My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Nothing like the literal—rather than the theoretical—death of the author to inspire one to read his masterpiece. As I wondered about Hart Crane, whom Walcott loved, what does it mean to read a poem, as opposed to a story or novel? What does it mean to read this poem, of 325 pages and some 8,500 lines, some of which is as narratively clear as Hemingway—or Homer—but which is at other times as dense and cryptically visionary as a Crane lyric? A few pages from the end of this self-consciously epic and anti-epic Caribbean poem of 1990, the poet laments, “So much left unspoken / by my chirping nib!” So it will be here with my clacking keyboard—I would have to read Omeros five or ten more times to do it any justice, but I present below some insights gleaned and impressions derived from a first perusal.
Omeros refers, of course, to Homer: “‘That’s what we call him in Greek,'” says the poet’s lover early on in the narrative, stroking a bust of the blind bard that will, at the poem’s climax, wash ashore on St. Lucia and lead said poet through a humbling visionary tour of his nation’s hells and purgatories and paradises. The traditional epic invocations to the precursors are clear not only in Walcott’s story but in his form: he composes tercets (his tribute to Dante) in hexameters (his tribute to Homer); his meter is generally (albeit variably) iambic, in deference to traditional English heroic measure, while his rhyme scheme is as intricate yet free as that of those modernist poets who learned from jazz, whether mandarin Eliot or man-of-the-people Hughes.
Walcott himself is far more the mandarin, which complicates an otherwise moving belief in his people; this tension provides Omeros its lyric drama—lyric poetry is made, as Yeats said, from the argument with ourselves—while its “epic” conflicts—of Greek-named fishermen Achille and Hector quarreling Trojan-War-wise over a woman named Helen—can sometimes feel a bit forced and merely notional, at least until Walcott enters his personae’s heads enough to generate lyric out of their own consciousness.
The poem’s first half is devoted to its working-class St. Lucian characters: not only Achille, Hector, and Helen, but also Ma Kilman, who runs a rum shop; a blind man named Seven Seas; and Philoctete, whose leg—wounded by ship’s debris in the ocean—signifies the wound of the island itself or perhaps of the black diaspora at large left by the legacy of slavery and imperialism. The other characters on the island are an old white couple, the World-War-II-wounded Englishman Major Plunkett and his Irish wife Maud; Plunkett is writing a history of the island, as Walcott is writing its poem, both texts organized around each man’s erotic obsession with Helen.
Midway through the poem, Achille, suffering sunstroke, has a visionary experience of a return to Africa, an encounter with his ancestors, and an experience of slavery. While his eventual recovery and return to shore with an albacore under his heel signify the potential to triumph over history, the poem switches to a long, forlorn first-person narrative of Walcott’s own wandering through the U.S. and Europe. Unlucky in love and oppressed by the violence that the west has done to peoples from the Native Americans to the Irish, the West Africans to the Indians, he broods on the identity, famously proclaimed by Walter Benjamin, of culture and barbarism:
The honeyed twilight cupped in long, shadowed squares,
the dripping dungeons, the idiot dukes, were all
redeemed by the creamy strokes of a Veláquez,
like the scraping cellos in concentration camps,
with art next door to the ovens, the fluting veil
of smoke soaring with Schubert? The cracked glass of Duchamp’s
The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, did Dada
foresee the future of Celan and Max Jacob
as part of the cosmic midden? What my father
spiritedly spoke of was that other Europe
of mausoleum museums, the barber’s shelf
of The World’s Great Classics, with a vanity whose
spires and bells punctually pardoned itself
in the absolution of fountains and statues,
in writhing, astonishing tritons; their cold noise
brimming the basin’s rim, repeating that power
and art were the same, from some Ceasar’s eaten nose
to spires at sunset in the swift’s half-hour.
Tell that to a slave from the outer regions
of their fraying empires, what power lay in the work
of forgiving fountains with naiads and lions.
But just as Homer, who might have been expected to side with Greek over Trojan, displayed sympathy to both sides, Walcott—with more painful postmodern self-consciousness—not only extends his sympathy to Plunkett, a man with whom by education and literary bent he has more in common than he has with illiterate working-men (and to whom he feels a filial relation), but he also implicates himself in the cycle of exploitation. He fears that his poetry is, like the old sugar industry and the contemporary tourist trade, just another form of extracting value from a poor and captive populace, that he is a comprador intellectual who has slotted himself into the colonizer’s role:
I watched the afternoon sea. Didn’t I want the poor
to stay in the same light so that I could transfix
them in amber, the afterglow of an empire,
preferring a shed of palm-thatch with tilted sticks
to that blue bus-stop? Didn’t I prefer a road
from which tracks climbed into the thickening syntax
of colonial travellers, the measured prose I read
as a schoolboy?
