The author of Tuesday’s (Oct 30) editorial “A Grouse for Mr. Naipaul” may be interested in the following review which appeared in the New York Times April 8, 2007.
By Derek Walcott. Edited by Edward Baugh.
307 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $25.
Many critics see Walcott’s major achievement as “Omeros” (1990), a version of the Homeric epics translated to the Caribbean, the Trojan War reimagined as a struggle between two fishermen, Achille and Hector, over a woman named Helen. Despite imperious passages of broken terza rima, this epic of nearly 8,000 lines is spoiled by its clumsy narration (Walcott can never tell a story without losing his way in lovely detail), the black characters bloated with the poet’s ambition, the white no more than ludicrous caricatures. Whether describing a man’s scar “puckered like the corolla / of a sea-urchin” or an egret that “stabs and stabs the mud with one lifting foot,” Walcott never met a metaphor he didn’t like – or, indeed, that a reader wouldn’t love. But a tale can’t eat only rubies.
Walcott’s most frequently an-nounced emotion is joy, a joy that rarely seems joyous – his eye lacks nothing but a touch of sympathy (he could turn cancer into a bauble from Tiffany’s).
He has become a man for whom introspection never seems natural, though perhaps we’ve had too many poets confessing every sin under the sun (Walcott has none of Lowell’s ravaging candour or unsettling mildness).
He started as a painter, his failure likely the making of him as a poet; but the words sometimes seem mere daubs, skillfully pushed around the canvas while the pictures remain dead at the centre.
In the years since his Nobel Prize, Walcott’s work has been haunted by the dissolutions of mortality – The Prodigal (2004), his most recent book, sounds exhausted in its exits. He seems almost unmoved when taking the roll call of the dead, even when writing of the death of his twin brother; but when that reserve almost breaks down, as in his elegy for Joseph Brodsky, it produces some of his finest poems:
The last leaves fell like notes from a piano
and left their ovals echoing in the ear;
with gawky music stands, the winter forest
looks like an empty orchestra, its lines
ruled on these scattered manuscripts of snow.
These self-devouring figures, turning the tool kit of poetry into metaphor (the cane fields are “set in stanzas,” his “ocean kept turning blank pages”), speak to something almost unsaid – writing was Walcott’s escape from the islands. The metaphors whisper their quiet acknowledgment of guilt.
Edward Baugh, the Jamaican poet who has edited this modest selection, has slapped on a slightly embarrassing fan’s introduction, gushing about poems that are a “distillation from the harvest” and claiming that “reading Walcott is also an adventure in poetic form and style.” These are the metaphors of a vodka salesman and an army recruiter. Few poets have been lavished with greater gifts than Walcott; but much of his later work has been unadventurous (and undistilled), full of stock passages and stale opinions. He arrived at a few views when young and has trotted them out ever since. There are always marvellous passages, passages most poets would sell their souls for; but there are too many pages whose marvels have become all too routine.
The poetry of exile begins in sorrow. No matter how awful Rome, the Black Sea will never seem like home (when you have to go home, the landscape is what has to take you in). Walcott has captured his islands with a lushness and richness rare in our poetry – the outposts of empire once seemed as strange as Kipling’s India or Bishop’s Brazil. If air travel has brought them closer, it has brought their tragedies closer as well.
No living poet has written verse more delicately rendered or distinguished than Walcott, though few individual poems seem destined to be remembered. For more than half a century he has served as our poet of exile – a man almost without a country, unless the country lies wherever he has landed, in flight from himself.
William Logan is a poet and critic whose most recent books are The Whispering Gallery and The Undiscovered Country.