Philip Nanton – 3 November 2018, Migration Studies, 6, 3, 472 – 476. –
In 1992, soon after Derek Walcott had won the Nobel Prize for Literature, a frenzy of literary comparison between Walcott and Homer commenced. It was captured in the English Observer newspaper’s profile of Walcott which offered the headline ‘Homer of the Caribbean’. Since then there has been no shortage of post-colonial critics determined to capture every Homeric twist and turn they choose to discover in his poetry. A useful summary of their perspectives can be read in Rachael D Friedman’s 2007 essay ‘Derek Walcott’s Odysseys’. Simultaneously, many other critics have drawn attention to his uniquely Caribbean contribution to poetry which encompasses the diversity of the region and his ability to mine that diversity. Many have considered Omeros the hight point of that achievement. This literary criticism was, for the most part, complimentary to Walcott and his oeuvre and was reinforced over the years by the lavish rewards and acclaim that he received beyond the Nobel Prize both in his native St. Lucia and abroad. I’m thinking here of his many honorary doctorates at various universities, his knighthood, the naming of a square in his honour and finally, on his recent death, a state funeral in St. Lucia.
There is an underlying irony to all this praise singing. In discussing his book length poem Omeros, in particular, Walcott has described it as one of ‘associations’ and not derivations from Greek culture, and says that he consciously strove to play down the epic dimensions in favour of what he calls ‘the diurnal, day to day heroism of people who go out and face the arrogance’. More directly, his plea – ‘I don’t want to be swallowed up, in a sense, by Homeric comparison’ – seems to have fallen on deaf ears. This tension between Walcott and some of his critics suggests to me the need to reassert the differences between The Odyssey and Omeros and suggests also, an underestimation of the specifically Caribbean contribution that Omeros offers to the world. A focus on migration is one way of highlighting the differences between Homer and Walcott and the Caribbean perspective out of which Walcott writes.
As is well known, the Taino and Carib peoples who had settled here before ‘discovery’ failed to survive colonisation and so everyone in this relatively ‘new’ society has come from somewhere else. As a result, migration defines Caribbean experience and has, in fact, never ceased, whereas migration in the Odysseyan sense defines itself in opposition to the uncertainty of return, an uncomplicated relationship to origin. As Odysseus declares: ‘I for one, know of no sweeter sight for a man’s eyes than his own country.’ (Book 9, 110) In contrast, Walcott observes that, ‘For us in the archipelago the tribal memory is salted with the bitter memory of migration’ and ‘the old vision of paradise wrecks here.’ (Walcott, 1998, 42) The response Walcott offers to this experience is neither resistance nor rebellion, but celebration of the newness that such a creolised society signifies. This he has described as ‘the elemental privilege of naming the new world.’(40) In thus defining a Caribbean sensibility he is adamant that, ‘It is not marinated in the past. It is not exhausted. It is new. But it is its complexity, not its historically explained simplicities, which is new.’(54)
Yet of course there is affiliation: both poems explore the need to come to terms with displacement, separation from home, struggle with the sea and death and violence. Both are large scale narratives, but while Homer’s dramatises the wanderings and adventures of the individual hero/king, Walcott’s offers a mosaic of journeys undertaken by different characters – Achille to Africa, the poet to North America, the character Plunkett to Holland and the desert and the poet once again to Istanbul, Athens and London. While both poems dramatise journeys, these offer many points of contrast. In Omeros we see the deceit and cost of empires, in The Odyssey we learn how Odysseus accumulates and stores his wealth.
If Omeros is indeed an epic as some critics insist then it is an epic of the dispossessed. Its local heroes are small people, unlike the classical epic hero with his supernatural and god-like qualities – local fisherfolk whose daily quests involve struggles with the elements rather than with divine beings. Noble people, perhaps, but not nobility. Rather than paying homage to a pantheon of gods, they have received and accepted a Christian faith and made it local by blending it with African beliefs.
