handedly create a new kind of Caribbean drama. Then, once all that was out of the way, he would tackle Homer.

Early in the new century, having accomplished most of these ambitions, Walcott was showing the New Yorker magazine’s Hilton Als around St Lucia. Als was there to profile a man “writing a poetry of the Caribbean.” As they drove around the island, “Walcott pointed out the handmade signs dotting the hamlets we passed through. Many of the signs . . . had perfectly rendered black faces — some with red lips — floating around the calligraphy. Walcott said, ‘Look at the beauty of that. And then you think of someone like Vidia [Naipaul] saying that there is no culture down here. That we are primitive. That we make nothing. Crap! Well, there it is. Take a look.’”

The gulf between Sherlock’s quiet question and the Nobel Laureate’s boisterous imperative is one gauge of the distance which Walcott has travelled, and the extent to which he has helped to establish the Caribbean as a place that no longer needs to tip its hat to anybody.

Edward Baugh taught English literature at the Mona campus of UWI for many years, but he shares none of his predecessor’s antipathy towards the Caribbean. His learned survey of Walcott’s poetry and drama is the latest in a growing body of serious criticism aimed at a general reader who wants to address the entire oeuvre. Even before you have finished the introductory chapter (“Walcott, writing, and the Caribbean: issues and directions”) you cannot but marvel at the scholarly labour that has produced such a compact and readable summary of complex material. Like many another postcolonial writer, Walcott has received his fair share of daunting analysis; in fact, parts of the secondary literature sound so abstruse that the titles are enough to make you pause. My personal favourite (“Giotto’s Invisible Sheep — Lacanian Mirroring and Modeling in Walcott’s Another Life”, by Judith Harris, published in the South Atlantic Quarterly in 1997) makes me smile when I say it aloud; a dark part of my soul feels a thrill of regional pride that a long poem about growing up in St Lucia can elicit such weighty discourse.

Baugh never yields to the temptations of that sort of critical language, and his book feels like a long conversation with a devoted reader. It strikes a very sensible balance between close readings of individual poems and much broader discussions of the phases in Walcott’s fifty-year career. Although the chronological approach can become exhausting, the book is often engaging enough to make you stop and read (or re-read) many of the poems, wondering all the while how you missed so much before.

Some of this is no doubt produced by a common tendency to be too deferential towards contemporary poetry, our fondness for talking about its “meanings” in sepulchral tones. Baugh does not allow a proper respect to become adulation, and he is extremely good at showing that Walcott never switches off his sense of humour, particularly his fondness for puns. Consider, for example, these lines from “Mass Man”:

Boysie, two golden mangoes bobbing for breast plates, barges
Like Cleopatra down her river, making style . . .

You only need a passing acquaintance with Shakespeare to pick up the allusion at the end of the first line to Enobarbus’s famous description of the queen, but the unobtrusively West Indian name “Boysie” quietly masks a wonderfully apposite reference to the boy actors who used to play female roles on the Elizabethan stage. Once you notice that, a moment’s reflection will bring back Cleopatra’s mischievously self-referential lines in act V, about what will happen if she becomes Caesar’s trophy captive, her fear that the Roman public will be allowed to mock her:

Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I’ the posture of a whore.

Any smart poet could have thought of the first reference, but only a writer who is intently gathering correspondences between his own world and the distant splendours of Shakespeare’s London could arrive at the second. Of course, the allusion also underscores the self-fashioning which is so liberating in Trinidad Carnival, the temporary release from identity which it licenses. This is all of a piece with Walcott’s larger aims in a poem about “making style”; after all, his ventriloquism, at least in one sense, is the literary equivalent of a Carnival costume. Time and again, Baugh shows how the simplest-looking lines can set off these chains of association, and after a while you begin to see them without prompting. What more could a poet ask for in a critic?

One of the chief pleasures of Baugh’s readings is that he takes Walcott’s genius for this sort of stealthy erudition as a given, and he points it out with very little fuss. One result of this matter-of-fact approach is that the much-discussed “mimicry” — variously praised and blamed throughout Walcott’s poetry — soon becomes a detail in a much larger design. Baugh makes a persuasive case that, far from being enslaved by the tradition that precedes him, Walcott sees the world quite naturally in terms of voices and texts that he has loved. And instead of trying to forge the conscience of his race out of the empty soul of a man stripped of influences, he takes what has been given to him, as Caliban or Crusoe, and transfigures it with his craft into something malleable, serviceable, versatile — like Donne’s leaves of “gold to airy thinness beat” (compare the infamous epigraph to the first part of Another Life, in which the artist “is more deeply moved by the sight of works of art than by that of the things which they portrayed”).

