‘The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948-2013’ review: The Caribbean delivered with wit and colour
Walcott’s range went from Marley to Pryor and from Gauguin to Yeats
Track records: Derek Walcott with Seamus Heaney in Dún Laoghaire in 1989, three years before Walcott received the Nobel Prize. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
In 1988 in Dún Laoghaire, Derek Walcott took part in a round-table discussion with Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney and Les Murray. By then identified with a cosmopolitan or “new internationalist” aesthetic, these poets consciously wrote from the peripheries, the “provinces” of empire, far, as Brodsky put it, from “decaying capitals”.
In his account of the poets’ discussions in Lives of the Poets, Michael Schmidt writes of Walcott that he “chose to identify himself with all the resources of his language. After all, [he said,] English wasn’t his ‘second language. It was my language. I never felt it belonged to anybody else, I never felt that I was really borrowing it.’ ”
Despite its unevenness, 600-plus pages of The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948-2013 (Faber, £30) will remind readers of the justice of Walcott’s claim. The opening pages testify to his precociously stylish fluency and his early discovery of a subject he has yet to exhaust, the situation of a poet who writes from the margins of literary tradition: he was a teenager when he published ironic, self-aware lines that look forward to a long career where he will “have learnt to suffer / in accurate iambics” (I With Legs Crossed Along the Daylight Watch).
Walcott’s early explorations of a postcolonial poetics are much anthologised, although their sketchy outlines can seem a little rhetorical and period now, as when Ruins of a Great House (1956) describes its speaker: “Ablaze with rage, I thought / some slave is still rotting in this manorial lake, / And still the coal of my compassion fought: that Albion too, was once / A colony like ours.”
Published around the same time, A Far Cry from Africa is more knowing and much cooler, describing its speaker as “divided to the vein” but asking: “How can I face such slaughter and be cool? / How can I turn from Africa and live?”
This book stints on no part of Walcott’s career, which leaves room for longueurs: in the 1960s there are stretches of public verse where a poetic sensibility routinely records the wrongs of the time, resulting in poems most readers will agree with, without wanting to reread them. The turning point came when Walcott re-engaged with his St Lucia childhood in Another Life (1970), a long, autobiographical and Wordsworthian poem. Walcott would go on to develop a uniquely modern mastery of the sequence and of long poems that combine driving narratives with meditative lyrical passages.
The Star-Apple Kingdom (1979) begins with his great sequence The Schooner Flight, included in its entirety, whose narrative of an escapee sailor, Shabine, describes him in iconic terms:
I’m just a red nigger who love the sea,
I had a sound colonial education,
I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,
and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.