Friday, July 4, 2008

An unfair take on Derek Walcott

I am not a fan of Derek Walcott, and here I get the usual DW routine of reading a poet who spends an inordinate amount of time trying to make what he sees, smells,hears, tastes interesting in themselves, blessed only with an excess of qualifiers that the poem becomes something like perfectly fine cup of coffee ruined with too many spoons of sugar. It's not that I haven't tried to get acquainted with the man's work; he did win the Nobel Prize for Literature, after all, and was at the time required reading for anyone thinking themselves up on poetry. The Nobel Committee isn't infallible, though, and matched Walcott prolix poetasting in 1992 with the selection of Dario Fo in 1997, a questionably lefty playwright I think never should have been allowed the small press. 

The difference, of course, is that Walcott has an audience, the same audience that sees poetry as a means to get to the Idea behind the Things we see , taste, and feel, the same audience Billy Collins more skillfully (and succinctly) caters to. And so Walcott hams up the language with digressions that offer more silt than sunshine. It might be a dual problem between reader and poet--his audience thinks he's going somewhere with the elephantine mythology he constructs, and so does the poet.

The problem, I guess, is that Walcott tries for elegance and transcendence and yet never convinces you that he's even looked out the window let alone taken a trip anywhere. There is so much rocking back and forth between obvious extremes of situation, so many adjectives and verbs seeking to convince you that details being offered are more exciting and significant because DW perceived and categorized them. It is both arch and prosaic, a monotony of routine list making.

by Derek Walcott,
born in St. Lucia in 1930
Then all the nations of birds lifted together
the huge net of the shadows of this earth
in multitudinous dialects, twittering tongues,
stitching and crossing it. They lifted up
the shadows of long pines down trackless slopes,
the shadows of glass-faced towers down evening streets,
the shadow of a frail plant on a city sill -- 
the net rising soundless at night, the birds' cries soundless, until
there was no longer dusk, or season, decline, or weather,
only this passage of phantasmal light
that not the narrowest shadow dared to sever.

And men could not see, looking up, what the wild geese drew,
what the ospreys trailed behind them in the silvery ropes
that flashed in the icy sunlight; they could not hear
battalions of starlings waging peaceful cries,
bearing the net higher, covering this world
like the vines of an orchard, or a mother drawing 
the trembling gauze over the trembling eyes
of a child fluttering to sleep;
it was the light
that you will see at evening on the side of a hill
in yellow October, and no one hearing knew
what change had brought into the raven's cawing,
the killdeer's screech, the ember-circling chough
such an immense, soundless, and high concern
for the fields and cities where the birds belong,
except it was their seasonal passing, Love,
made seasonless, or, from the high privilege of their birth,
something brighter than pity for the wingless ones
below them who shared dark holes in windows and in houses,
and higher they lifted the net with soundless voices
above all change, betrayals of falling suns, 
and this season lasted one moment, like the pause
between dusk and darkness, between fury and peace,
but, for such as our earth is now, it lasted long.

This is the kind of self-consciously literary language that ruins the literary experience for millions of readers who otherwise wish to be transported through a brilliant use of language. The theater advice applies here, "don't let them see you act", meaning that the effort to evoke conditions and states of experience through artistic means should seem effortless; the technique should be invisible , unnoticed. The artful should conveyed without the conspicuous essence of art. Walcott's poems make think of a man who wants to let you know that he's a poet, that he is a wordsmith.The elegance for the sake of elegance always seems more the subject in Walcott's poems, or the point of the writing; the subject exists primarily as a means to display  his  virtuosity. The net effect, in my readings of him on an off for twenty years or so, is a stalling tactic--the undecidability isn't an Ashbery like conundrum after one of his intense and relatively compact scrutinies between his Stevens-like formations of perfect Ideal Types and the world independent of the senses. In Ashbery's and Stevens' cases, the point of the poems was to evocatively ponder the distance between perception and a material existence that will not conform to the demands of brilliant language. That creates tension,suspense, irony; there is intrigue and there is reader interest in what the poet makes of it, if anything.

Success, though, depends on how      well the language used to accommodate the subject and ideas being subjected to the kinds of extra-critical interrogation. For Walcott, it too often seems a case of indecision of what to settle on as a nest of notions on which to write and instead obscuring that blankness with sparkling qualifiers that , after a point, enhance not ideas or emotions but rather emptiness, a lack of anything interesting to say.  It's not for me to demand what this means because that's the least interesting thing to worry about in a discussion of a work, but I would expect a competent poem to at least be able to evoke sensations, associations and the like toward a satisfying ambiguity; a certain genius with the language is required, and Walcott, Nobel Prize or no, hasn't that genius. The banal poeticisms of "soundless voices", "betrayals of falling suns" "the pause between dusk and darkness" and the like are arty rather than artful, It amazes a certain readership,but to me this borders on kitsch.