Such lyric ambivalence contrasts with the poem’s epic elements, as when Ma Kilman sheds her Christian piety to become an obeah-woman discovering the true names of the island flora so that she can heal Philoctete’s wound with authentic African magic. The poetry is splendid—
One wound gibbers in the weeping
mouth of the sibyl, the obeah-woman, in the swell
of the huge white satin belly, the dark gust that bent her
limbs till she was a tree of snakes, the spidery sibyl
hanging in a sack from the cave at Cumae, the obeah
that possessed her that the priests considered evil
in their white satin frocks, because ants had lent her
their language, the flower that withered on the floor
of moss smelt sweet and spread its antipodal odor
from the seed of the swift; now through a hot meadow
of unnamed flowers, a large woman in a red-berried
hat is walking.
—but is the plot in keeping with the poet’s skepticism? All this seemingly unironic ancient magic seems to stray from Walcott’s intention, as expressed in his beautiful 1992 Nobel lecture, “The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory,” to reassemble the shards of world culture scattered by violence throughout the Antilles, a project seemingly more akin to something like Edward Said’s “secular criticism” and “contrapuntal reading” than to celebrations of occulted racial essences:
Deprived of their original language, the captured and indentured tribes create their own, accreting and secreting fragments of an old, an epic vocabulary, from Asia and from Africa, but to an ancestral, an ecstatic rhythm in the blood that cannot be subdued by slavery or indenture, while nouns are renamed and the given names of places accepted like Felicity village or Choiseul. The original language dissolves from the exhaustion of distance like fog trying to cross an ocean, but this process of renaming, of finding new metaphors, is the same process that the poet faces every morning of his working day, making his own tools like Crusoe, assembling nouns from necessity, from Felicity, even renaming himself. The stripped man is driven back to that self-astonishing, elemental force, his mind. That is the basis of the Antillean experience, this shipwreck of fragments, these echoes, these shards of a huge tribal vocabulary, these partially remembered customs, and they are not decayed but strong. They survived the Middle Passage and the Fatel Rozack, the ship that carried the first indentured Indians from the port of Madras to the cane fields of Felicity, that carried the chained Cromwellian convict and the Sephardic Jew, the Chinese grocer and the Lebanese merchant selling cloth samples on his bicycle.
But the tensions of Omeros are in the above passage too: between blood and mind, between ancestry and invention. Are the poet and the people on opposite sides of this line? The poet as collage artist, without access to holistic truth but trying to keep awake lest he lapse back into history’s nightmare, his knowledge of culture as necessarily historical and fragmented granting him a high comic vision on the tragedy of his people—this is Joyce, not Yeats. Joyce accordingly appears in Omeros, singing, “his voice like sun-drizzled Howth,” though the volkish magus silently rears his head whenever Walcott seems to wish to restore St. Lucia, as Yeats wished to restore Ireland, to its “proper dark.”
Following the contemporary critic’s political itinerary from race and class to gender: Hector and Achille fight over a woman. The Homeric parallel is inexact, as Achilles’s combat with Hector was motivated by the loss of Patroclus, the Greek warrior’s male friend (a word you can take as queerly as you like), while Achilles’s quarrel with Agamemnon was, un-poetically—and horrifyingly—enough to the contemporary eye, over a sex-slave named Briseis. Walcott puts Helen between them, just as his own literary project rivals Plunkett’s over the terrain of the feminized island. Femininity is praised from afar, but is rarely articulate in this poem. The poet laments his dying mother, but takes his mission from his dead father, and his dead poetic fathers moreover. Helen is figurehead and symbol, but not a consciousness:
Change burns at the beach’s end. She has to decide
to enter the smoke or to skirt it. In that pause
that divides the smoke with a sword, white Helen died;
in that space between the lines of two lifted oars,
her shadow ambles, filly of Menelaus,
while black piglets root the midden of Gros Îlet,
but smoke leaves no signature on its pages of sand.
“Yesterday, all my troubles seem so far away,”
she croons, her clear plastic sandals swung by one hand.
