London Guardian’s review: The Poetry of Derek Walcott


This selection of Walcott’s poetry, edited by Glyn Maxwell, is a reminder of the celebratory texture of the Nobel laureate’s work, FIona Sampson writes in her review for The Guardian.

At more than 600 pages, this new selection from 15 collections over 65 years of Derek Walcott’s poetry is clearly no taster. But then Walcott is a generous writer in every sense. The expansive, celebratory texture of his verse is instantly recognisable. It moves with ease between city and country, between “the snow still falling in white words on Eighth Street” and the way “Sunshine […] stirs the splayed shadows of the hills like moths”.

This vivid engagement with the sensory world doesn’t desert Walcott even in elegy, of which the later books include an increasing amount. In “For Oliver Jackman”, in White Egrets: “They’re practising calypsos, / they’re putting up and pulling down tents, vendors are slicing / the heads of coconuts around the Savannah, men /are leaning on, then leaping into pirogues.” Poets have long pointed out that life continues in the face of death: WH Auden in “Musée des Beaux Arts” among them. But few capture that life in such full and affirming detail.

Much of this detail draws on the landscape and life of Walcott’s native St Lucia. In his mature style, which begins to emerge in 1965’s “The Castaway”, descriptions are built up phrase by phrase. The chime of end rhymes creates a sense not of crescendo but of accumulation. In “The Tarpon”, for example, “Bronze, with a brass-green mold, the scales / age like a corselet of coins, / a net of tarnished silver joins / the back’s deep-sea blue to the tail’s / wedged tapering Y.” The poem’s contrastingly utilitarian title and, crucially, its allusion to European history and culture (that “corselet”), are other key elements in this mature paradigm.

The effect of this kind of writing is painterly: not surprisingly, since the poet trained as an artist. He reminds us of this in 2000’s Tiepolo’s Hound, an astonishing quest for artistic identity and integrity that follows the remembered image of a dog “exact in its lucency” from “the Metropolitan’s / marble authority” to “Antillean Sundays”. The aesthetic is also frankly vegetal, with some of the brutal abundance of the natural world, “light on the beetle’s armour // and the toad’s too-late presages”. In Walcott’s own words, it is a “West Indian Gothic”. It is also a portrait of splendour in which, as his eponymous retelling of the arrival of the Bounty mutineers tells us, “the bounty returns each daybreak”.

The splendour creates readerly delight, of course. But it also dignifies rural life. It is only since 2008, after all, that the majority of the world’s population has lived in cities. In celebrating his native island, Walcott, whose first collection of 25 Poems appeared in 1949, celebrates all lives lived far from metropolitan centres of influence. We discover how deliberate, indeed strategic, this celebration is in the periodic comparisons poems such as The Prodigal make between European high art and the poet’s own “unimportantly beautiful” village. Though he chooses formal and grammatical structures other than the folk oral tradition, and rarely writes in dialect, this poet is neither apolitical nor colonial apologist.

Walcott the Nobel laureate is a world citizen, who claims the world for himself and for Gros Islet, the home he never stops writing to and from. The Arkansas Testament and Tiepolo’s Hound stage a rich interplay of cultural dialogue between equals. The mature Walcott sometimes appears to deprecate his source materials. “Our myths are ignorance, theirs are literature” is the conclusion of “White Magic”, but this line is accusation, not assent. Elsewhere, Tiepolo’s Hound ends: “I think of reeking fish and a black dog”. Yet such understatement is the mark of cultural confidence.

The poet has come a long way since the early poems, such as “A City’s Death By Fire”, in which the influence of such European contemporaries as Dylan Thomas was strikingly apparent. But then, he has been writing for a long time. This compendious book covers 65 years of poetry. Working my way through it on a recent long-haul flight, I was struck by its recurrent image vocabulary. This is the imaginative territory laid down by every major poet. Here, it includes both the quotidian and the unexpected: verandahs, Minotaurs, watercolours and the changing Caribbean sky.

A poet of Walcott’s stature needs no introduction, either from me or from Glyn Maxwell, his former student and the editor of this volume. But perhaps the volume itself does. This is not a Collected Poems. It includes no new material: no juvenilia, no uncollected pieces, not even a bibliography. Existing admirers are likely to have all these poems and more on their bookshelves already, in the form of the 1984 Collected and complete individual collections – not to mention the verse-epic Omeros, which Maxwell surprisingly omits altogether. (Did he simply feel that to extract from it would be wrong? The book offers us no clue.)

Walcott’s is a major body of work – in every sense. Not only does he write often long-lined, frequently baroque poems, but his use of book-length sequences means that themes can be explored at exhaustive length. A true Collected would surely run to a boxed set. Selected by the author, this good‑looking volume might have offered us something definitive, a canon within a canon. As it is, with no introduction to tell us about the project, and the extent to which he was involved, it risks seeming little more than an occasion to remind us what an astonishing poet Walcott is. But then, astonishing he is.

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