David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: In Defense of Derek Walcott

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This past Sunday Teju Cole reviewed in the New York Times Derek Walcott’s The Poetry of Derek Walcott: 1948-2013, selected by Glyn Maxwell and published by FSG. The book is over 600 pages and traverses more than 50 years with one of the world’s great living poets. I can see why the Times asked Cole to review Walcott. If you are interested in fiction that dwells in cross-sections of immigration, colonialism, race, and New York City, I encourage you to read Cole’s novel, Open City.

At first I was grateful for the Times for covering Walcott. The review doesn’t cover poetry that frequently, and the assignment of Cole to review the Walcott seemed inspired.

But as a reviewer of poetry, Teju Cole has some distance to travel. A summary of Cole’s review of Walcott might go like this: Derek Walcott is a Caribbean poet who is from the Caribbean. When he writes, he uses grammar, rhyme, meter, and (too much) description. He likes metaphor.

Here is a link to the review. Check it out for yourself, if you haven’t already.

What troubles me about this review is a glaring omission. The review doesn’t really discuss what Derek Walcott has been writing about or why for the last sixty years. The review skims the importance of Walcott’s subjects, ignores who Walcott’s influences have been (well, I mean here I’m a frankly stunned not to have read the name Robert Lowell), and doesn’t define in what context Walcott’s poems have been fashioned, and why that matters, especially for a poet with worldwide influence and importance.

Cole writes: Walcott’s “early poems were expert, and even though they bore traces of his apprenticeship to the English tradition (in particular W. H. Auden and Dylan Thomas), they were to prove thematically characteristic. Right from the beginning, he was keen to use European poetic form to testify to the Caribbean experience.”

Is using “form to testify” to experience actually a literary theme without saying what the poet is testifying for or against? Doesn’t Cole mean it’s a strategy, a design? Isn’t using “form to testify” to experience more like an aesthetic predisposition, a predilection, a druthers? And isn’t it the case that Walcott’s use of received British forms is an assertion of an independent prerogative, a challenge, even a subversion?

One important element of Walcott’s poetry is that it’s a political poetry of the anti-repressive variety. He turns what might have been natural contempt for the European marauder into exotic kind of inclusiveness. As a Caribbean man, Walcott’s self-awareness — that is to say, his use of traditional poetic meters inherited from English models — helps him, over time, to produce an art that is absolute and unassailable:

The Train

On one hand, harrowed England,
iron, an airfield’s mire,
on the other, fire-
gutted trees, a hand
raking the carriage windows.

Where was my randy white grandsire from?
He left here a century ago
to found his “farm,”
and, like a thousand others,
drunkely seed their archipelago.
Through dirty glass
his landscape fills through my face.

Black with despair
he set his flesh on fire,
blackening, a tree of flame.
That’s hell enough for here.
His blood burns through me as this engine races,
my skin sears like a hairshirt with his name.

On the bleak Sunday platform
the guiltless, staring faces
divide like tracks before me as I come.
Like you, grandfather, I cannot change places,
I am half-home.

When asking the question what does using “European poetic form” gain for an Antillean poet, one answer comes from V. S. Naipaul. In reply to a patronizing British culture, Walcott’s entire body of poetry echoes what V. S. Naipaul once wrote home to his father from England, “I want to come top of my group. I have got to show these people that I can beat them at their own language.”

Next we are told that Walcott writes “with a painterly hand,” that he “brought the patient and accretive sensibility of a realist painter to his poems. They are great piles of intoxicating description, always alert to the demands of meter and form, often employing rhyme or slant rhyme, great layers of adjectives firming up the noun underpainting.”

I see! His poems are about “firming up the noun underpainting.” They give Nobel Prizes for this?

