They call him Mister Bombastic: ‘Because he is well capable of rhetoric and flourish, he too often allows these two-edged gifts to deflect him from a real, vivid self into a bombastic stance’ (Eavan Boland); ‘I have found Walcott’s extravagance of poetic diction and tendency to verbosity off-putting in the past’ (Peter Porter); ‘I feel that the fuss and the language are not quite justified by the donné’ (Roy Fuller). Derek Walcott has suffered, perhaps more than any other contemporary poet writing in English, from accusations that his work is too showy. Some of the accusations stick.
Much of Walcott’s early work – ‘Prelude’, for example, and ‘A Far Cry from Africa’ – is like the early, glam Auden:
my life, too early of course for the profound cigarette,
The turned doorhandle, the knife turning
In the bowels of the hours.
Again brutish necessity wipes its hands
Upon the napkin of a dirty cause, again
A waste of our compassion, as with Spain
It’s a strain that still runs like a band of fool’s gold through his new collection, apparent in the pompy, sequinned Sea and the Mirror-style terza rima of the first part of The Bounty and in gaudy monstrosities: ‘but today the repetitions;/the fog clouding the cobbles, the ethnic cleaning’, where the allusion to Auden’s ‘Spain’ is forgivable, but where the showy twist on ethnic cleansing is inappropriate and ugly, the kind of flourish which is only possible, as Orwell famously noted of an infamous phrase in Auden’s poem, ‘if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled’.
In the early days Walcott’s careless and gleeful plundering didn’t really matter; it was a sign of nimble wit and high intelligence – ‘the first phase’, Pound writes in The ABC of Reading, ‘of anyone’s writing always shows them doing something “like” something they have heard or read’ – but in late middle age the thefts and borrowings seem eccentric and rather pathetic, like a wealthy old woman stealing cat food in a supermarket: it’s unnecessary; it makes you want to avert your eyes.
There is a certain stiffness, too, in Walcott’s continual invocations and declarations of intent. Long ago, with his first collection, In a Green Night (1962), he stated his aims in the poem ‘As John to Patmos’, and again in ‘Islands’:
O slave, soldier, worker under red trees sleeping, hear
What I swear now, as John did:
To praise lovelong, the living and the brown dead,
As climate seeks its style, to write
Verse crisp as sand, clear as sunlight,
Cold as the curled wave, ordinary
As a tumbler of island water
and in collection after collection he has reiterated these ambitions. The constant reminders are, one feels, not so much for the benefit of the audience as for that of the speaker, a rhetorical throat-clearing, the equivalent of a quick glance in the mirror – ‘These lines that I write now’, ‘Let it be written’, ‘Let these lines’ – before sailing out into the wider world, to meet, greet and impress:
At the end of this line there is an opening door
that gives on a blue balcony where a gull will settle
with hooked fingers, then, like an image leaving an idea,
beat in slow scansion across the hammered metal
of the afternoon sea, a sheet that my right hand steers –
a small sail making for Martinique or Sicily.
And yet to criticise Walcott for being derivative, or for his showmanship, is both small and mean-minded. (‘Fear of imitation obsesses minor poets,’ Walcott has written, and not just minor poets, but major critics too – Helen Vendler has accused Walcott of ventriloquism.) His genius may be intermittent and may have taken a long time to emerge – his best work doesn’t begin until 1973, with the publication of his fourth collection, the autobiographical Another Life – but most of his poems are well made, and a number are near perfect. In several of the chapters in Another Life, and in his pithiest volume, Sea Grapes (1976), and in parts of his epic, Omeros (1990), he manages to combine his book-learning and his affection for the natural world to produce poems of sensuousness and intelligence.
Which is not to say that his work now is any less showy. For those who prefer quiet and shade, The Bounty, Walcott’s first post-Nobel collection, is an assault on the senses: even the banana-yellow dust-jacket is an eyesore. The collection opens with a fanfare of allusion, the first poem ringing a loud echo from ‘The Hollow Men’ and then a reminder of Isaiah’s vision of Zion restored:
Between the vision of the Tourist Board and the true
Paradise lies the desert where Isaiah’s elations
force a rose from the sand.
It’s a big, bold blowsy note to open on, and not at all untypical. James Merrill, a poet of some breeding and considerable refinement, once remarked, in his essay ‘On Literary Tradition’, that ‘it’s a bit snotty to nudge the reader too obviously with references to Virgil or Eliot’, but Walcott remains an unashamed nudger and snotter, a poet, one might say, without good manners: impudent, unapologetic and vulgar. This continues to put a lot of critical noses out of joint. You either like poems which are ostentatious, which list and boast and meander, which sometimes moralise and are nostalgic, or else you think they’re in bad taste. Which is to say that you either like the bathos of something like this –
‘In la sua volontà nostra pace,’
In His will is our peace. Peace in white harbours,
in marinas whose masts agree, in crescent melons
left all night in the fridge, in the Egyptian labours
of ants moving boulders of sugar, words in this sentence,
shadow and light, who live next door like neighbours,
and in sardines with pepper sauce.
