The prodigal Derek Walcott.

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 29 2004 6:47 AM

The Odyssey

Derek Walcott, the greatest living English-language poet.

Book cover

It's rare for poets to get better as they get older. Some of the most famous poems in English were written by people in their 20s—think of Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale," or Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Even when great poets do keep writing into old age, they seldom improve on their early work—no one has ever preferred Wordsworth's "Ecclesiastical Sonnets" to his "Lyrical Ballads." Only in a few cases—most famously in the last century, W.B. Yeats—does a poet get better with each successive decade.

Now Derek Walcott has to be added to that short list. The Collected Poems of Walcott found in most bookstores includes his work up to 1984, when he was 54; but in the 20 years since, he has written better and more beautifully than ever before. Now, in his new book-length poem The Prodigal—which he tells himself, hopefully in error, "will be your last book"—we have the quintessence of what could be called Late Walcott. The book purifies and summarizes the style and the subjects he has treated so many times over a long career. Here we find the Caribbean childhood he wrote about in Another Life (1973) and the peripatetic life of The Fortunate Traveller (1981); the long, cascading lines he perfected in Midsummer (1984) and The Bounty (1997); and the visual enchantment that has pervaded his poetry from the beginning but culminated in Tiepolo's Hound (2000). The Prodigal is like the last movement of a symphony in which all the earlier themes return, transformed by memory and tinged with melancholy.

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If there's one thing most people know about Walcott, it's that he is a Caribbean poet. Omeros, his long recasting of the Iliad on the shores of his native St. Lucia, has become a popular assignment in college courses, a nearly textbook example of postcolonial literature—a writer from the former provinces of an empire reclaiming and transforming the imperial myths. (In Walcott's variation on the Homeric story, Helen works in the Caribbean tourist trade: "She braided the tourists' flaxen hair with bright beads/ cane-row style," and her rival suitors, Achille and Hector, are fishermen.) This is part of Walcott's achievement, and an important one: "I had entered the house of literature as a houseboy,/ filched as the slum child stole," he once wrote. But in his late work the opposition between empire and province—and, inevitably, between black and white—has become more complicated and ambiguous.

In the first decades of his career, a large part of Walcott's ambition was to bring his native place into literature for the first time. Many of his early poems aim to show that the Caribbean—its people and landscape and language—belongs in English poetry no less than England itself. But eventually life took Walcott away from the Caribbean: For decades he made his home in Boston and New York, and the experience that fueled his work became international. The same goes for his reputation: A writer who wins the Nobel Prize, as Walcott did in 1992, no longer has to prove that he belongs to literature; literature belongs to him.

The paradoxical result of this success, as the title of The Prodigal suggests, is that Walcott now feels at home everywhere and nowhere. The poem is the record of a journey—or, since it has no real beginning or end, of a wandering, a self-imposed exile. In the Caribbean, watching a tribal sacrifice, he feels that "your pale feet cannot keep time/ feel no communion with its celebrants." But he is equally suspicious of the splendid cities of Europe: "And why waste all that envy when they take/ as much pride in their suffering as in their cathedrals," he asks. Finally, Walcott seems to feel that his only real home is poetry, language itself. This helps to explain his fondness for metaphors that turn the whole world into a poem: Traveling in Italy, he declares, "Blessed are the small farms conjugating Horace,/ and the olive trees twisted as Ovid's syntax."

If the whole world is a poem, then the poet doesn't need subjects in the usual sense; he becomes like a sponge, soaking up poetry as he lives, sees, and travels. Increasingly in his recent work, Walcott has had less and less use for subjects and occasions; all of his poems have come to seem like parts of one long poem, which is his life itself. This tendency is brought to perfection in The Prodigal, where there is not so much a plot as a continuous provocation to verse: a conversation on a train, a hotel lobby, a Swiss Alp, a Caribbean beach, are all woven together in a single tapestry. And Walcott's late style reflects this habit of mind: He favors very long sentences, full of conjunctions and relative clauses, which run across many lines of verse. Each thought or observation prolongs itself into a series: One typical passage employs a cloud, a page, a barge, a shovel, flowers, leaves, and libraries as parts of a single metaphor. This style, rich to overflowing, might make The Prodigal a frustrating book for readers new to Walcott; his late style takes some getting used to. But for readers who know and love the work of the man who deserves to be called the greatest living poet writing in English, The Prodigal will seem like a fitting culmination to a life's work:

Be happy; you're writing from the privilege
of all your wits about you in your old age,
under the thorn acacias by the noon sea,
the light on all the places you have painted
and hope to paint with the strenuous accuracy
of joy. ...

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at the New Republic.