Adam Kirsch reviews the new compilation of Derek Walcott’s poetry (The Poetry of Derek Walcott) in next week’s issue of The New Yorker. Here is an excerpt. The complete review (alas!) is only available to subscribers or those purchasing the magazine.
A poet who comes to consciousness on a small island—like Derek Walcott, who was born on St. Lucia in 1930—is doomed, or privileged, to spend a lifetime writing about the sea. The subject matter for Walcott is as consistent and inescapable, potentially as monotonous, as the five beats in a pentameter line. But, like so many great poets before him, he shows that constraints do not have to starve the imagination; they can also nourish it.
What is the sea to Walcott? In the more than six decades covered by “The Poetry of Derek Walcott” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)—a rich and beautiful new selection of his life’s work, edited by Glyn Maxwell—it can be anything, like matter itself. For the teen-age poet, making his début in the pamphlet 25 Poems, the sea is “the rounded / Breasts of the milky bays.” In his twenties, Walcott watches as “the green wave spreads on the printless beach” and hears “the sound of water gnawing at bright stone.” In his thirties, the water becomes “ocean’s surpliced choirs / entering its nave, to a censer / of swung mist,” or else “this sheer light, this clear / infinite, boring, paradisal sea.” The years pass and the images accumulate: “pages of the sea / are a book left open by an absent master”; “the pleats of the shallows are neatly creased / and decorous and processional.” The proliferation continues until the very last pages of the book, when Walcott, who is now an ailing man in his eighties, gives thanks for the balm of “the sea’s recitation reentering my head.” . . .
For the original report go to http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2014/02/03/140203crbo_books_kirsch