This book review by Teju Cole appeared in The New York Times.
“Writing poetry is an unnatural act,” Elizabeth Bishop once wrote. “It takes skill to make it seem natural.” The thought is kin to the one John Keats expressed in an 1818 letter to his friend John Taylor: “If Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.” Bishop and Keats both evoked a double sense of “natural”: that which is concerned with nature, with landscape, flora and fauna, and that which is unforced and fluent. In both senses, Derek Walcott is a natural poet.
Walcott, who turned 84 this year, began writing young. His first poem appeared in a local paper when he was 14, and his first volume, “25 Poems,” was self-published when he was 18. “Everyone wants a prodigy to fail,” Rita Dove wrote. “It makes our mediocrity more bearable.” Walcott did not fail. His early poems were expert, and even though they bore traces of his apprenticeship to the English tradition (in particular W. H. Auden and Dylan Thomas), they were to prove thematically characteristic. Right from the beginning, he was keen to use European poetic form to testify to the Caribbean experience. This commitment made him a part of the boom in 20th-century Caribbean literature, a gathering of talents that included Édouard Glissant, Patrick Chamoiseau, Aimé Césaire and Maryse Condé on the French-speaking side; and Samuel Selvon, George Lamming and C. L. R. James from the English-speaking islands, as well as the Trinidad-born V. S. Naipaul, with whom Walcott was one of the Caribbean’s two Nobel Prize winners for literature.
“The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948-2013” does not contain all of Walcott’s poems, nor is it the first edited selection from his oeuvre. “Collected Poems 1948-1984” was a midcareer reckoning. The 300-page “Selected Poems” might have seemed, on its publication in 2007, a summation. The present volume doubles that page count. It includes many more of the earliest poems, a strong selection from “White Egrets,” Walcott’s 2011 volume, and in general more poems from every phase of his 65-year career. The notable exception is the epic poem “Omeros,” which was presumably omitted to avoid having to break its narrative flow.
Walcott pays indefatigable attention to the look of things, and writes with a spendthrift approach to the word-hoard. These lines from “The Prodigal” are typical:
The ceaseless creasing of the morning sea,
the fluttering gamboge cedar leaves allegro,
the rods of the yawing branches trolling the breeze,
the rusted meadows, the wind-whitened grass,
the coos of the stone-colored ground doves on the road,
the echo of benediction on a house —
This is poetry written with a painterly hand, stroke by patient stroke. Walcott’s early ambition was to paint, to inhabit the “virginal, unpainted world” of the Caribbean and take on, like some latter-day Adam, the “task of giving things their names.” He learned the basics of watercolor painting, and it became his most serious pastime; his book jackets through the years have featured his gentle and competent paintings of tropical country scenes. But poetry was the deeper and more substantial practice. He brought the patient and accretive sensibility of a realist painter to his poems. They are great piles of intoxicating description, always alert to the demands of meter and form, often employing rhyme or slant rhyme, great layers of adjectives firming up the noun underpainting. He names painters as his exemplars more often than he names poets: Pissarro, Veronese, Cézanne, Manet, Gauguin and Millet roll through the pages. And he embraces the observed particular as ardently as any Flemish painter might. As he wrote in the poem “Midsummer,” only half jokingly, “The Dutch blood in me is drawn to detail.”
Something of spiritual import did happen to the young Walcott, an experience he set down when he was older, in the seventh chapter (curiously omitted from the present book) of the autobiographical book-length poem “Another Life”:
About the August of my fourteenth year
I lost my self somewhere above a valley
owned by a spinster-farmer, my dead father’s friend.
At the hill’s edge there was a scarp
with bushes and boulders stuck in its side.
Afternoon light ripened the valley,
rifling smoke climbed from small labourers’ houses,
and I dissolved into a trance.
I was seized by a pity more profound
than my young body could bear, I climbed
with the labouring smoke,
I drowned in labouring breakers of bright cloud,
then uncontrollably I began to weep,
inwardly, without tears, with a serene extinction
of all sense; I felt compelled to kneel,
I wept for nothing and for everything
The power of the passage is not only in its strong evocation of an instance of sublimity, but also in the modulation of the recollection: the Dantean opening, the apt but unexpected split of “my” from “self,” and the uncontrolled syntax of “then uncontrollably I began to weep.” Epiphany became Walcott’s favored mode, his instinct, even as he struggled to satisfy each poem’s competing demands of originality and necessity. In “White Egrets,” a supremely controlled collection dominated by an elegiac mood, a welcome epiphany intrudes, often heralded by the word “astonishment” or “astonished”:
The perpetual ideal is astonishment.
The cool green lawn, the quiet trees, the forest
on the hill there, then, the white gasp of an egret sent
sailing into the frame then teetering to rest
Walcott has few equals in the use of metaphor. In his imagination, each thing seems to be linked to another by a special bond, unapparent until he points it out, permanently fresh once he does. Most of these metaphors he uses just once, brilliantly, discarding them in the onrush of description. The fine surprise in “White Egrets” of how “a hawk on the wrist / of a branch, soundlessly, like a falcon, / shoots into heaven . . . ” is not easy to forget. Nor is this, from “Midsummer”:
the lines of passengers at each trolley station
waiting to go underground, have the faces of actors
when a play must close . . .
Other metaphors he repeats with Homeric confidence through the years, and they are like irregular watermarks that place a subtle proprietary brand on his work: the night sky’s similarity to a perforated roof, the coin-like glimmer of rivers or seas, the way city blocks bring paragraphs or stanzas to mind.
But best of all are those metaphors he grounds in the rudiments of his craft, in grammar and syntax: when “dragonflies drift like a hive of adjectives,” when he imagines his late father pausing “in the parenthesis” of the stairs, or when “like commas / in a shop ledger gulls tick the lined waves.”
The reader imagines Walcott, as he sets these striking images down, mentally shuttling between the fact of the world and the fact of the poem. Often, he is evoking the sea’s activity, or the sky’s, and making analogies with his own practice of describing it.
And so it is that on the last poem on the last page of this largehearted and essential book, the two realities finally merge. The natural poet dissolves, astonished, into nature, “as a cloud slowly covers the page and it goes / white again and the book comes to a close.”
THE POETRY OF DEREK WALCOTT 1948-2013
Selected by Glyn Maxwell
617 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $40.
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