The Carrier of Ladders
The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace
The Whispering Roots and Other Poems
Derek Walcott is a poet, a playwright, a West Indian, sometime director of the Trinidad Theatre Workshop. For all I know, he may have other distinguishing marks, but these few are enough to give him a plot, a predicament. It is clear from the Overture to Dream on Monkey Mountain, a collection of his plays, that he carries on his back a load of unfulfilled history, promises, promises. He has done well by his own promise, he has been as good as his word, but one man can’t do everything. When Mr. Walcott writes of Caribbean theater and its bearing upon the nature of Caribbean life, his prose reminds me of those early propaganda essays in which Yeats tried to call a theater into existence by will power and rhetoric. Often, what ought to be done requires magic, divine intervention. In the end, a writer settles for the inadequate resources of talent, time, energy, and a little patronage.
Mr. Walcott is a powerful writer, but many of his poems are trapped in the politics of feeling, knowing the representative fate they must sustain. It is enough for any poet that he is responsible for his own feeling: he answers to his scruple, his conscience, hard master. But Mr. Walcott’s poems try to serve a second master, the predicament of his people. They tie themselves in historical chains, and then try to break loose. It is my impression that the poems are trying now to escape from the politics of feeling by an increasingly personal understanding, taste, truth. Fighting against rhetoric, he resorts to rhetoric, both Caribbean, inescapable. Besides, he has a weakness for grandeur, and he rushes into temptation by writing of exile, ancestral loss, historical plangencies, the gulf between man and man.
He is in a middle state, history at one extreme, sensibility at the other; history, meaning loss and bondage, “customs and gods that are not born again,” and sensibility, meaning a sense of responsibility to feeling, its validity and measure. His chosen themes are black and white, Desdemona and Othello, “a life we never found,” ancestry, “I am the man my father loved and was,” New York, Robinson Crusoe, Christmas, death, Guevara, loneliness, leaving home and coming back. What these themes do to the sensibility is the substance of the book: in a word, exacerbation. Often the sensibility is outraged by fact, and the poem is a cry of humiliation.
In principle, Mr. Walcott wants a direct style. “All styles yearn to be plain / as life,” he says, but he will not let his own style yearn for that quality. In “Homage to Edward Thomas” he speaks of “lines which you once dismissed as tenuous / because they would not howl or overwhelm,” and in “The White Town” “the poet howling in vines of syntax,” is treated with irony. But many of Mr. Walcott’s poems howl, their sensibility overwhelmed. Sometimes the abuse is his own fault, one violence answering another, and we have the feeling …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.