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  • Introduction:Out of the Ordinary, Derek Walcott
  • Robert Hamner (bio)

Derek Alton Walcott was born into a world divided by colonialism. As a native St. Lucian, of mixed racial parentage, his bloodline flowed from Africa and Europe. Early education through the British-based educational system impressed on him the Western canon: Dante, eighteenth-century English metaphysicals, Eliot, Pound, Joyce, Homer, and Virgil. For theater his models are equally varied: Synge is behind The Sea at Dauphin; Brecht and Oriental techniques figure in Drums and Colours and Malcochon; Strindberg underlies the atmosphere in Dream on Monkey Mountain. Then Shakespeare informs A Branch of the Blue Nile. In fact, because of the nationalist fervor attendant on Caribbean independence movements in the 1950s and 1960s, Walcott's penchant for assimilation resulted in the critical assumption that both his feet were firmly planted in the camp of European humanism. The aesthetic and political designations are aptly summarized in Patricia Ismond's "Walcott vs. Brathwaite," where his metropolitan sophistication is contrasted with Edward Kamau Brathwaite's vernacular-oriented "nation poetry." Thus emerges a critical controversy for which Walcott has never seen any viable substance. Added to the evidence of the works themselves is Walcott's explicit argument that any apprentice should learn from great artists of the past. In a 1966 article for the Trinidad Sunday Guardian, Walcott describes his learning curve: "the poet by acquiring all of these demons, becomes himself . . . Great poets sound both like themselves alone and like all the great poetry written" ("Young" 5). The conclusion is obvious: Walcott does not believe in the "anxiety of influence."

Nevertheless, equally inevitable in terms of structure and content is Walcott's interpolation of personal Caribbean experience throughout everything he has ever written. Colonial education in Western classics came to Walcott in the tropical environment of his St. Lucian birthplace. On that small island, the scale by which things were to be measured should have been daunting. After all, the canonical "Great Tradition" upholds the imperial superiority of conquistadores, explorers, and colonial expansion from the metropolitan center. Elsewhere, out on the periphery were supposed to lie unimportant territories and peoples to be brought to order and improved so that they might become worthy beneficiaries of civilization. Looking about his birthplace, the young Walcott somehow came to realize that his unheralded surroundings were eminently remarkable despite their historically marginal status. That which may be disdained as local, parochial, ordinary, provincial, or insular has at the same time the virtue of being close, familiar, and unexpectedly rich in potential. Such a realization prompted the exultant vow in Another Life, he and his friend Dunstan St. Omer swore: [End Page 1]

that we would never leave the island until we had put down, in paint, in words, as palmists learn the network of a hand, all of its sunken, leaf-choked ravines, every neglected, self-pitying inlet muttering in brackish dialect, the ropes of mangroves . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . forests, boiling with life, goyave, corrosol, bois-canot, sapotille.


Later in undertaking the monumental task of Omeros, Walcott argues that although he would not attempt to ennoble the peasantry (Bruckner 13), he has no qualms about making an issue of the extraordinary within the ordinary ("Reflections" 233). To Walcott's innovative way of rethinking the balance of values, the world around us in the present should not be diminished by comparison with the storied past. Long before the Western world sanctified the ancient Greeks through the magnifying lenses of art and history, they were primitives striving on a very fundamental level merely to survive (Brown and Johnson 216).

This expansive way of incorporating apparently disparate cultural elements is one of the features of Walcott's oeuvre that brought him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992. It is also one of the features that impressed me as I undertook the study of his work in the early 1970s. When Paul Breslin and I decided to put together a collection of essays in honor of Walcott's seventy-fifth birthday, we had no way of knowing what themes and issues, given the breadth of his interests, potential contributors might wish to address. As we expected, the response to our call for papers...


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