THE WEST INDIAN CULTURE into which Derek Walcott was born was Janus-faced: one face that of an Englishman, the other that of a native of St. Lucia. At present Walcott is living in the United States. The poetry in which he writes about the Caribbean is lyrical and full of bright images, lines shimmering like the sea. Even an approaching hurricane may yield pleasures of sight and sound. Once branching light startles the hair of the coco nuts, and on the villas' asphalt roofs, rain resonates like pebbles in a pan . . .
Transported to Manhattan, he writes: "I lead a tight life/ and a cold one, my soles stiffen with ice. . . ." The question is how to retain the delight in physical existence of his Caribbean heritage and at the same time come to grips with the North . . . industrial, winter-bitten, sinister. "The weevil," he writes, "will make a sahara of Kansas,/ the ant shall eat Russia." For the North, it appears, lacks charity.
The opening poem, "Old New England," shows one of the ways in which he has tried to manage the transition from the warm South to the cold North. He writes in the manner of Robert Lowell.
Black clippers, tarred with whales' blood, fold their sails entering New Bedford, New London, New Haven. A white church spire whistles into space . . .
This is the very language and imagery of Lowell's "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket." I find it astonishing that a poet of Walcott's talent should write frank imitation of another man's style. What can he hope to accomplish by these poems except to have it said that they sound like Lowell's?
No, there is an American language, just as there is a West Indian, and Walcott will have to find it. He overcame a stuffy British colonial background to develop his own lyrical style. It will require as much work again to write poems about the United States in an authentic voice. One of the perils of being a traveller is that you may be adopted by someone on the first day out whom you can't get rid of for the rest of the trip. Walcott had better shake off Lowell's influence and get on with writing in a style of his own.
These imitations aside, The Fortunate Traveller contains several poems that are brilliantly written. As someone once remarked to me, Walcott is a spellbinder. Of how many poets can it be said that their poems are compelling--not a mere stringing together of images and ideas but language that delights in itself, rhythms that seem spontaneous, scenes that are vividly there?
As the title indicates, these poems are set in different places. Walcott seems to feel that he needs a "public" voice in order to speak with authority about the many things, not necessarily connected, he has seen and heard in his travels. He says of himself, "I, whose ancestors were slave and Roman,/ have seen both sides of the imperial foam." This is a little too orotund. A more persuasive voice is heard in poems such as "Easter" and "Store Bay" that appear to be about personal matters. And it is imagining with sympathy, not a wish to speak publicly, that enables him to reconstruct the childhood of Jean Rhys, another brilliant West Indian. A maiden aunt canoes through lilies of clouds in a Carib hammock, to a hymn's metronome. . .
Sensuality mixed with religion . . . the history of a culture in two lines. The poet who can write like this is a master.