APRIL 7, 2014
IN HIS BOOK Poets on Painters, J. D. McClatchy makes the argument that modern poetry was invented by painters. He offers the example of Ezra Pound, who in 1913 spurned the mannered form of Victorian verse and called for the “shock and stroke” of a new poetry based on the image. In the second half of the 20th century, Derek Walcott heeded that call in more ways than one. Part of a grand lineage of painter-writers (Ben Jonson, William Blake, D. H. Lawrence), the contemplation of art has been central to his oeuvre.
Walcott’s oil or watercolor paintings of tropical landscapes adorn many of his book covers, including The Poetry of Derek Walcott, 1948-2013. This seminal collection showcases Walcott’s poetic trajectory from teenager to Nobel Laureate, concluding with a healthy selection from Walcott’s 2011 book, White Egrets. The poems bear the influence not so much of modernists but of English Romantics — Keats, Tennyson — and, to some extent, Robert Lowell. Throughout his long, illustrious career, Walcott’s work has shown the indissolubility of the lyric, distinguishing himself as the greatest living formalist poet — one of the last of his kind.
The collection, published by FSG and edited by Glyn Maxwell, is not the first selected by Walcott, but it is the most comprehensive. It includes seldom-seen poems written by the teenage Walcott, and provides a sweeping yet thorough examination of the octogenarian’s work. Walcott is usually referred to as a Caribbean poet (he was born in St. Lucia, educated in Jamaica), but that classification alone diminishes the breadth and significance of his oeuvre. Walcott embraces the formal English tradition to elucidate his Caribbean experience. The uniqueness of his voice stems from its hybrid of formal extravagance and graceful simplicity. This is apparent even in his 25 Poems, published when he was 18:
Where you rot under the strict gray industry
Of cities of fog and winter fevers, I
Send this to remind you of personal islands
For which Gauguins sicken, and to explain
How I have grown to know your passionate
Talent and this wild love of landscape.
(from “Letter to a Painter in England,” 25 Poems)
Walcott absorbs the world as a painter. He has always excelled with his lush collection of visual details (“flare of the ibis, rare vermilion”; “darkening talons of the tide;” “roads as small and casual as twine”), but his poetry is not simply a meditation on art and nature. His work devotes itself not to interpretations, but to intimacies. That is, he uses nature to explore his poetic experience. Walcott noted in a 1986 Paris Review interview that “the body feels it is melting into what it has seen,” and “if one thinks a poem is coming on […] you do make a retreat, a withdrawal into some kind of silence that cuts out everything around you.” So, while Walcott’s work is sometimes rooted in heady descriptions, his poems indulge both in transitory moments and the quiet after something has been seen, in the wake of astonishment. While the early poems are a welcome addition, he achieved this “quiet after” in later collections such as In a Green Night, The Castaway, and Sea Grapes, where the poems take on a kind of patient nostalgia, unhinged by experience and desire:
I walk with her into the brightening street;
Stores rattling shut, as brief dusk fills the city.
Only the gulls, hunting the water’s edge
Wheel like our lives, seeking something worth pity.
(from “A Careful Passion,” In a Green Night)
It is this pity, this humility, that permeates Walcott’s later works, and one sees faint imprints of Lowell, especially in the autobiographical 1973 book, Another Life. In the epigraph, Walcott quotes Malraux: “What makes the artist is the circumstance that in his youth he was more deeply moved by the sight of works of art than by that of the things which they portray.” Walcott writes,
in the middle of another life—
I begin here again,
begin until this ocean’s
a shut book, and, like a bulb
the white moon’s filaments wane.
(from “Chapter I,” Another Life)
Walcott was not, as Pound was, seduced solely by the image, the “direct treatment of the thing,” in Pound’s words. Walcott’s poetry is always intimately conscious of its inherent station, at the mercy of both disassociation and time. It was Racine who wrote: “L’Éloignement des pays répare en quelque sorte la trop grande proximité des temps” (The distance between countries compensates somewhat for the excessive closeness of time). The fact that Walcott writes so eloquently about time and place stems from what he called his “geographic dislocation,” and his identity as a writer of mixed race (of African, Dutch, and English heritage), born in a country colonized by both the British and the French. St. Lucia was passed so often between the two countries that it became known as the “Helen of the West Indies.” In his poem “A Far Cry from Africa,” he writes, “I who am poisoned with the blood of both, / where shall I turn, divided to the vein?” Walcott’s cultural pastiche manifests itself in his language, which sometimes blends the diction of the Creole dialect with the King’s English, sometimes veering toward American vernacular.
O, when I t’ink how from young
I wasted time at de fêtes,
I could bawl in a red-eyed rage
For desire turned to regret,
(from “Parang,” In a Green Night)
The beauty of Walcott’s writing stems not only from his painterly eye, but also from a sense that he has taken part in a type of spiritual provocation, which aims — like the artists he admires, Cézanne, Gauguin, Millet — to capture mortal encounters with the sublime. In Rilkean fashion, there is always a kind of submission to the muses in Walcott’s poetry, whether the muses be lovers, other poets, or a higher spiritual power. “I have never separated the writing of poetry from prayer,” Walcott said in The Paris Review. What seemed like mere brocade in his earlier work eventually took on a new kind of rapture, mellowing from extreme wonder into the composure of a still life:
What should be true of the remembered life
is a freshness of detail: this is how it was—
the almond’s smell from a torn almond leaf,
the spray glazing your face from the bursting waves.
And I, walking like him around the wharf’s
barrels and schooners, felt a steady love
growing in me, plaited with the strong weaves
of a fish pot, watching its black hands move,
(from “Tiepolo’s Hound”)
Maxwell was wise to include a substantial selection of Walcott’s most recent collection, White Egrets, in which Walcott reins in his earlier tendency for abundant metaphor and condenses it into a clear-cut mode of recollection. The title poem, “White Egrets,” reveals an elegiac wistfulness. He likens himself and his friends to those willowy birds he watches continuously, as if they are a part of his canvas, the delineations dividing the poet’s interior geography and the natural world falling away:
Cautious of time’s light and how often it will allow
the morning shadows to lengthen across the lawn
the stalking egrets to wriggle their beaks and swallow
when you, not they, or you and they, are gone;
for clattering parrots to launch their fleet at sunrise
for April to ignite the African violet
in the drumming world that dampens your tired eyes
behind two clouding lenses, sunrise, sunset,
the quiet ravages of diabetes.
Accept it all with level sentences
with sculpted settlement that sets each stanza;
learn how the bright lawn puts up no defenses
against the egret’s stabbing questions and the night’s answer.
No writer in the English language utilizes rhyme as marvelously as Walcott. The deceptively simple rhyme scheme seamlessly melds with the movement of the poem, diverging only with “the quiet ravages of diabetes,” a barbed stroke toward the end of this 13-line near-sonnet that alters the tone from serene to valedictory.
Never forced or superfluous, Walcott’s enjambments follow his organic procession of thought. This collection demonstrates the ways his work has superseded his great formalist tenets to illuminate his larger sense of witness. No need to disentangle metaphor or symbolism, Walcott returns the reader, always, to the eye of his mind, sharing his world with all its wonders and intricacies. Poetry, Walcott said, is “a benediction, a transference. It’s gratitude, really.” There’s much to be thankful for in this exceptional and necessary collection.