The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948-2013, review

81859089VZ002_La_Milanesian / Author Derek Walcott

Nobel winner Derek Walcott, now in his eighties, is still sustained by his faith in poetry, Tom Payne writes in this review for London’s Telegraph.

What should we make of Derek Walcott? Many have heard his name in connection with big poetry honours – can he be Poet Laureate? Can he be trusted as Professor of Poetry at Oxford? – and then heard rumblings about accusations of his harassing students, or even rumblings about rumblings, so that the discussion has seldom been about his poetry.

Let’s begin with the glib but necessary observation that Walcott is a poet we’re lucky to have writing. He is someone who has devoted his working life to art, in many senses – art as culture, art as craft and even art on canvas. The epigraph to his extraordinary poem-cum-memoir, Another Life (1973), quotes Malraux: “What makes the artist is the circumstance that in his youth he was more deeply moved by the sight of works of art than by that of the things which they portray.”

In that poem, Walcott goes on to illustrate the point with his own artistry. An eye-catching example comes in a sonnet that plausibly cites “the noble treachery of art” as the destroyer of a relationship:

so every step increased that subtlety 
which hoped that their two bodies could be made
one body of immortal metaphor.
The hand she held already had betrayed
them by its longing for describing her.

The problem goes deeper than the poet saying, “What can I get out of this situation?” and feeling like a heel. It’s possible to look at this generous selection of work from Walcott’s entire career and see the extent to which he has had to keep the allure of the purely metaphorical at bay, and striven to produce lines from life (and even that word “lines” is a way of connecting the painter’s business with the poet’s).

The volume contains many of his early hits, such as “Ruins of a Great House”, whose title and contents provide a sustained metaphor for a decaying, then departing empire, alongside “A Far Cry from Africa” and “Goats and Monkeys”, which exploit clichéd views of ethnicity only to throw them back in the face of bookish readers who might yet need enlightening.

But at significant moments, the metaphorical becomes all the more real. “Tales of the Islands” is an early poem that uses voices to animate the difference between anthropologists and islanders practising pagan religions. Walcott the dramatist comes to invest more in these voices throughout the oeuvre, and one poem here is completely in the St Lucian patois. Similarly, mythological or literary figures occur first as symbols, then similes (Another Life has an alphabetical sequence that talks us through the brainy identities the young Walcott would give to those around him), and before long as fully developed characters.

The high point of this process is Omeros (1990), which puts an Iliad-style rivalry in an Odyssey setting. It’s this volume that clinched the Nobel Prize for Walcott, but a note in the contents here says that it’s too long to include. It’s a shame not to have extracts, but there are other pieces that show what a flexible poet Walcott can be.

No selection this extensive will deliver consistently good material. The editor, Glyn Maxwell, has made the intriguing decision to omit “Nearing Forty”, which is a staple of school and university courses, but which shows that the poet can sometimes be prolix and solipsistic. Meanwhile, some poems that aren’t quite juvenilia survive, as they should. Although plenty of poets might want to conceal their early struggles with their influences, in Walcott’s case influence is a vital part of the story: his reading of Yeats, both Thomases (Edward and Dylan) and Auden is especially significant when it makes him distinct from the Caribbean poets who have accused him of writing about race in too British a voice. As one of his better-known soundbites has it, “I who have cursed / the drunken officer of British rule, how choose / Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?”

This recurs, along with other themes and images, such as the flawed paradise of the islands; the happy similarity between a white beach and a blank page; the white egrets that fly as if to another world, along with the procession of waves; the hope that art can achieve a kind of atonement, if not for our failings, at least for its own. And the joy of Walcott’s work is that even when he’s at his most rambling, he isn’t tedious. Taken as a whole, this collection gives us a kind of narrative – the story of a poet who is developing even in his eighties, sustained by faith in what poetic forms can do, and the many ways in which those forms can do it.

The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948-2013, selected by Glyn Maxwell

WATCH: Poet Daljit Nagra reading from Derek Walcott’s TS Eliot prize-winning collection White Egrets

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