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Poet of Two Worlds

Derek Walcott is a poet, now over fifty, whose voice was for a long time a derivative one. His subject was not derivative: it was the black colonial predicament (Walcott comes from St. Lucia). But there was an often unhappy disjunction between his explosive subject, as yet relatively new in English poetry, and his harmonious pentameters, his lyrical allusions, his stately rhymes, his Yeatsian meditations. I first met his work in an anthology that had reprinted his “Ruins of a Great House,” a poem now several decades old:

A smell of dead limes quickens in the nose
The leprosy of Empire.
   ’Farewell, green fields,
   ’Farewell, ye happy groves!

* * *


I climbed a wall with the grill ironwork
Of exiled craftsmen protecting that great house
From guilt, perhaps, but not from the worm’s rent
Nor from the padded cavalry of the mouse.
And when a wind shook in the limes I heard
What Kipling heard, the death of a great empire, the abuse
Of ignorance by bible and by sword.

A green lawn, broken by low walls of stone
Dipped to the rivulet, and pacing, I thought next
Of men like Hawkins, Walter Raleigh, Drake,
Ancestral murderers and poets.

It was clear that Walcott had been reading Yeats—the “Meditations in Time of Civil War,” “On a House Shaken by the Land Agitation,” and so on. Walcott’s piece did not seem to me then, and does not seem now, a poem, but rather an essay in pentameters. The emotional attitudes of Walcott’s early verse were authentic, but shallowly and melodramatically phrased. Walcott borrowed theatrically, for instance, from Yeats’s Supernatural Songs to express a genuine dilemma.

How choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from Africa and live?

It is always dangerous for a young poet’s future when he begins, as Walcott did, with a subject. Language may become, then, nothing but the ornament to his message, the rhetoric for his sermon. Walcott did not escape this ornamental view of language (and his uncertainty as to his own genre caused him to spend twenty years writing for the theater, forming a theater company, and directing plays, the most direct and urgent form of literary communication).

But there were other aspects, not anthologized, to Walcott’s early verse. One was the presence of island patois—unsteady, not well managed, but boldly there, confronting the Yeatsian poise:

Man, I suck me tooth when I hear
How dem croptime fiddlers lie,
And de wailing, kiss-me-arse flutes
That bring water to me eye!

But the ever-present baleful influence of Yeats suddenly overshadows the patois speaker, and the song ends on an unlikely “literary” note:

Flesh upon flesh was the tune
Since the first cloud raise up to disclose
The breast of the naked moon.

Somewhat later, a shrewd social observation made itself felt in Walcott’s work, as in this sketch of blacks who had returned to their native islands after having been in the United States; Walcott sees

The bowed heads of lean, com- pliant men
Back from the States in their funereal serge,
Black, rusty Homburgs and limp waiters’ ties
With honey accents and lard- coloured eyes.

Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas, Pound, Eliot, and Auden followed Yeats in Walcott’s ventriloquism. It seemed that his learnedness might be the death of him, especially since he so prized it; one of the epigraphs in his book-length autobiographical poem Another Life (1973) runs, “It is never the sheep that inspire a Giotto with the love of painting; but, rather, his first sight of the paintings of such a man as Cimabue” (Malraux). The sentiment appealed to Walcott precisely because he was afraid of drowning in his topic—“Too many penitential histories passing / for poems,” he remarks wryly. And he knew that not politics, and not opinions, but an inner dynamic, holds an artwork together:

I can no more move you from your true alignment,
mother, than we can move objects in paintings.

Walcott’s agenda gradually shaped itself. He would not give up the paternal island patois; he would not give up patois to write only in formal English. He would not give up his topic—his geographical place, his historical time, and his mixed blood; neither would he give up aesthetic balance, “the rightness of placed things.” He was in all things “a divided child,” loyal to both “the stuffed dark nightingale of Keats” and the “virginal unpainted world” of the islands; he was divided again between writing poetry and writing plays divided yet again between writing plays and directing them. From St. Lucia he went to Trinidad, from Trinidad to the United States, becoming not only the colonial but also the exile and, in his returns to the West Indies, the prodigal son. Walcott has written of “the inevitable problem of all island artists: the choice of home or exile, self-realization or spiritual betrayal of one’s country. Travelling widens this breach.”

And yet Walcott’s new book is called not entirely ironically, The Fortunate Traveller. The degree to which Walcott is able to realize a poem still varies. He is still, even as a fully developed writer, peculiarly at the mercy of influence, this time the influence of Robert Lowell, as in the poem “Old New England”:

A white church spire whistles into space
like a swordfish, a rocket pierces heaven
as the thawed springs in icy chevrons race
down hillsides and Old Glories flail
the crosses of green farm boys back from ‘Nam.

This represents Walcott’s new apprenticeship to the American vernacular, as he lyrically describes it:

I must put the cold small pebbles from the spring
upon my tongue to write her language
to talk like birch or aspen con- fidently.

