The Poetry of Derek Walcott, 1948–2013
selected by Glyn Maxwell
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 617 pp., $40.00
The first poem in this substantial selection of the work of the St. Lucia–born poet Derek Walcott was written when he was only eighteen. It initially appeared in a privately printed volume entitled 25 Poems (1949), a self-publishing venture subsidized by Walcott’s widowed mother (who worked as a seamstress and a teacher) to the tune of $200—a stake she eventually recouped after the young poet sold enough copies to friends to break even. The poem is set at twilight, and opens:
The fishermen rowing homeward in the dusk,
Do not consider the stillness through which they move.
So I since feelings drown, should no more ask
What twilight and safety your strong hands gave.
The first two lines are lucid enough, but the second two seem themselves overtaken by dusk, a little murky and hard to make out. Unlike the fishermen who are so involved in the task of rowing homeward that they have no time for emotional or aesthetic responses to the evening stillness through which they move, the poet presents himself as overwhelmed by feelings—as drowning in them, rather than rowing through them. Or might his feelings drown someone else? Or might it be the feelings themselves that drown? The phrase could be parsed all sorts of ways.
Does he, one wonders, envy the fishermen’s stoical lack of reflectiveness, or are the drowning feelings introduced as a way of signifying the gulf between their primitive hand-to-mouth concerns and his superior, educated, impassioned consciousness? And whose are the “strong hands”? Is he telling himself not to ask because the question would widen the gap between himself and the fishermen? Perhaps all that is unambiguously clear from these two lines is that the young Walcott has been reading the young Auden.
Indeterminacies of this kind clearly befit a poem that takes place in the gloaming. In Walcott’s later writings twilight often assumes a more particular figurative significance. In the 1970 essay “What the Twilight Says” he describes how an Antillean dusk can transform a slum into a thing of beauty:
Deprivation is made lyrical, and twilight, with the patience of alchemy, almost transmutes despair into virtue. In the tropics nothing is lovelier than the allotments of the poor, no theatre is as vivid, voluble, and cheap.
The stab of irony in “cheap” signals the unease that so often afflicts Walcott when he considers the gap between himself and the Caribbean poor. As in “The Fishermen Rowing Homeward…,” twilight is depicted in this essay as prompting reflections on his relationship with his less self-conscious compatriots:
Years ago, watching them, and suffering as you watched, you proffered silently the charity of a language which they could not speak, until your suffering, like…
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What the Twilight Says: Essays4.27 · Rating details · 78 Ratings · 5 Reviews
Derek Walcott's identity as a poet is evident even in his literary criticism. Who else would produce a sentence such as "Let the shaggy, long horde of spiky letters and the dark rumbling of hexametrical phalanxes rise over the outback towards the capital of the English language" to describe the work of a fellow poet--in this case, Australian Les Murray? Indeed, each of theDerek Walcott's identity as a poet is evident even in his literary criticism. Who else would produce a sentence such as "Let the shaggy, long horde of spiky letters and the dark rumbling of hexametrical phalanxes rise over the outback towards the capital of the English language" to describe the work of a fellow poet--in this case, Australian Les Murray? Indeed, each of the essays in What the Twilight Says is at least as rich in language as it is in ideas; so much so, in fact, that at times the view is obscured by the verbiage. Nevertheless, beneath the loco rococo turns of phrase Walcott has some serious points to make. In his discussion of V.S. Naipaul, for example, he offers some telling insights into the effects of colonialism on his subject's psyche: "What is the cost to his Indianness of loving England?" Walcott asks; "To whom does he owe any fealty? Ancestors? The surroundings that history placed them in, the cane fields of Trinidad, were contemptible, as they themselves would have to be, having lost both shame and pride. Therefore, the only dignity is to be neither master nor servant, to choose a nobler servitude: writing. The punishment for the choice is the astonishment of gratitude; to be grateful to the vegetation of an English shire. Not to India or the West Indies, but to the sweet itch of an old wound." Walcott praises Naipaul's genius while calling him on his racism, selfishness, and disdain for his roots--in effect loving the sinner while hating the sin. His essay on Joseph Brodsky is an intelligent meditation on the art of translation while "The Muse of History" looks at the influence of history in New World literature. From a discussion of the poetry of Ted Hughes to an open love letter to Martiniquan writer Patrick Chamoiseau, Derek Walcott provides plenty of provocative food for thought wrapped in poetical prose. --Alix WilberThe first collection of essays by the Nobel laureate.Derek Walcott has been publishing essays in The New York Review of B...more
Paperback, 256 pages
Published October 25th 1999 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 1998)