I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be like that. Forgive me. But Walcott’s descriptive prowess is not an end in itself. His vision performs and it presents a fresh clarity about living in the western world from the viewpoint of Caribbean islander with African ancestry:

We were headed steadily into the open sea.
Immeasurable and unplummetable fathoms
too deep for sounding or for any anchor
the waves quick-running, crests, we were between
the pale blue phantoms of Martinique and Saint Vincent
on the iron rim of the ringing horizon;
the farther we went out, the white bow drumming,
plunging and shearing spray, the wider my fear
the whiter my spume-shot cowardice, as the peaks,
receded, rooted on their separating world

Walcott’s “underpainting” demonstrates the variegated subject of location and dislocation, harboring and being harbored:

The ancient war
between obsession and responsibility will
never finish and has been the same

for the sea-wanderer or the one on shore now
wriggling on his sandals to walk home

Observation (as in the quotations above first from the long book-length sequence The Prodigal and the second from “Sea Grapes”) has its limits, and these limits are difficult to measure. But when Walcott is chastised by Cole for blurring what Cole characterizes as an obsessive “love of description [with] American vernacular,” I have to ask, how does vernacular blur description? Surely Cole understands, surely, that in poetry words describe and images refer.

Walcott’s lushness first reveals and then neatly undercuts the Caribbean’s perverse mixture of, for instance, colonial landed estates exploiting native workers and servants. Walcott’s “love of description” is in service of exposing the discrepancy between blooming flowers and sparkling waters with island economies built on a violent history of sugar plantations, slavery, and forced labor:

Begin with twilight, when a glare
which held a cry of bugles lowered
the coconut lances of the inlet,
as a sun, tired of empire, declined.
It mesmerized like fire without wind,
and as its amber climbed
the beer-stein ovals of the British fort
above the promontory, the sky
grew drunk with light.
There
was your heaven! The clear
glaze of another life,
a landscape locked in amber, the rare
gleam. The dream
of reason had produced its monster:
a prodigy of the wrong age and color.

Walcott’s images refer to pride of identity, courage, and the singularity of a culture in defiance against European power, as well as local corruption. There’s that, and, Cole is correct, there are also poems about love and beauty and water and sky and looking closely at living. I only wish Cole had viewed these themes in the larger context of this poet’s archipelagic identity. In a sense, one way to view Walcott’s poems is that they act as a kind of defiance against a sugar revolution that denuded many Caribbean islands of nearly all native vegetation as early as the mid-1600s. Walcott’s descriptive prowess seems to be in service of, through poetry, re-vegetating the ancient natural beauty of the Antellean seascapes and landscapes.

Put another way, Walcott’s use of British poetic forms is both dutiful and insurgent. Prettiness in poetry, or painterliness, isn’t the object for Derek Walcott. Instead, he’s fashioning images that assert, claim, reclaim, defy, and identify a bold idea about there is freedom in blending two linguistic consciousnesses. Walcott’s use of British forms and poetic stances to frame his poetry of daring beauty has the intensity and toughness of, shall one say, one island speaking back to another island in their shared meters.

To this end, his experiments in North American vernacular re-assert the very idea of independence and governance of the self. In this regard, one should not misunderstand the purpose of poetic style, of poetic individuation, and of the urgencies of description that writing in rhyme and meter invite a poet to accomplish, that require a poet to master.

I suppose it’s for this reason Cole believes that one “inescapable conclusion from reading hundreds of pages of Walcott at once is the feeling that this is the lifework of an ecstatic. What if the descriptions do go on a bit? What else would one rather be doing?”

This kills me.

I’m reminded of the film Amadeus, when Mozart’s rival, Salieri, informs the young Mozart, “You make too many demands on the royal ear.” Later, when the man with that royal ear himself, Emperor Joseph, remarks: “Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.”

Seizing the last word, Mozart retorts: “Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?”

I do feel it’s fair for a reviewer to ask why a collection of poems such as this one omits a poem or two, even to challenge the curatorial direction. Here are some lines Cole quotes from a poem that is not included in the book:

About the August of my fourteenth year
I lost my self somewhere above a valley
owned by a spinster-farmer, my dead father’s friend.
At the hill’s edge there was a scarp
with bushes and boulders stuck in its side.
Afternoon light ripened the valley,
rifling smoke climbed from small labourers’ houses,
and I dissolved into a trance.
I was seized by a pity more profound
than my young body could bear, I climbed
with the labouring smoke,
I drowned in labouring breakers of bright cloud,
then uncontrollably I began to weep,
inwardly, without tears, with a serene extinction
of all sense; I felt compelled to kneel,
I wept for nothing and for everything

