Paradise Lost

Nicholas Everett

  • Omeros by Derek Walcott
    Faber, 325 pp, £17.50, September 1990, ISBN 0 571 16070 0
  • Collected Poems by Norman MacCaig
    Chatto, 456 pp, £18.00, September 1990, ISBN 0 7011 3713 4
  • The Mail from Anywhere by Brad Leithauser
    Oxford, 55 pp, £5.95, September 1990, ISBN 0 19 282779 0
  • An Elegy for the Galosherman: New and Selected Poems by Matt Simpson
    Bloodaxe, 128 pp, £6.95, October 1990, ISBN 1 85224 103 9

During the 18th and 19th centuries verse surrendered its longer discursive and narrative forms to prose and confined itself more and more to the short lyric and the sequence of short lyrics. Much of this century’s verse appears to be continuing the process by avoiding paraphrasable meaning altogether. One need only point to the work of Wallace Stevens or John Ashbery to show how successfully some of it sustains our expectations while ultimately refusing to deliver the semantic goods. Having extracted a poem’s point, runs the usual defence of such teasing evasions, readers will have no further use for the poem itself: indeterminacy thus insures a poem against prompt expiry and may even keep it enduringly fresh. Furthermore, if a poem can be paraphrased, it will fail to reflect the radically ‘meaningless’, indeterminate nature of our experience. Derek Walcott’s poems, informed and invigorated as many them are by a coherent ideology, don’t conform to this negative aesthetic. Their ideology, however, is a cultural version of it.

Until recently, as the Barbadan poet Edward Kamau Brathwaite says, West Indians ‘have been unable to afford the luxury of mythology’. Colonial history offers merely divisive images which can only provoke nostalgia, remorse, shame or rancour. Hence many West Indian writers have sought to re-align themselves with the cultural traditions of their various continents of origin. Brathwaite himself, for example, found an authentic West Indian identity in Ghana, where he lived and taught for eight years. His long poem The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy (1973) satirises the continuing attachment of the West Indian middle class to the European religious and social legacy, suggesting West African – and in particular Akan – culture as a preferable alternative. Walcott wouldn’t deny his African or his European ancestry: but, having been born and brought up in St Lucia, and spent most of his life in the Caribbean, he has reservations about forcing links with ancestral traditions. ‘It would be equally abhorrent to me to say “I wish we were English again,” ’ he told an interviewer in 1979, ‘as to say “I wish we were African again.” The reality is that one has to build in the West Indies.’ The African revival, as he sees it, may provide a ‘startling access of self-respect’, but can’t help West Indians to root themselves more firmly in the Caribbean.

For Walcott, then, the first step towards creating a West Indian identity is to resist the meanings conferred by history or mythology since the histories and myths in question are based elsewhere. In cadences as Emersonian as its sentiments, his essay ‘The Muse of History’ celebrates the ‘great poets of the New World, from Whitman to Neruda’, whose ‘truly tough aesthetic ... neither explains nor forgives history’ but ‘refuses to recognise it as a creative or culpable force’:

Their vision of man in the New World is Adamic.
In their exuberance he is still capable of enormous
wonder. Yet he has paid his accounts to Greece
and Rome and walks in a world without monuments
and ruins. They exhort him against the fearful
magnet of older civilisations ...

Walcott’s meditative poetic persona can rarely be mistaken for the vatic and declamatory voices of the poets he praises (Cesaire and Perse are also included). If their focus is a clamorous ‘Adamic’ man, his is the Edenic scene. In poems like ‘Crusoe’s Journal’ and ‘The Muse of History at Rampanalgas’ (which later became Chapter 22 of his verse künstler-roman, Another Life, 1973), he seeks refuge in Caribbean landscapes which have never been marked by history or named by literature: ‘a green world, one without metaphors’, where the historian goes ‘mad ... / from thirst’ and ‘the only epics’ are ‘the leaves’. Watching the urban world, he conjures a similar restless repose. His favourite time in town would appear to be midday on a midsummer Sunday, when his subjects are stilled by heat and resting from work, and history seems to pause. Midsummer gives its name and moment to the sequence of hexameters (published in 1984) evoking the menace and boredom stirred in ‘oven alleys’ where ‘heat staggers the drifting mongrels’; and Sundays, ‘idling from the thought in things’, recur with extraordinary frequency throughout his work, getting at least a passing mention in five successive poems in In a Green Night (1962). In the Caribbean the ‘past is an infinite Sunday’, says the narrator of Omeros, and ‘better forgotten than fixed with stony regret’.

The ‘Adamic’ or ‘elemental’ vision, Walcott insists, is a ‘social necessity’ (a necessary response to the displacement and dispossession in every West Indian’s past), and correspondingly determined, vigorous, optimistic (if also optative) and even elated. Where Walcott directly confronts the emptiness of the Caribbean natural or social scene, however, elation is always qualified, and sometimes overwhelmed, by pathos and anger. Elsewhere he expels such feelings by paying his ‘accounts to Greece and Rome’ and wandering through the ‘monuments and ruins’ of the Old World before turning, with considerable relief, to establish his Eden in the New. History and mythology are turned against themselves, invoked and then dismissed.

Walcott’s many transpositions of Classical and especially Homeric themes from the Aegean to the Antillean satisfy his ‘fever for heroic examples’. Yet they also link the Antillean to an idea of origin, pushing the intervening eras of Western history and literature into parenthesis. They end, more often than not, in contrast rather than similarity: his Caribbean characters fall short of their heroic counterparts, while, more poignantly, modern Caribbean life simply can’t be realised in images from the ancient Mediterranean. ‘This is not the grape-purple Aegean,’ the speaker of ‘Gros-Ilet’ tells Elpenor in Walcott’s last collection, The Arkansas Testament (1987). ‘The classics can console,’ concludes the title-poem of Sea Grapes (1976). ‘But not enough.’

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