– or you find it rather embarrassing and outré. Enthusiasm is discouraged in Britain: schoolchildren are told not to be big-headed and taught to be very careful about using exclamation marks in their stories and essays (Walcott, of course, spikes his text with them – ‘and that is/their bounty!’, ‘come on now, enough!’, ‘Bounty!’, ‘ah yes!, don’t interrupt!’), and in universities the Marys have won out over the Marthas: no waste, value for money, efficiency. Everyone now seems to prefer matt to shiny and to distrust sparkle of any kind – in furnishings, in food, in philosophy and in poets. We prefer the sombre, darker tones, moodily suggesting depth and history. Brilliance is usually acceptable only if it goes hand in hand with breeding (whence the popularity of Stephen Fry). Walcott does not fit the bill: he’s an outsider and an overreacher and his work betrays a definite lack of cool; it sparkles and it shines.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. There is a 1936 recording of Ella Fitzgerald with Chick Webb and his Orchestra performing the song ‘Shine’, the young Ella’s light, yet slightly strained and throaty voice perfectly matching the plaintive and defiant lyrics: ‘Cause my hair is curly ... Cause my teeth are pearly ... Cause I’m glad I’m living,/Take trouble smiling, never whine ... Cause my colour’s shady/And slightly different maybe/That’s why they call me “Shine”.’ In the Thirties a Shine or a Shiney was a derogatory white term for a black American: the song appropriates the word and turns it around, in much the same way in which Shabine, the narrator of ‘The Schooner Flight’ in Walcott’s The Star-Apple Kingdom (1979) rises above his own self-description as a nigger –
I’m just a red nigger who love the sea,
I had a sound colonial education,
I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,
and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.
The final ‘either/or’ here turns back on the phrase ‘just a red nigger’, and forces it to choose between nobody or nation. This is what people mean when they talk about post-colonialism: the assertion of a positive identity in the face, and in the language, of insult; the triumph of nigger and shine.
And so Walcott’s The Bounty shines on, in defiance of dull-wittedness, prejudice and the glums, a celebration of his native Caribbean, much of it concerned with the play of the sun on sea and sand, the firefly ‘that keeps striking matches’, the wind that ‘shines white stones’, the ‘stones that shone with stoniness’, the ‘bright day, rippled morning’. Glory is all around in these poems: the sun is ‘contained in a globe of the crystal dew’, ‘great bursts of exaltation crest the white breaker’ and there is even bounty in ‘the light’s parallelogram laid on the kitchen floor’. For all that he keeps checking in with John Clare (‘John Clare, forgive me’), the real tutelary presence in the book is Hopkins, with Walcott keen to copy and to capture the flare of ‘God’s Grandeur’, that sense of the world ‘charged’ and ready to ‘flame out’. For once the Swedish Academy hit the right note in its citation, awarding Walcott the Nobel Prize for a poetic oeuvre, as they put it, of ‘great luminosity’.
At times, admittedly, there’s still more heat than light. An allusion to Kristallnacht, for example, in a series of disastrously bad poems about Europe in the new collection, simply does not work:
Grey faces are screening
themselves (like the moon drawing thin
curtains to the tramp of jackboots, as shattered glass rains
diamonds on the pavement).
It’s entirely the wrong connection to make, the shattered glass and diamonds suggesting an association between Jews and jewels, and between violence and beauty. And in several poems, including the otherwise unexceptionable ‘Christmas Eve’, the twinkliness of language blurs into candle-waving cliché (‘candles that never gutter and go out in the breeze’). The poems may be polished but they sometimes lack the all-important inner light, the sparkle of truth.
And this despite the fact that Walcott himself has seen the Light, is a believer, a Christian, of sorts. In ‘A Letter from Brooklyn’, from the collection In a Green Night, an old lady writes to the poem’s narrator, ‘in a spidery style,/Each character trembling’, about his dead father and about her confidence in the father’s place in heaven: ‘So this old lady writes,’ the poem ends, echoing and affirming her childlike faith, ‘and again I believe./I believe it all, and for no man’s death I grieve.’ In The Bounty Walcott recalls singing hymns in church, and the hymns he remembers, significantly, are children’s hymns: Mrs Alexander’s ‘There is a green hill far away’ and ‘Jerusalem the golden’, with its promise of halls of Zion ‘conjubilant with song’:
O sweet and blessed country,
Shall I ever see thy face?
O sweet and blessed country,
Shall I ever win thy grace?
Exult, O dust and ashes,
The Lord shall be thy part:
His only His for ever
Thou shalt be, and thou art.
‘It was that verse about becoming again as a little child that caused the first sharp waning of my Christian sympathies,’ Larkin wrote, reviewing the Opies’ Lore and Language of Schoolchildren in 1959. ‘If the Kingdom of Heaven could be entered only by those fulfilling such a condition I knew I should be unhappy there.’ Walcott’s innocent exultations and his refusal to grieve run against the dominant religious and aesthetic temperament in Britain, where melancholy is preferred to affirmation, the deepening darkness of ‘Abide with me’ to the golden beams and rushing winds of ‘All creatures of our God and King’. The negative, as Eliot has it in his essay on Dante in The Sacred Wood, ‘is the more importunate’. Which perhaps explains why Walcott’s poetry remains a challenge to taste: either his work is too rich, or our palettes are too delicate.