I appreciate Cole standing up for a poem he feels belongs. But his explication of these lines raises even more troubling questions:

“The power of the passage is not only in its strong evocation of an instance of sublimity, but also in the modulation of the recollection: the Dantean opening, the apt but unexpected split of ‘my’ from ‘self,’ and the uncontrolled syntax of ‘then uncontrollably I began to weep.’ Epiphany became Walcott’s favored mode, his instinct, even as he struggled to satisfy each poem’s competing demands of originality and necessity. In “White Egrets,” a supremely controlled collection dominated by an elegiac mood, a welcome epiphany intrudes…”

What I’m understanding here is this: This passage is not only strongly evocative of the sublime but recollects with modulation, one. Two, that there exists in conscious some kind of observable split between “my” and the “self.” Three, syntax can become uncontrolled. Fourth, Walcott’s poems are about epiphanies. Fifth, these epiphanies are not just his “favored mode” but his “instinct.” And, sixth, every poem demands originality and necessity.

I was surprised to read this last observation since earlier in the review, we are asked to note that Walcott has always been “keen to use European poetic form.”

That must be the original European poetic forms, no? The ones that generations of poets writing in English have turned away from because they seem to be failing in their originality or necessity?

To defend Derek Walcott here, he elegantly and masterfully uses those old, unoriginal, conventional, timeworn European poetic forms because he has has been interested in mastering an art of self-limitation, reconstruction, and redefinition.

Finally, the review makes its major case that Derek Walcott likes metaphor. Really? News flash: So did Orpheus. Cole writes:

“Walcott has few equals in the use of metaphor. In his imagination, each thing seems to be linked to another by a special bond, unapparent until he points it out, permanently fresh once he does. Most of these metaphors he uses just once, brilliantly, discarding them in the onrush of description…

“Other metaphors he repeats with Homeric confidence through the years, and they are like irregular watermarks that place a subtle proprietary brand on his work: the night sky’s similarity to a perforated roof, the coin-like glimmer of rivers or seas, the way city blocks bring paragraphs or stanzas to mind.

“But best of all are those metaphors he grounds in the rudiments of his craft, in grammar and syntax: when “dragonflies drift like a hive of adjectives,” when he imagines his late father pausing “in the parenthesis” of the stairs, or when “like commas / in a shop ledger gulls tick the lined waves.”

“The reader imagines Walcott, as he sets these striking images down, mentally shuttling between the fact of the world and the fact of the poem. Often, he is evoking the sea’s activity, or the sky’s, and making analogies with his own practice of describing it.

What troubles me here is praising what many poetry readers consider cliche. Walcott’s self-referentialism — comparing lived existence to parts of speech and to punctuation — has long been viewed by contemporary readers as a platitude in poetry, to be sure. If you’ve ever edited a poetry publication or anthology, you’ve seen leaves like ellipses, rivers like m-dashes, and flocks of geese like greater than or less than signs. To be fair, the overworked gesture is in service of something. I suppose the idea is that without our signs for language experience might cease to be experience. In the early 21st century that has become a dull trope to characterize a complicated idea.

Given that he received the Nobel Prize for something other than being good at making metaphors and writing descriptively, Walcott does not deserve a review that avoids even characterizing his essential place in world literature over the last forty years.

No, Derek Walcott’s poems are preeminent in our language for the way they consistently represent the mingled heritage of fractured lives and the fractured languages of the Caribbean. More, they define the peculiar mix of grandeur and imprisonment. He mastered the colonizer’s language to make an un-colonized utterance. His poems illustrate a useful, necessary, and yes, original foundational trust in elementary European poetic forms. And, finally, they represent an elegant murmur against history’s violent narrative of bondage — an expression that favors writing honestly in a shared world language about the struggles of the men and women of the Antilles and beyond.


David Biespiel is a poet, literary critic, memoirist, and contributing writer at American Poetry Review, New Republic, New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate, among other publications. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Education of a Young Poet, which was selected a Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers, A Long High Whistle, which received the 2016 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction, and The Book of Men and Women, which was chosen for Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the 2011 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. More from this author →