In this article for The Rumpus, David Biespiel responds to Teju Cole’s review of The Poetry of Derek Walcott. Here’s an excerpt. The complete report can by accessed through the link below.
This past Sunday Teju Cole reviewed in the New York Times Derek Walcott’s The Poetry of Derek Walcott: 1948-2013, selected by Glyn Maxwell and published by FSG. The book is over 600 pages and traverses more than 50 years with one of the world’s great living poets. I can see why the Times asked Cole to review Walcott. If you are interested in fiction that dwells in cross-sections of immigration, colonialism, race, and New York City, I encourage you to read Cole’s novel, Open City.
At first I was grateful for the Times for covering Walcott. The review doesn’t cover poetry that frequently, and the assignment of Cole to review the Walcott seemed inspired.
But as a reviewer of poetry, Teju Cole has some distance to travel. A summary of Cole’s review of Walcott might go like this: Derek Walcott is a Caribbean poet who is from the Caribbean. When he writes, he uses grammar, rhyme, meter, and (too much) description. He likes metaphor.
Here is a link to the review. Check it out for yourself, if you haven’t already.
What troubles me about this review is a glaring omission. The review doesn’t really discuss what Derek Walcott has been writing about or why for the last sixty years. The review skims the importance of Walcott’s subjects, ignores who Walcott’s influences have been (well, I mean here I’m a frankly stunned not to have read the name Robert Lowell), and doesn’t define in what context Walcott’s poems have been fashioned, and why that matters, especially for a poet with worldwide influence and importance.
Cole writes: Walcott’s “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.”
Is using “form to testify” to experience actually a literary theme without saying what the poet is testifying for or against? Doesn’t Cole mean it’s a strategy, a design? Isn’t using “form to testify” to experience more like an aesthetic predisposition, a predilection, a druthers? And isn’t it the case that Walcott’s use of received British forms is an assertion of an independent prerogative, a challenge, even a subversion?
One important element of Walcott’s poetry is that it’s a political poetry of the anti-repressive variety. He turns what might have been natural contempt for the European marauder into exotic kind of inclusiveness. As a Caribbean man, Walcott’s self-awareness — that is to say, his use of traditional poetic meters inherited from English models — helps him, over time, to produce an art that is absolute and unassailable:
On one hand, harrowed England,
iron, an airfield’s mire,
on the other, fire-
gutted trees, a hand
raking the carriage windows.
Where was my randy white grandsire from?
He left here a century ago
to found his “farm,”
and, like a thousand others,
drunkely seed their archipelago.
Through dirty glass
his landscape fills through my face.
Black with despair
he set his flesh on fire,
blackening, a tree of flame.
That’s hell enough for here.
His blood burns through me as this engine races,
my skin sears like a hairshirt with his name.
On the bleak Sunday platform
the guiltless, staring faces
divide like tracks before me as I come.
Like you, grandfather, I cannot change places,
I am half-home.
When asking the question what does using “European poetic form” gain for an Antillean poet, one answer comes from V. S. Naipaul. In reply to a patronizing British culture, Walcott’s entire body of poetry echoes what V. S. Naipaul once wrote home to his father from England, “I want to come top of my group. I have got to show these people that I can beat them at their own language.”
Next we are told that Walcott writes “with a painterly hand,” that 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.”
I see! His poems are about “firming up the noun underpainting.” They give Nobel Prizes for this?
I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be like that. Forgive me. But Walcott’s descriptive prowess is not an end in itself. His vision performs and it presents a fresh clarity about living in the western world from the viewpoint of Caribbean islander with African ancestry:
We were headed steadily into the open sea.
Immeasurable and unplummetable fathoms
too deep for sounding or for any anchor
the waves quick-running, crests, we were between
the pale blue phantoms of Martinique and Saint Vincent
on the iron rim of the ringing horizon;
the farther we went out, the white bow drumming,
plunging and shearing spray, the wider my fear
the whiter my spume-shot cowardice, as the peaks,
receded, rooted on their separating world
Walcott’s “underpainting” demonstrates the variegated subject of location and dislocation, harboring and being harbored:
The ancient war
between obsession and responsibility will
never finish and has been the same
for the sea-wanderer or the one on shore now
wriggling on his sandals to walk home
Observation (as in the quotations above first from the long book-length sequence The Prodigal and the second from “Sea Grapes”) has its limits, and these limits are difficult to measure. But when Walcott is chastised by Cole for blurring what Cole characterizes as an obsessive “love of description [with] American vernacular,” I have to ask, how does vernacular blur description? Surely Cole understands, surely, that in poetry words describe and images refer.