"He gives us more than himself or ‘a world'; he gives us a sense of infinity embodied in the language." Alongside Joseph Brodsky's words of praise one might mention the more concrete honors that the renowned poet Derek Walcott has received: a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship; the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry; the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948–2013 draws from every stage of the poet's storied career. Here are examples of his very earliest work, like "In My Eighteenth Year," published when the poet himself was still a teenager; his first widely celebrated verse, like "A Far Cry from Africa," which speaks of violence, of loyalties divided in one's very blood; his mature work, like "The Schooner Flight" from The Star-Apple Kingdom; and his late masterpieces, like the tender "Sixty Years After," from the 2010 collection White Egrets.
Across sixty-five years, Walcott grapples with the themes that have defined his work as they have defined his life: the unsolvable riddle of identity; the painful legacy of colonialism on his native Caribbean island of St. Lucia; the mysteries of faith and love and the natural world; the Western canon, celebrated and problematic; the trauma of growing old, of losing friends, family, one's own memory. This collection, selected by Walcott's friend the English poet Glyn Maxwell, will prove as enduring as the questions, the passions, that have driven Walcott to write for more than half a century.
“Derek Walcott is a natural poet. Walcott, who turned 84 this year, began writing young. His first poem appeared in a local paper when he was 14, and his first volume, 25 Poems, was self-published when he was 18. ‘Everyone wants a prodigy to fail,' Rita Dove wrote. ‘It makes our mediocrity more bearable.' Walcott did not fail . . . Walcott pays indefatigable attention to the look of things, and writes with a spendthrift approach to the word-hoard . . . He [brings] the patient and accretive sensibility of a realist painter to his poems. They are great piles of intoxicating description, always alert to the demands of meter and form, often employing rhyme or slant rhyme, great layers of adjectives firming up the noun underpainting . . . The writing leaves mere lyricism far behind and rises to the level of prophetic speech, as in the extraordinary poem ‘The Season of Phantasmal Peace.' One inescapable conclusion from reading hundreds of pages of Walcott at once is the feeling that this is the lifework of an ecstatic . . . Walcott has few equals in the use of metaphor. In his imagination, each thing seems to be linked to another by a special bond, unapparent until he points it out, permanently fresh once he does. Most of these metaphors he uses just once, brilliantly, discarding them in the onrush of description . . . The reader imagines Walcott, as he sets these striking images down, mentally shuttling between the fact of the world and the fact of the poem. Often, he is evoking the sea's activity, or the sky's, and making analogies with his own practice of describing it. And so it is that on the last poem on the last page of this largehearted and essential book, the two realities finally merge. The natural poet dissolves, astonished, into nature, ‘as a cloud slowly covers the page and it goes / white again and the book comes to a close.'”—Teju Cole, The New York Times Book Review
“The Poetry of Derek Walcott . . . [is] a rich and beautiful new selection of [Walcott's] life's work, edited by Glyn Maxwell . . . Language becomes a means of mastering his surroundings, enabling him to gain an almost magical power over the elements; language is more real to him than reality itself . . . These magician's powers are rare enough in twentieth-century poetry. But what is even rarer than the ability is the desire to write, as Walcott does, with such abundance and felicity . . . Perhaps no poet since Tennyson has created the kind of rapt verbal spell that Walcott can produce . . . Yet Walcott's style . . . is also unmistakably of twentieth-century vintage . . . Its modernity lies in the extraordinary freedom of Walcott's images, which go beyond mixed metaphor to achieve a kind of synesthesia . . . The associative freedom of Walcott's style goes hand in hand with its visual logic. Walcott is an accomplished painter—like several of his books, the cover of The Poetry of Derek Walcott bears one of his landscapes . . . Walcott . . . [gives] us not merely what is seen but the rhythm of seeing itself . . . By combining the grammar of vision with the freedom of metaphor, Walcott produces a beautiful style that is also a philosophical style . . . He remains a poet of astonishing inventiveness . . . Perhaps the greatest proof of his achievement is that, after a lifetime of remaking the world in language, Walcott can force even death to submit to the power of his metaphors.”—Adam Kirsch, The New Yorker
“Few poets can sustain a collection spanning more than 600 pages and weighing over a kilo. Derek Walcott is one of the rare exceptions, and this is his most comprehensive anthology so far. Covering nearly seven decades, it is testament to an extraordinary talent . . . Unlike most contemporary poets, who write in compressed phrases and short lines, Mr Walcott's work is voluminous. "It's better to be large and to make huge gestures than to be modest and do tiptoeing types of presentation of oneself," he once explained in an interview with the Paris Review. The heft of this new volume speaks of a life and work that live up to that vastness . . . It is rare for Mr Walcott to seem lost for words: his verse is generous and often recalls epic poetry. But this tension between striving to write as one wants and being able to write at all appears as a constant undercurrent in his work . . . this volume serves as a reminder of a great poet, whose life has been as vast as his work.”—The Economist