I used to think of this blending of voices as a flaw, admiring it in Eliot and Joyce, but distrusting it — out of jealousy, diffidence, or even a sort of self-contempt? — in a West Indian poet. On the only occasion I have ever met Walcott, I even needled him about it, and was magisterially dismissed for my insolence. I regret my mistake. Another Life, Omeros, and Tiepolo’s Hound are extended proofs that the charge of mimicry is really a non-issue, or at best a carping formulation of what should be thought of as a virtue. In fact, I would go further than that, after reading Baugh’s analyses of what Walcott has wrestled with over the years, and say that Walcott’s decision to incorporate the voices he has loved into the evolution of his style seems to me a more honest, difficult, and rewarding procedure than any reasonable alternative.

In his youth, Walcott published a few satirical poems about the St Lucian middle class. These produced, according to Baugh, an “exuberant local reaction . . . [that] showed, at the same time, how far ahead of his reviewers he was, and how little he had to learn from them.” Fortunately, the English poet Roy Fuller, reviewing the early work for the BBC’s Caribbean Voices programme, was able to provide something more substantial. In 1949, Fuller parsed the emergent style perfectly, and wisely warned the young poet to avoid the sonorities of Dylan Thomas. Three years later, he welcomed the growing influence of Auden, but also worried about Walcott’s “trying to make tremendous, generalised, Audenesque statements about things that are too personal, or too provincial to bear them . . . to the remote, impartial reader questions of class or colour in the West Indies simply will not stand in place of or as a symbol for the questions of a larger world.” The first objection is thoughtful and accurate, the second could have been made by a meaner sort of Professor Croston.

To Walcott’s credit, he seems, at a surprisingly young age, to have understood the necessity of “re-versing” the provincialism in these condescensions. Baugh carefully explains how the choices to pursue increasingly ambitious poetry, both in the immediate public voice of drama and in the slower resonances of published poetry, allowed Walcott to master difficult forms until his virtuosity became a pre-emptive strike against those who doubted that large questions could be found in the lives of little people at the margins of empire. As with much else in Walcott, the work of Joyce (particularly the genre-confounding, unashamedly lyrical, partly autobiographical metempsychoses of Ulysses) seems to have been an inspiration throughout.

With In a Green Night, especially in the spider images of “A Letter from Brooklyn”, Walcott shows the first signs of the fabulous artificer he will later become, even though traces of the “creative schizophrenia” he has discussed so eloquently are all over these early poems. Often, in the space of a few lines, you can feel unreconciled impulses pulling the verse in opposite directions. Baugh analyses these shortcomings with great sympathy and insight, and always seems capable of moving beyond the merely literary features of a problem to provide the personal and professional context which shapes Walcott’s choices. Quite often, his access to the West Indian perspective on Walcott’s dilemmas makes an important difference. Take, for example, this short passage towards the end of the book:

One may trace Walcott’s prosodic journey, volume by volume, noticing how each has its distinctive formal/stylistic signature. However, the story is not so much one of evolution or “progress” as of the continual acting out of a dialectic of style and form — plain speaking against oblique and densely layered utterance, free verse against formal, traditional metrics, informality against oratorical eloquence.

Now compare this with Helen Vendler’s harsh but perceptive review (in the New York Review of Books, in 1982) of The Fortunate Traveller, which laments “the unhappy disjunction between [Walcott’s] explosive subject and his harmonious pentameters, his lyrical allusions, his stately rhymes, his Yeatsian meditations.” Just before her masterly analysis of Walcott’s faults, Vendler worries about “the complicated and even desperate destiny of the man of great sensibility and talent born in a small colonial outpost, educated far beyond the standard of his countrymen, and pitched — by sensibility, talent, and education — into an isolation that deepens with every word he writes (regardless of the multitude by whom he is read).” This sounds very convincing and it may even be entirely true, but I am brought up short by the idea that a West Indian poet who manages to draw the world’s attention towards his home is somehow deepening his isolation — the very root of that lonely word cries out for one of Walcott’s reversals.

Vendler’s criticism assumes that Walcott is trying to grope his way forward within inherited traditions, and failing. Baugh, rightly in my opinion, reads Walcott quite differently: as an artist deliberately embracing the paradoxes and contradictions of his bi-focal world. The difference is not unlike that in C.G. Jung’s famous opinion that Lucia and James Joyce were “like two people going to the bottom of a river, one falling and the other diving.” I believe that, in terms of their approach to the deep matters of prosody and poetics, Vendler fears that Walcott is Lucia, while Baugh is prepared to hope that he is Joyce.