The absence of a woman equal to poet and protagonist—except in the form of the obeah-woman, too mythical and too maternal to rival the modern poet—is marked in the poem by Walcott’s self-interrogating voice as he allows that both he and Plunkett neglect Helen’s individuality and turn her into an idealized metaphor: “Why not see Helen / as the sun saw her, with no Homeric shadow…?” But the postmodern poet’s tragedy is that ironizing one’s acts makes them no less active. This brings me to my concluding question: how might we criticize Omeros? It is a hard poem to criticize. Its proficiency and invention are unsurpassed in my experience; Walcott, on a technical level, must quite simply be the best Anglophone poet of his century, with the possible exception of the aforementioned Yeats (on this topic, see here for a more learned and sensitive commentary than I can offer).
But poetry is vision as well as technique. Ryu Spaeth does not so much contest Walcott’s vision as upbraid the man for failing the live up to it. Fair enough: hypocrisy is always a legitimate target of the moralist. Walcott spoke, says Spaeth, for the oppressed and dispossessed, and was canonized under the reign of multiculturalism less for his formal mastery—which the multiculturalist distrusts as the potential corollary of imperial mastery—than “because he was giving voice to people who had been ignored and exploited and enslaved by a dominant culture.” Leaving aside the misgivings about this “giving voice” expressed in Omeros itself, Spaeth arraigns Walcott for decrying oppression while enacting it himself—on the bodies and minds of the women he allegedly sexually harassed as a university instructor. Spaeth organizes his argument by contrasting Walcott with his fellow Antillean, Jean Rhys, whom he construes, along with the students Walcott harassed, as “the victims of a literary patriarchy that stretches back centuries.” Walcott’s alleged behavior was a reprehensible betrayal of pedagogical trust and a sinisterly bathetic enactment of male entitlement, which is, honestly, not so surprising when you consider Omeros‘s women. What does this mean for the work?
Spaeth’s criticism is of the “your fave is problematic” school, which is itself problematic, as our favorite artists’ problems are not wholly avoidable by any human being. To wit: Jean Rhys makes as poor a PC hero as Walcott does to anyone who pays attention to such criticism. It has been a generation since she appeared in John Carey’s Intellectuals and the Masses as yet another cooly aloof modernist elitist and, more damningly in the context of Spaeth’s essay, in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism,” where her anti-canonical masterpiece, Wide Sargasso Sea, is shown by the postcolonial critic to offer a narrative no less consecrated to white imperial feminism than the Victorian bildungsroman it purports to redact, as, in short, “a novel which rewrites a canonical English text within the European novelistic tradition in the interest of the white Creole rather than the native.” So much for the literature of social justice.
The arts will never offer a port in history’s storm, nor do we have any right to ask that of them. As long as the worm of hierarchy wriggles in the human heart, impelling one person or one class to rule over another, then we can never live in an egalitarian utopia, cleansed of such pests. The calamitous career of the political left in the 20th century reveals that forced efforts at cleansing usually kill the host as well as the parasite, which is why the resurgence in our time of an essentially Maoist or Stalinist criticism would be a broadly worrying trend if only the crimes of the left were well-known enough to worry people as much as those of the right (quite rightly) do. But let’s entertain—in a leftist’s equivalent of Pascal’s wager—the thought that we might someday inhabit a world without violence or domination. The only way such a hope could ever be realized without extermination—which is to say peacefully—involves our overcoming through reason the flaws in our own character, and we will only overcome them if we can know them. How else to know them but through the testimony of the poets? As Northrop Frye writes in Anatomy of Criticism,
The corruption out of which human art has been constructed will always remain in the art, but the imaginative quality of the art preserves it in its corruption, like the corpse of a saint.
And why would we even attend to such art if not to recognize both our ideals and also the corruptions of those ideals, in the probably—but uncertainly—vain hope of transcending them to become a better person in a better world tomorrow? We like our poets scarred and wounded, but perhaps we should learn to appreciate them no less—strictly as poets, not as people (as people, they are and should be subject to ethical and juridical law)—when they are wounding and scarring, unless we think we are always and only the victims in our own stories and never the perpetrators. If we claim to be unmarred by the so-far endemic evils of human nature, why should anyone believe us? Your fave is problematic; you wouldn’t want it any other way.
[…] some other great writers in the era of high multiculturalism, such as Heaney, Morrison, or Walcott, Erdrich does not seem to trade in a politics of nation, race, ethnicity or even cultural […]
[…] Moore, Wallace Stevens, Virgil, Claudia Rankine. And two epics: Dante’s Divine Comedy and Derek Walcott’s Omeros. Walcott, who died in 2017, exemplifies the difficult question of what to do with the beautiful art […]
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