“One important element of Walcott's poetry is that it's a political poetry of the anti-repressive variety. He turns what might have been natural contempt for the European marauder into exotic kind of inclusiveness. As a Caribbean man, Walcott's self-awareness—that is to say, his use of traditional poetic meters inherited from English models—helps him, over time, to produce an art that is absolute and unassailable . . . When asking the question what does using ‘European poetic form' gain for an Antillean poet, one answer comes from V. S. Naipaul. In reply to a patronizing British culture, Walcott's entire body of poetry echoes what V. S. Naipaul once wrote home to his father from England, ‘I want to come top of my group. I have got to show these people that I can beat them at their own language.' . . . Walcott's lushness first reveals and then neatly undercuts the Caribbean's perverse mixture of, for instance, colonial landed estates exploiting native workers and servants. Walcott's ‘love of description' is in service of exposing the discrepancy between blooming flowers and sparkling waters with island economies built on a violent history of sugar plantations, slavery, and forced labor . . . Walcott's use of British poetic forms is both dutiful and insurgent. Prettiness in poetry, or painterliness, isn't the object for Derek Walcott. Instead, he's fashioning images that assert, claim, reclaim, defy, and identify a bold idea about there is freedom in blending two linguistic consciousnesses. Walcott's use of British forms and poetic stances to frame his poetry of daring beauty has the intensity and toughness of, shall one say, one island speaking back to another island in their shared meters . . . [Walcott] elegantly and masterfully uses those old, unoriginal, conventional, timeworn European poetic forms because he has been interested in mastering an art of self-limitation, reconstruction, and redefinition . . . Derek Walcott's poems are preeminent in our language for the way they consistently represent the mingled heritage of fractured lives and the fractured languages of the Caribbean. More, they define the peculiar mix of grandeur and imprisonment. He mastered the colonizer's language to make an un-colonized utterance. His poems illustrate a useful, necessary, and yes, original foundational trust in elementary European poetic forms. And, finally, they represent an elegant murmur against history's violent narrative of bondage—an expression that favors writing honestly in a shared world language about the struggles of the men and women of the Antilles and beyond.”—David Biespiel, The Rumpus
“Walcott is a generous writer in every sense. The expansive, celebratory texture of his verse is instantly recognisable. It moves with ease between city and country, between ‘the snow still falling in white words on Eighth Street' and the way ‘Sunshine [. . .] stirs the splayed shadows of the hills like moths' . . . In celebrating his native island, Walcott, whose first collection of 25 Poems appeared in 1949, celebrates all lives lived far from metropolitan centres of influence. We discover how deliberate, indeed strategic, this celebration is in the periodic comparisons poems such as The Prodigal make between European high art and the poet's own ‘unimportantly beautiful' village. Though he chooses formal and grammatical structures other than the folk oral tradition, and rarely writes in dialect, this poet is neither apolitical nor colonial apologist . . . An occasion to remind us what an astonishing poet Walcott is.”—Fiona Sampson, The Guardian
“Walcott is a poet we're lucky to have writing. He is someone who has devoted his working life to art, in many senses—art as culture, art as craft and even art on canvas . . . the joy of Walcott's work is that even when he's at his most rambling, he isn't tedious. Taken as a whole, this collection gives us a kind of narrative—the story of a poet who is developing even in his eighties, sustained by faith in what poetic forms can do, and the many ways in which those forms can do it.”—Tom Payne, The Telegraph
“From his earliest poems—such as ‘In My Eighteenth Year,' written when he was that age—Walcott's voice is unornamented but carries a profound moral authority. His style is a synthesis of the influences that made the island: equal parts Shakespeare and slang. Walcott speaks ever as an outsider; the closest he gets to belonging is when he speaks for a country that is no one country . . . There is a lot here, and no wonder. Walcott, now 84, has written a rich and varied body of work, surveying the whole literary tradition. The Poetry of Derek Walcott is the most thorough single-volume selection of the poet's work to date . . . Maxwell—now a well-known writer in his own right, but also Walcott's former student and friend—has assembled an enlightening selection . . . There is nothing equal to this body of work anywhere else in literature: a chronicle of the effects of colonialism so torn that its love and hate for its origins must be expressed in equal measure. As Shabine, the speaker of Walcott's mini-epic ‘The Schooner Flight' says, ‘either I'm nobody, or I'm a nation.'”—Craig Morgan Teicher, NPR
“[Walcott's] is an associative, rich and elemental view of the world; with each new book, he stakes an ever-wider claim to authority. He remains a literary joy to savor, one of our true global treasures. Now, in his 84th year, comes The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948-2013, an exemplary compilation of a lifetime's best poems . . . Altogether, Walcott's body of work stands as a seasoned sentinel of the 20th century. In love with the bounty of language, his poetry soars beyond the blandness of blank verse. He excels at rhetorical flourishes, from expansive, epic stanzas to taut, rhymed quatrains . . . It is hard to imagine this giant of letters not writing again. The world would be a much poorer place. A light would go out in our collective soul.”—Arlice Davenport, The Wichita Eagle