Even through the gathering momentum of Midsummer and The Arkansas Testament it is possible to waver between these estimates. But then there is Omeros — a literary miracle that decisively settles the question and establishes Walcott as a true Caribbean Joyce. Thereafter, as Vendler so graciously says of “The Season of Phantasmal Peace”, Walcott’s lyricism “silences commentary.”

Omeros has been extravagantly praised. The classical scholar Bernard Knox marvelled at “its mastery of rhyme, a constant source of surprise and delight . . . a music so subtle, so varied, so exquisitely right that it never once, in more than eight thousand lines, strikes a false note.” Most early reviewers were so dazzled with the virtuosity of the poetry that it was not until much later that the poem’s more impressive intertextual achievements began to be noticed. The way, for example, Walcott has reworked Virginia Woolf’s Miss Kilman into the life-enhancing, curative Ma Kilman, or the way he fleshes out the meanings of Philoctete’s and Major Plunkett’s wounds; his extraordinarily clever use not only of Homer’s epics but of Joyce’s Ulysses.

Walcott’s epic is a masterpiece of creative schizophrenia. In it, Europe and the Caribbean become reciprocal glosses of each other, in the same way that Boysie embodies and obliquely recreates a latter-day Elizabethan actor. Instead of arguing for the “infinite variety” of West Indian life, Omeros enacts it: making Helen out of a local beauty who plaits hair for tourists, finding Hector and Achilles among the fishermen, and “reversing” Philoctete’s festering leg — a classical image of the pain of art and history — so convincingly that it reads like a homegrown West Indian symbol. It is the text in which Walcott’s work as playwright and poet achieve perfect fusion; he even manages to capture the landscapes that eluded him as a painter. By itself, the poem justifies Walcott’s inclusion in any shortlist of major twentieth-century poets.

Baugh is admirably restrained in his praise, going little further than these three quiet sentences: “Omeros is monumental, but not monolithic. In its capaciousness it is inexhaustibly accommodating of scrutiny. It invites one to wander about in it and is itself of a perambulatory character.” Again, this lack of fuss bespeaks an impressive confidence in Caribbean culture, one that is entirely appropriate for a leading critic of our most important poet. Instead of lingering over the triumphs of Omeros, Baugh maintains a brisk march through his final chapters, and avoids a narrow focus on particular passages. Given the technical accomplishments of late Walcott, this leaves a slightly misleading impression of his achievement, but this is more than compensated for by the feeling that we have, at last, a comprehensive description of the whole career.

I finished this book with a murmur of regret that, for all his international acclaim, within the Caribbean Walcott the poet has never been accorded the respect he deserves. Perhaps this short, thoughtful, and extremely lucid critique will help to change that.

Walcott’s Collected Poems first appeared in 1984, which means that nearly half of Baugh’s Selected Poems is entirely new. In his preface, Baugh calls the selection “a distillation,” and readily concedes that his choices “sought to balance variable and overlapping criteria”: to show Walcott’s range, to include his best and most important poems, and to collect the editor’s favourites. Inevitably, “the pleasure of choosing was usually inseparable from the pain of having to leave out this or that particular poem.” Happily, most of the poems that receive close readings in Baugh’s study are also included. The cuts that caught my eye were “Guyana”, a long poem I have never fully understood, and “The Hotel Normandie Pool”, which I have always thought of as one of Walcott’s finest poems.

This new volume is much easier on the eyes than my old Faber Collected Poems, and the watercolour on the dusk jacket is a great improvement on FSG’s earlier cover for its Collected. Even the designer’s name, Gretchen Achilles, feels serendipitous. My only grouse is that I would have added a hundred pages or so. The large-format editions of The Bounty and Tiepolo’s Hound suggest that a brave publisher really should consider a stately, plump compendium of Walcott’s poems and paintings, perhaps even an accompanying volume of Collected Plays. This probably won’t happen in my lifetime, but I’d like to think it could.

* This anecdote was originally published in the Jamaica Daily News with Croston ironically mistranscribed as “Crossland”. In Derek Walcott, Edward Baugh quotes the original text, but corrects the name in his footnotes. In that spirit, I feel obliged to point out that Joyce’s young artist is Stephen Dedalus, not Daedalus, and that “protest too much” is what Gertrude said of the Player Queen, not what “Hamlet said of Polonius.”


The Caribbean Review of Books, May 2007

Brendan de Caires was born and grew up in Guyana, but has also lived in the United Kingdom, Trinidad, Barbados, and Mexico, before moving to New York. He has worked as an editorial assistant, sub-editor, and assistant editor for various publishers. He has also worked as a human rights activist, English literature and ESL teacher, and written book reviews for Caribbean Beat, Kyk-Over-Al, and the Stabroek News.