Derek Walcott at Warwick

University of Warwick Arts Centre March 4 2004

Review: John Alcock

An eclectic ancestry: a poetic perpetual quest for identityCurrently touring Britain, Derek Walcott was a welcome returning guest to the University and, in particular, the Centre for Caribbean Studies, celebrating its 20th anniversary. Either I’m a nobody or a nation,’ Walcott has said, referring to his eclectic ancestry: English (a grandfather from Warwickshire), Dutch and Caribbean blood. It would be hard for a world-class poet, painter, academic, and Nobel Prize laureate to be a nobody but he could pass for a nation: to the outsider he is, almost, St Lucia, the West Indian island of his birth and life-long residency.

What emerges in his poetry, however, is a perpetual quest for identity: personal, historical and spiritual. He fords not just streams or rivers but crosses oceans and continents, engaged in a poetic search that has gone on for over half a century to define the special mix that is Caribbean culture European, Hispanic, African. The poetry that has resulted is likely to move with ease between English literary form and Creole enrichment, classical allusion and a Caribbean bombardment of the senses you can almost peel off the page read Sainte Lucie’ to gain the full flavour.

These elements were all represented in Walcott’s choice of poems at Warwick, taken mostly from his Collected Poems 1948-84. [1] Names’ [for Edward Braithwaite] was a good place to start: My race began as the sea began, / with no nouns, and with no horizon .’ But this is no negative starting point – we are soon moving among: The goldsmith from Benares, / the stonecutter from Canton, / the bronzesmith from Benin.’ The search is on for enlightenment and endowment. Forest of Europe’, dedicated to his friend Joseph Brodsky, is Walcott in full flow and demonstrates the controlled power of well-crafted form and content. This is further illustrated by The Fortunate Traveller’ the quest theme once more the title poem of one of his best collections.

The crafting of poetry is essential to Walcott. He is disdainful about free verse and scathing about most workshop’-type poems. (Hilton Als quotes Walcott as once telling a class at Boston University: The problem is that you think poetry is democratic, that anyone can write it. It’s not – it’s aristocratic.’) [2] This was echoed in the discussion that followed the reading, led by David Dabydeen of the Centre for Caribbean Studies. Asked whether, at the start of his career, he looked for poetry or poetry came looking for him, Walcott asserted that to be any kind of artist was: a gift, an endowment and a benediction.’

[1] Derek Walcott, Collected Poems 1948-84, Faber & Faber 1992
[2] Hilton Als, The Islander’, The New Yorker, Feb 9 2004

2004-03-09 19:50:56

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