Derek Walcott: How major is he?
Derek Walcott has 8 full pages in Rita Dove’s anthology, and a Nobel Prize. Walcott’s pen sees the whole world, the colonized and the colonizers; he rhymes with a wide pen, almost as if he were pre-classical on a rocky island; but we also get the post-Romantic, fully modern in the crying city. Walcott comes close to putting all the elements together not just of a major poet of our time, but a major poet for all time. Perhaps only time will tell. We feel the elements are there: sound, image, vastness, vision, but it rarely comes together; each realized poem has its own humble shape and purpose, and large elements only partially help. Walcott lacks the warmth and passion of a Tennyson, for instance, the gleaming finish of a Poe, the exquisite playfullness of a Byron or a Burns, the force of a Homer, the acrobatics of a Pope, the haunting uncanniness of a Dickinson, but one almost feels that Walcott could be any of these things.
In a contest like March Madness, only the brief poem’s individual moment advances against the competition—a major poet is only as strong as the weakest part of some anthologized lyric. The following by Walcott was reprinted by Dove:
A FAR CRY FROM AFRICA
A wind is ruffling the tawny pelt
Of Africa, Kikuyu, quick as flies,
Batten upon the bloodstreams of the veldt.
Corpses are scattered through a paradise.
Only the worm, colonel of carrion, cries:
‘Waste no compassion on these separate dead!’
Statistics justify and scholars seize
The salients of colonial policy.
What is that to the white child hacked in bed?
To savages, expendable as Jews?
Threshed out by beaters, the long rushes break
In a white dust of ibises whose cries
Have wheeled since civilizations dawn
From the parched river or beast-teeming plain.
The violence of beast on beast is read
As natural law, but upright man
Seeks his divinity by inflicting pain.
Delirious as these worried beasts, his wars
Dance to the tightened carcass of a drum,
While he calls courage still that native dread
Of the white peace contracted by the dead.
Again brutish necessity wipes its hands
Upon the napkin of a dirty cause, again
A waste of our compassion, as with Spain,
The gorilla wrestles with the superman.
I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from Africa and live?
Does this work?
We do not think it does.
What can the reader possibly feel about, “How can I face such slaughter and be cool?” This is for the passionate podium, not the poem.
This is not to say this issue is not large and important, but the poet is diminishing it by turning it into explicitly helpless and hopeless rhetoric.
“How choose?” the English-speaking poet asks, but this sounds dangerously close to self-pity. It seems he is saying “I hate some who speak English, and I speak English, so what am I to do?” and this may be interesting. but the self-pitying dilemma, as he is putting it, is not interesting.
Lines like “The gorilla wrestles with the superman” take us out of the poem. If Walcott is trying to be like Yeats, he should know that Yeats confines himself in his short poems to a single subject or image; one cannot simply say out of the blue: “The gorilla wrestles with the superman” in a poem filled with all sorts of other things. The rhetoric of the paragraph-by-paragraph essay is not fit for the rhetoric of the line-by-line poem, and this law operates whether you are rhyming or not. Or whether you have a Nobel prize, or not.
Natasha Trethewey has three poems in Dove’s anthology, and this is one of them:
At the junk shop, I find an old pair,
black with grease, the teeth still pungent
as burning hair. One is small,
fine toothed as if for a child. Holding it,
I think of my mother’s slender wrist,
the curve of her neck as she leaned
over the stove, her eyes shut as she pulled
the wooden handle and laid flat the wisps
at her temples. The heat in our kitchen
made her glow that morning I watched her
wincing, the hot comb singeing her brow,
sweat glistening above her lips,
her face made strangely beautiful
as only suffering can do.
The equation of “strangely beautiful” with “suffering” is interesting, but we don’t know if it rises to a truth, unless we use “strangely beautiful” to mean anything we like.
Whereas Walcott’s poem fails in its large scope, Trethewey’s can’t help but feel somewhat small by comparison.
We’re afraid Trethewey’s short lyric is not enough to overcome the flawed poem of a Nobel winner.
Walcott 67, Trethewey 58