- Fated to Unoriginality:The Politics of Mimicry in Derek Walcott's Omeros
In his essay on Derek Walcott's Omeros, Joseph Farrell points out that "when it comes to the assessment of postcolonial literature, the critical discourse of epic poetry acquires a racist tinge," since it "speaks with the voice of the accumulated authority of generations of White imperialist culture" (251). For this reason, debates about its status as an epic have played a key role in structuring the critical discourse about Omeros. Critics tend to take one of four critical positions. Traditional classicists, Farrell points out, have been attracted to the poem's epic structure, see it as a major strength, and are untroubled by its supposed Eurocentric roots.1 Another set of critics, including Dougherty and Farrell, affirm the poem's status as an epic, but insist that it foregrounds elements of the classical epic the traditionalists have ignored and which link it to oral or folk traditions within and outside the classical tradition.2 A third set of critics, including John Figueroa, Patricia Ismond, and Walcott himself, have played down or denied altogether the poem's epic qualities.3 Finally, a fourth set of critics argue that while Omeros draws on conventions of the classical epic, it remakes the form into something specifically Caribbean and postcolonial. Jahan Ramazani, for example, insists Omeros "contravenes the widespread assumption that postcolonial literature develops by sloughing off Eurocentrism for indigeneity" (405), that by "exemplifying the twists and turns of intercultural inheritance," the poem "belies the narrative of postcolonial literary development as a progression from alien metropolitan influence to complete incorporation within the native cultural body" (409).
This critical debate about Omeros, which raises the question of whether its reliance on the form of the European epic undermines its status as a Caribbean and postcolonial text, is hardly surprising. For three decades critics and reviewers have argued about how to reconcile Walcott's St. Lucian roots and his undeniable interest in Caribbean culture with his absorption of the Western canon, his propensity for grounding poetry in something very close to the kind of Great Tradition espoused by Leavis and Eliot. Indeed, the bulk of negative criticism aimed at Walcott argues he is a Eurocentric poet too deeply committed to Western humanism.4 In his introduction to Critical Perspectives on Derek Walcott (1993), Robert Hamner reviews Walcott's early indebtedness to Hopkins, Auden, and Dylan Thomas (4), and notes the extent to which his early poetry was criticized as an "academic exercise" (4). Long associated with Western humanism and universalism (5), Walcott's poetry, Hamner points out, seems to address a "foreign, elite audience" (5). He includes in Critical Perspectives J.D. McClatchy's review of Walcott's Collected Poems (1986) which [End Page 545] "brands them rhetorical, consciously derivative, and literary" (9). No wonder Farrell observes, "the epic element in Omeros threatens to reopen an old debate over Walcott's relationship to the European and African elements in his personal heritage and in the culture of the West Indies as a whole" (251–2).
While Farrell seems puzzled about why Walcott would risk reopening critical debate about his poetic identity, I want to argue that this is precisely the aim of the poem. Omeros does not inadvertently open old wounds. It is designed to open and explore them. For this reason it is hard to take Walcott too seriously when he complains that the poem's critical reception has been marked by "stupid historicism" that sees him "reinventing the Odyssey [. . .] trying to make it via Homer" ("Reflections on Omeros," 232). Given the history of criticism Walcott has taken on this score, what else could he have expected? The poem, in fact, seems quite consciously calculated to elicit the kind of "stupid historicism" that finds Walcott's poetry Western, derivative, academic, and universalist. By writing himself into the poem as a figure I will call "Walcott," playing "Walcott's" writing off of Plunkett's (the exiled British Major is writing a history of the island while "Walcott" is writing his own poem about it), and by using the last quarter of the poem to critique its own epic pretensions...