  1. Just to point out that I feel just the opposite: Walcott offers richly detailed language with great attention to the musical qualities. The example you gave wasn't the strongest work however.

    Billy Collins, on the other hand, struck me more as the author of a slightly more polished version of the free verse of bright teenage omphalloskeptics. His work does nothing for me.

    I'm not sure why you bring Dario Fo into this. Whether one likes his politics or not, he is the most widely translated living playwright in the world today, who has also revived poetic and theatrical traditions of the late medieval and early modern eras as well as making his own unique contributions to theatre.

  2. It depends on what sort of music one prefers, I guess, but following the analogy, I would think Walcott's melodies are a thick version of old school Muzak, a terrain of sound where the clearest compositions are turned into the muddiest kind of tonal impressionism. It all sounds that it should add up to something, but it does not, and I find myself agreeing with William Logan, a critic whom I think is too often mean for the sake of being so; in this case he has said that Walcott has never met a metaphor he didn't fall in love with. The habit of trying to make everything rich, full of texture and signifying reversals and poignant oppositions produces not music, but sludge. What Collins could offer Walcott is a certain terseness, a way to value the weight of a line balanced by other figurations he might be considering, and how to come to a point or, if not a point, a convincing place to end the poem. Dario Fo is mentioned solely for the example that the Nobel people are not infallible in their selections for Literature, as subjective a field as one can enter; Fo isn't that fantastic a writer either.

    Thanks for the note, Ian, and I hope you had a great 4th.

  3. Unfortunately Collins' "terseness" seems to be his strongest virtue. I find the actual content of his poems boringly pedestrian, and he writes for what is essentially an 8th grade reading level. He's as commercially successful as he is because he takes few risks and is accessible, so few are offended and fewer are puzzled.

    While every poet has their vice, likening the word-drunk Walcott to Muzak is ridiculous-- he does take risks, both in the sense that his work takes on political reality of his life-- a classically educated Afro-Caribbean who immigrated to the UK and then to the USA, and also in language-- the dialect of the island of his birth co-exists on the same page as Shakespearian iambic pentameter. As a reader, I find his work very rewarding because it links the modern with the classics.

    On to Fo: Your only citation against him is his politics. One thing that is important to remember is that the Nobel comittee, when it gave the prize to him did consider, wasn't necessarily his ideology-- but the fact that to stage the sort of political satires he did in Italy during the 1960s and '70s was a very brave thing to do since it could get one killed (in fact, his wife, the actress, now Senator, Franca Rame was abducted, raped and tortured by a group of off duty Military Police officers.) And yes, the Nobel prize does go for acts of literary bravery (see Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.) "Archangels Don't Play Pinball" might not be an important work of world literature, but "Accidental Death of an Anarchist", "Mistero Buffo," and "Johan Padan and the Discovery of the Americas" are.

    Oh I had a great 4th. Thanks.

  4. Collins has more going for him than just terseness, and for someone who is not afraid of making sense in the most conventional meaning of the phrase he is surprisingly subtle. I don't make grandiose claims for him as a poet, though, and what I would recommend in his style to Walcott is his economy. My example is limited.

    I'm well aware of Walcott's background, education and influences, and will admit that the premise of someone from Trinidad writing authentic poetry with a imperialist language, but he does, for me, over shoot his mark. This isn't something I decided after a cursory read; I've read him on and off since College, reacquainting myself with him after he garnered his Nobel, and come to the conclusion that although I know what he's trying to do, I think he over does it too often.

    Fo I don't care for, and think the Committee could have made several stronger choices, based on a writer's actual art. It occurs to me that they too often shy away from aesthetic worth and measure a candidate by quirky means that are increasingly irrelevant to the current state of literature.

  5. Anonymous5:48 PM PST

    Derek Walcott, is, quite simply, to me, the greatest poet who has ever written in the modern english languague. He is awe-inspiring, and this poem, in particualar, along with the ending IV to The Prodigal, bring me to tears. This poem is an epic and metaphor for the coming together of all the races, humanity, it is beautiful, if you can't see that, your life is going to take ominous turns. God is with me. Don't doubt what I tell you.

  6. I respect your view that Walcott is "greatest poet who has ever written in the modern english language", but I do wish you'd made a cogent defense of his work rather than insist that awful things will happen to me if I don't change my view. This , perhaps unintentionally, equates Walcott's work with chain letters ie, "bad things will happen to you if you break the chain." Really, I don't disagree with the political/spiritual argument the poem makes; what sane person can disagree with peace, harmony, understanding between all races? No one, of course. My gripe is about a matter of style, not politics or philosophy. I simply think that Walcott overwrites much of the time and that his power is diminished by the surfeit of well placed qualifiers. Well placed or not, overworked metaphors cloud beauty.



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