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A Poet in Exile - Sir Derek Walcott

Plato in his highly influential Republic argued for the expulsion of poets from his idea of a utopian society, and for all the best reasons. He believed that poets could destroy the society; they are too emotional, they exhibit signs of insanity when they write (12); and he argued that poetry could mislead the young (16), and confuse the armed forces (16). Today, more than two thousand years later we find in the writing of the recently departed Sir Derek Walcott evidence that the Great Plato was correct in his assessment of the poets, and for these very reasons we say goodbye to Sir Walcott with great reluctance and sadness.

Poets are accused of overwhelming sensitivity and Walcott does confess at times to great feelings of bewilderment. The levels of opacity he attains express this affliction, and many think this aesthetic causes the work itself to become inaccessible and difficult, “dense like a frost glass but delicate / etched by a diamond” (“Tarpon”). This, after stating that he wishes he could write poetry that was “crisp as sand, clear as sunlight” (“Islands”).

And let us not forget that he often seems incapable of making up his mind. In his early poetry, he admits to a certain difficulty in deciding where to declare his fealty, the options being Africa or Europe. “I who am poisoned with the blood of both,/ Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?” Later he announces that he just cannot choose, “how [do I] choose / Between this Africa and the English tongue I love? / Betray them both or give back what they give? (“Far Cry from Africa”) But surely the utterance of such perplexity is an acceptable reaction to racial purism, black or white, and the first step in handling sensitive race and cultural relations in our complex, diverse and plural region.

Plato argued that emotional people are of precious little use for building strong societies, and Walcott is very emotional in his poetry. In The Prodigal he expresses tremendous personal grief for the loss of his brother, mother and friends. But we Caribbean people cannot afford to expel the scholar who also expresses grief for and explores the poverty and transgenerational suffering inherent to regional histories of hostile and violent colonialism. And the madness that would argue for the employment of a kind of selective amnesia (“The Muse of History” 39) for the pain history causes, Plato would never permit. In “Ruins of a Great House” he is keenly affected by the ruined evidence of the plantation system. He expresses anger, hate, rage but finally, fortunately, compassion. He confesses that love is at the heart of his work, for “Love is good/ but love of your own people is greater.”(284) Perhaps Plato would not judge too harshly for the overabundance of this emotion in our Caribbean poets.

Plato must not reside over our system of values as he seems to ask for propaganda instead of poetry in his ideal society. Walcott is too honest about the hypocrisy of the communities we have created and our disrespect for the environment to be capable of propaganda. He states,

Our emerald sands

are stained with sewage from each tin-shacked Rome;

corruption, censorship, and arrogance

make exile seem happier thought than home. (“Hotel Normandie Pool”)

Poets are declared to be poor politicians, yet Walcott reminds us that “great poets” are “princes” not the vassals of empires built on mythic discourses (“Muse of History” 51). In fact, our great poets have also been historians, journalists, critics, activists: the witnesses, the watchers on the wall, the call to nation, and the visionaries of our own ideal societies.

So today we celebrate our poets, we are grateful that they inspire our youth and have charted the way for our politicians to follow. And for the cultural pillar that is Walcott, who is finally beckoned by the “line of light that shines from the other shore” (“Prodigal” 105), we wish him a safe and sure journey, exiled from this plane but perhaps not exiled from our hearts; and the greatest triumph of all, to be a living metaphor in the mouth of God.

Works Cited

Plato. Republic. Critical Theory Since Plato. Eds. Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle. 3rd ed. New York:

Thompson Wadsworth, 2005. Print

Walcott, Derek. Collected Poems: 1948-1984. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1962. Print.

---Omeros. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990. Print.

--- The Prodigal. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004. Print.

--- “Muse of History.” What the Twilight Says: Essays. London: Faber and Faber, 1998. Print.



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