Derek Walcott’s Selected Poems embraces both work done in the last three or four years, and most of the poems published in his earlier, and only other, collection, In a Green Night. He is in his mid-thirties and is a West Indian. Robert Graves notes that he “handles English with a closer understanding of its inner magic than most (if not any) of his English-born contemporaries.” Graves’s favorites have always been odd; the oddest thing here is that of all the poets who have influenced Walcott (and there are many), Graves has made the slightest impact. Walcott lingers over his language like a lover; he employs orotund, mellifluously spun lines. He is, as they say, “on stage,” and certainly his poems read aloud are more rewarding. In any case, these characteristics alone set him apart from his English-born contemporaries, most of whom in the manner of the Movement write wry, inelegant miniatures, the new emblem of the Welfare State.
But Walcott is an exotic (his descriptions are drenched with the “sea-music and sea-light” of his islands), and he is also engagé (factors of race and repression are the backwash beneath every breaker). His world is almost a continual surge of scenic delights and/or degradations, all of which he uses for dramatic effect, sometimes in the symbolist mode, sometimes as a sort of pictorial choreography, and sometimes as a violently-charged reverie, or as a declamation:
The flowering breaker detonates its surf
White bees hiss in the coral skull.
Nameless I came among olives of algae,
Foetus of plankton, I remember nothing.
These lines open a long and ceremonious piece, set in isolated glory as the second section of the book. Called “Origins,” it moves on some fugitive, timeless plane “Between the Greek and African pantheon,” or between Guinea and Troy or Cytherea (Biblical references are also around), and in it the narrator searches for his self, for his “own name.” It ends with a quasi-apocalyptic glimpse of “Those who conceive the birth of white cities in a raindrop/And the annihilation of races in the prism of the dew.” Not many attempt things like this any more, not many Walcott’s age anyway. Here are other moments, equally representative: “Now, when the mind would pierce infinity,/A gap in history closes, like a cloud.” Or “The mind, among seawrack sees its mythopoeic coast,/Seeks, like the polyp, to take root in itself.” Reading such lines, indeed reading the whole of “Origins,” especially its italicized portions which sound like additions to Perse’s Sea-Marks, one thinks first of genuine inspiration, i.e., the poet as seer, and then of something more earthy, i.e., the poet as showman. Poetic ambition, it seems to me, is the true theme of his poem, as it is elsewhere. It inhabits Walcott’s work like the crab nebula. It is difficult to believe that the poet seeks, as he says, “As climate seeks its style, to write/ Verse crisp as sand…ordinary/As …