"Either I'm Nobody or I'm a Nation": Derek Walcott's Poetry

By McCallum, Shara | The Antioch Review, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

"Either I'm Nobody or I'm a Nation": Derek Walcott's Poetry


McCallum, Shara, The Antioch Review


The experience of first hearing Derek Walcott's poetry marked me such that, fifteen years later, I can conjure sitting in the wooden church pew and listening to his voice, riding the lilt of his words, a cadence at once familiar and strange. I was twenty, an undergraduate at the University of Miami. Earlier that week, my creative-writing teacher had informed me that one of my countrymen, so to speak, had recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature and would be reading at an old church in Coral Gables--and that I simply could not miss it. Only in retrospect did I realize how wise she was to steer me toward the reading. As with other experiences to which she led me, hearing Walcott helped me to imagine myself as a writer. But it would be a lie to say that the reading apprenticed me to his work. Whether due to humility or ignorance, I did not immediately feel kinship with Walcott's poetry and my own incipient attempts at writing in the genre.

Three years later, Walcott was brought up again in more pointed relation to my work as an aspiring poet in his tradition. I was completing an MFA at the University of Maryland and finishing the last hurdle: the "defense" of my thesis. One of the members of my committee was Grenadian poet and fiction writer Merle Collins. Speaking of one of my poems Merle remarked, "These lines are so Walcott. Can you say more about his influence on your poetry?" I had to admit that I couldn't. I had read one of his plays and an essay in a class I'd taken on Caribbean Literature, but knew none of his poems intimately enough to answer her question.

I realized then that I would need to correct this gap in my reading. I suspect a similar moment comes for most poets of my generation from the Caribbean, the instance when we realize that we must reckon with Walcott's poetry. Walcott, the writer, is a totemic figure and one with whom many of us, rightly or wrongly, at some point are compared or compare ourselves. He declines to place himself as the single progenitor of the Caribbean poetic tradition, but even he has had to admit that he has been instrumental in creating it and will have a notable influence on those who come after him.

In a 1977 interview with American poet Ed Hirsch, Walcott offered the following: "I think if the development of West Indian literature continues, my generation of writers will be known as people who had to go through a very anguished kind of identity crisis. And if we've set down West Indian roots, we've used the language we heard around us and described the things we saw and the experiences we went through as a people. It has been to lay the foundation for whatever masterpieces would later come out of that part of the world." Beyond the genealogical implications of his words for younger writers, what strikes me here is Walcott's emphasis on giving an account of a "people's experience." Of all the literary arts, poetry is perhaps the worst vehicle for achieving this aim, steeped as poems are in metaphor, in speaking indirectly. As compensation for this lack, I hope, what they do exceptionally well is clarify one individual's attitude toward a situation, thought, or feeling. A poem exposes and defines the moment that a particular consciousness and language meet; and Walcott's poems tilt this moment of encounter toward the light in such a way that the gesture itself and the resulting poem often reveal the prismatic nature of identity.

His poems circle a core question: is there an origin to which any of us can lay claim in order to know our self? More than my admiration for his language or the cultural relevance his work holds for me, Walcott's interest in naming the self is why I now consider his poetry an essential part of who I have become as a Caribbean poet. The lines of my own poem Merle felt were "so Walcott," not surprisingly, were these: "If we name in order to know: / say apple / it will taste red. / say bird / it will fly / from your mouth. / say home / see what stays. …

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