But no one can take on a new idiom overnight, and Walcott’s pentameters stubbornly retain their British cadences. It is American words, and not yet American rhythms, that find their way unevenly into these new poems. They ruin some lines and enliven others. Since the only point of using colloquialisms is to have them sound colloquial, Walcott loses momentum when his Americanisms ring ill on the ear. Here is a monologue by a person planning a movie, impatient of the suggestion that there be any lyric interludes in it, such as shots of the sea:

The plot
has to get the hero off somewhere
else, ‘cause there’s no kick in con- templation
of silvery light….

The person who would say “‘cause there’s no kick in” something or other would not say “contemplation of silvery light”—the voice goes false whether you read backward or forward. There is more of this mismanagement of tone in this satiric portrait; it closes,

   Things must get rough [in the movie]
pretty damn fast, or else you lose them, pally.

The “pally” for “pal” is a painful lapse, and one feels no better about it when one sees that it is there to rhyme with “alley” five lines earlier. No rhyme is worth destroying the illusion of plausible voice.

This sort of uncertainty in diction is disconcerting in Walcott, since he has many virtues: he is always thinking, he does not write sterile exercises in verse, he is working out a genuine spiritual history from his first volume to his current one, he keeps enlarging his range of style and the reaches of his subject. And when he errs, he often errs in a humanly admirable direction, the direction of literal truth. The trouble is, literal truth is often the enemy of poetic truth. Take his description of climbing up a hill in “Greece”:

Beyond the choric gestures of the olive,
gnarled as sea almonds, over boulders dry
as the calcareous molars of a Cyclops,
past the maniacal frothing of a cave,
I climbed….

Anyone who has seen Greece will recognize the literal truth of the windbent olive trees, the dry gray rocks, and the sea issuing in spray out of hill-caves. Walcott’s native sea almonds are there to establish the foreignness of the climber, as he thinks back to another point of reference; the Cyclops is there to establish the climber as a reader (a point necessary later in the poem). The periodic sentence (“Beyond this, over that, past the next thing, I climbed”) is there to enact syntactically the long ascent. Why, then, does the passage fail? It is at this point that one enters the disputed field of decorum, surprise, and necessity—where the axioms are that a word or a form should seem necessary when it occurs and yet should “surprise by a fine excess.”

Objections can always seem overmeticulous. And yet, does it fall satisfactorily on the ear to have “olive” in the singular and “sea almonds” in the plural? Isn’t the line-break after the word “dry” an awkward interpolation into the phrase “dry as molars”? Are the molars of a Cyclops any more or less calcareous than other molars? And where, for that matter, is the rest of the Cyclops, and why are his discarded molars lying around the landscape? And why should an innocent cave seem to be frothing at the mouth like the proverbial madman (since nothing is subsequently made of the “maniacal” cave)?

In short, there is no psychic coherence as these details are assembled. Though each is made carefully to resemble a literal portion of the landscape, taken all together they do not resemble a soul in act. About poetry the same argument must be made that Ruskin never wearied of making about Turner—that it was the mind of Turner, powerfully charging every pictorial detail with its own psychological freight, that made the data of the painting (whether realistic or impressionistic) converge into a single complex whole.

When Walcott has a single point of concentration to govern his images, the poem manages its parts better. In “Hurucan” he summons and evokes the god of hurricanes, who stands allegorically for the force of the colonial oppressed:

We doubt that you were ever slain
by the steel Castilian lances.

In some parts of the poem, the old ugly overpreciseness remains (“flesh the gamboge of lightning, / and the epicanthic, almond-shaped eye / of the whirling cyclops”), but when the rhythm breaks loose, the images follow like a flood:

Florida now flares to your flashbulb
and the map of Texas rattles,
and we lie awake in the dark
by the dripping stelae of candles,
our heads gigantified on the walls,
and think of you, still running
with tendons feathered with light-,
   ning
water worrier, whom the chained trees
strain to follow,
havoc, reminder, ancestor….

This is one of Walcott’s poems of the South; The Fortunate Traveller is divided into portions called North, South, North, and the division is a symbolic one, putting the two terms into a continual dialectic rather than a sullen opposition. The patois poems in this new volume still seem to me unconvincing:

So back me up, Old Brigade of Satire,
back me up, Martial, Juvenal, and Pope
(to hang theirself I giving plenty rope),
join Spoiler’ chorus, sing the song with me
Lord Rochester, who praised the nimble flea.

The experiment is worth trying (and Walcott has used patois in every phase of his play-writing, too) but, once again, however much it reflects the truth of Walcott’s own divided mind and inheritance, it has not yet found a conclusive and satisfying aesthetic relation to his “high” diction, as the passage I have just quoted suggests. A macaronic aesthetic, using two or more languages at once, has never yet been sustained in poetry at any length. There are Hispano-American poets now writing in a mixture of Spanish and English, where neither language gains mastery; once again, such work may accurately reflect their linguistic predicament, but the mixed diction has yet to validate itself as a literary resource with aesthetic power. These macaronic strategies at least break up the expected; and anyone can understand Walcott’s impulse to wreck his stately and ceremonious rhythms. Often writers must follow a new impulse as a clue to an elusive style, and consolidate the old before they can find the new.

