Untangling the Thematic Threads: Derek Walcott's Poetry

By Goddar, Horace I. | Kola, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview
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Untangling the Thematic Threads: Derek Walcott's Poetry


Goddar, Horace I., Kola


Derek Walcott's poetry is marked by socio-literary configurations that set up a variety of personas in his corpus of works. One of the more predominant aspects of his writing is the treatment of contrarieties that emanate from countervailing images of self in which a division is expressed or implied. For the purpose of this paper the "divided self' will be taken to mean a state of being that arises from a person's psycho-social awareness of biological admixing of several races, or the sense of socio-cultural plurality* The pull between dominant and competing values, derived from the races or cultures, has a tendency to lead to entropy. This condition of dissipating elements and moving them toward the creation of a new or different "whole," creates many tensions. Leopold Sedar Senghor writes of this cultural change which confronts the colonized man, and which shakes the very foundation of his being:

   To have to choose! deliciously between these two
   friendly hands
   ... these two antagonistic worlds

   When the pain ... ah! I cannot tell now which is my
      sister and which is my foster sister ...
      between those two hands

   That I want to make one again in my own warm
   hands. (1)

Walcott is artistically adept at exploring the many layers of the theme "the divided self." He examines it from an angle of vision which reflects that which is comic, tragic, cosmic and personal. Broadly speaking, Walcott's writing incorporates themes of identity, exile, isolation, birth, death, creation, the growth of national consciousness and the portrait of the artist. The journey motif is the hub of these themes and links them in a central way to the poet's persona! development as a craftsman. Emanating from Walcott's work is also a blend of sadness, melancholia and nostalgia which characterize the West Indian psyche and landscape. The prementioned themes are found in much of Walcott's poetry, in texts such as In a Green Night, The Castaway. The Golf, Sea Grew. Another Life, Star Apple Kingdom and The Fortunate Traveler.

'Prelude,' the first poem in In a Green Night, explores Walcott's ubiquitous theme of identity together with the consciousness of the people in the Caribbean islands, in the poem. there is a sense of division and alienation which are exemplified by the steamers that ply the islands, feelings reinforced by the voyeuristic tourists who help to create that atmosphere of confinement and limited scope behind their "ardent binoculars." (2) The tourists keep alive the whole question of identity as they travel among the islands. Lloyd Brown states that Walcott is "distrustful of the outsider's limited, and limiting perception m diaries, travelogues. and tourist's posters," Criticism of the outsider continues in the poem "Islands" where he points out that the tourist's narrow view is limited to the "beds and beaches" (p. 77). and that a true appreciation of "Islands can only exist/ If we have loved in them" (In a Green Night, p. 77).

The geography of the West Indies creates certain physical banners which in turn lead to separate island identities. Thus, the islands' insularity creates tension which at times tend to negate the group consciousness of the West Indians. Walcott also explores the dynamics of separateness on the psyche of the post-war West Indian. In "A Map of the Antilles," the Odysseus archetype finds a "destructive ocean" (p.55) between the islands which stems from the failure to unite:

   ... This is a brief?
   Ignored by our first parliaments, to chart
   The dangerous currents of dividing grief
   That make our union a mockery of the heart.
   (I.A.G.N., p. 55)

The poem "A Careful Passion," extends the paradox of separateness into his personal realm. The Odysseus character is now replaced by two lovers, and as they drift apart, the "memory slits the mind" (p. 4 3). Their need for each other contradicts what is considered their normal relationship, for if they stay together, worse things will come.

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