When Walcott’s lines fall effortlessly and well, as in a remarkable poem of exile called “The Hotel Normandie Pool.” he seems the master of both social topic and personal memory. At the pool, Walcott has a vision of a fellow-exile, Ovid, banished to a Black Sea port, forced, while writing his Tristia (poems talismanic for Mandelstam and Heaney as for Walcott) to leave behind the pastoral of Rome for the harsher music of another climate:

Among clod-fires, wolfskins, starv- ing herds,
Tibullus’ flute faded, sweetest of shepherds.
Through shaggy pines the beaks of needling birds
pricked me at Tomis to learn their tribal tongue,
so, since desire is stronger than its disease,
my pen’s beak parted till we chirped one song
in the unequal shade of equal trees.

This seems to me Walcott at his most natural, worldly, and accomplished. The Latinity enters the ear without affectation, the mirror image of a beaked pen and the beaks of birds rivets the stanza together, and no labored effects of unnatural diction mar the lines. Ovid sums up the predicament of the educated colonial poet writing in the language of Empire:

Romans“—he smiled—“will mock your slavish rhyme,
the slaves your love of Roman struc- tures.”

Walcott’s steady ironies and his cultivated detachment in the midst of a personal plight make him an observer to be reckoned with; he will remain for this century one of its most candid narrators of the complicated and even desperate destiny of the man of great sensibility and talent born in a small colonial outpost, educated far beyond the standard of his countrymen, and pitched—by sensibility, talent, and education—into an isolation that deepens with every word he writes (regardless of the multitude by whom he is read). This is in part the story of many writers—it could be said to be the story of Beckett. But in Walcott’s case the story is deepened by the added element of mixed blood, an unconcealable and inescapable social identity. This has driven Walcott to the theater, and to his tidal efforts against solitude. But these efforts recede, and the writer finds himself where he was, alone, with the brief moment of community and coherence dissipated by time and the dispersal of companions.

The wars between races and nations now seem permanent to Walcott as personal isolation is permanent; but just as a momentary incandescence of joint effort is possible, so, in a time of wars, there can be a merciful respite of quiet, a “season of phantasmal peace.” It is, one could say, the lyric season when a hush falls on the epic conflict, and a chorus can be heard in the polyphony of song. And though one may quicken to the Walcott of observant sharpness, brusque speaking, and social passion, voiced in patois, it is the lyric Walcott who silences commentary. The best poem in this new collection is the poem Walcott placed last, “The Season of Phantasmal Peace.” It is too long to quote whole, but it must be quoted in part. It begins at twilight as migrating birds lift up the shadows of the earth and, as they fly past uttering their various sounds, cause a “passage of phantasmal light,” and by their singing, unify the various dialects of the earth:

Then all the nations of birds lifted together
the huge net of the shadows of this earth
in multitudinous dialects, twittering tongues,
stitching and crossing it.

Into the birds’ song there comes “an immense, soundless, and high concern / for the fields and cities where the birds belong.” This is one of the oldest topics of poetry—the singers of the earth concerned for mute and earthbound fellow men. The birds here feel, in the painfully beautiful close of the poem, “something brighter than pity” for the rest of us,

   for the wingless ones
below them who shared dark holes in windows and in houses,

and the birds begin their work of brief, but tangible, charity:

And higher they lifted the net with soundless voices
above all change, betrayals of fall- ing suns,
and this season lasted one moment,
   like the pause
between dusk and darkness, be- tween fury and peace,
but, for such as our earth is now, it lasted long.

The poem says nothing explicit about Empire and the oppression of colonies, about dialects of white English and island English, about the power to rise above the immediate that is conferred on a poet by his allegiance to song, about the social identification that a black poet especially feels for those who share dark holes in houses, or about the betrayals and desertions entailed in a life lived between black and white, empire and outpost, island and mainland. But the poem is the transcendent clarification of all that darkness; and it holds the darkness back for its own instant of phantasmal peace. It is unashamed in its debt to Shakespeare, Keats, and the Bible; but it has assimilated them all into its own fabric.

Walcott, the best diagnostician of his own case, has said that “the urge towards the metropolitan language was the same as political deference to its centre, but the danger lay in confusing, even imitating the problems of the metropolis by pretensions to its power, its styles, its art, its ideas, and its concept of what we are.” The balancing of influences makes the writer “the mulatto of style,” as Walcott once put it, attempting to avoid the pitfalls everywhere around him:

Most of your literature loitered in the pathos of sociology, self-pitying and patronised…. And [black writers’] poems remained laments, their novels propaganda tracts, as if one general apology on behalf of the past would supplant imagination, would spare them the necessity of great art.

It is typical of Walcott to use the severe word “necessity,” not about social protest but about art; the essay from which I have been quoting, “What the Twilight Says” (from Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays) ought to be more widely known, both as a meditation on aesthetics and as a short autobiography of powerful and exhausting emotion, the background to all the poems.

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