In both poems, migration is closely linked to the theme of order and disorder. In Omeros order has been constructed out of the existential disorder of slavery. In The Odyssey structure is pervasive, and even though traveling is a liminal experience the gods are in command. Important characters, including the gods, are always introduced along with their lineages, and hierarchy is uppermost. In Omeros there is even room for the gods of different pantheons to hold an inter cultural party and mingle as they drink together: it is an occasion when ‘Ogun can fire one with his partner Zeus’ (Walcott, 1990, 53). This syncretism and juxtaposition of different elements is an example of the ‘newness’ that Walcott offers his readers. For example, in the opening scene of the cutting down of trees, although Homeric in its ritual, the language is Caribbean demotic. The opening line of the poem states ‘This is how, one sunrise, we cut down them trees.’ (Walcott, 1990, 3) The experiences that Walcott recounts are either St. Lucian or Caribbean-specific. Where they are not, the events are interlaced with Caribbean references. (For example, see the epigram at the beginning of this piece. Walcott, 1990, 271)
A focus on poetry, epic or otherwise, albeit read through the lens of migration, might at first sight be considered an unlikely arena for social analysis. Let me suggest two reasons for its relevance. As a preliminary answer I offer the following statement by Nick Laird in defense, in times like these, of a new poetry anthology that he edited. In his article ‘Why Poetry is the Perfect Weapon to Fight Donald Trump’ , he observes: ‘Populism claims to love the people but of course it hates the individual, and poetry is one mode of opposing that. It only deals in individuals, while its trust in complication is at the far end of the verbal scale from the demagogue’s three word phrases framed as hoarse imperatives’. (The Guardian 17:3:2017)
More specifically, one of the roles of a work of art is to provide, symbolically, a sense of community cohesion, a form of social healing through ritual after a time of stress. It may raise underlying concerns about where a society is going or the resolve to change. This process need not be addressed directly. It is perhaps all the more effective if the issues are approached indirectly. David Raybin, for example, explains the role in the following way: ‘Dealing in metaphors, art condenses disparate concepts or ideas into a single symbol of complex, vital and emotive import which, if an observer accepts it, allows for new and wider perceptions and understandings of how the things of the world fit together.’(Raybin, 1990, 26) Citing the social anthropologist Victor Turner, Rabin observes further: ‘When structural modes fail, one turns to the area of what Turner calls liminal “anti-structure”.’ Out of liminality new meanings emerge for which art (poetry) is the pre-eminent vehicle. It is through symbolism that imagined newness is made perceptible: the imagery of Omeros marries a sense of displacement with the possibility of healing and unity.
In Omeros we enter a fictional world which is both knowable and strange. Though the narrative around its inhabitants is rooted in reality as we know it, in substantial sections of the poem (eg, Books 3 – 6) we are transported with the main characters into a ‘reversible world’, a time of may-be, as if, conjecture. Achille, a fisherman and one of the main characters, in his ‘hallucination’ is pulled in his canoe by a migrating swift on a pilgrimage to Africa. There he encounters himself as his father and experiences a slave raiding party. Elsewhere in the poem, we witness the hardship and dispossession of the plains Indians, and the poet encounters a number of characters including his dead father and Homer. Other characters experience displacement in Holland, Athens and London.
The experience of displacement and affliction is balanced with integrative elements symbolized by the migrating swift. This is not only thematic but in relation to the poetic process itself, as the poet makes clear:
I followed a sea swift to both sides of this text;
her hyphen stitches its seam, like the interlocking
basins of a globe in which one half fits the next
into an equator…
Her wing-beat carries these islands to Africa,
she sewed the Atlantic rift with a needle’s line,
the rift in the soul.’ (Walcott, 1990, 319)
By Book 7, the final Book, a strong sensation of oneness arising from affliction and diversity is achieved. Boundaries of race, class, religion dissolve in an overarching ‘communitas’: that is, something beyond an acceptance of diversity, more a sense of human spiritual unity, a fundamental humanity. In this way the poem enacts a shamanic healing and uniting of the disparate elements that comprise the Caribbean.
We are in the world of the liminal. In Omeros a powerful and effective use of ritual combines both displacement and integrative elements. For the ritual to be effective one needs both elements, which together create a sense of unity. Of course, the ritual process does not solve the problems of society. It provides an opportunity for learning and growth which equips both the characters who survive and ultimately the reader with an expanded imaginative awareness.
The poem also suggests that the reader might look afresh at common people wherever they may be located. Not, for example, in the short term as bedraggled international beggars at the gates of European nation-states, but instead in the way Walcott looks at his simple characters: ‘as if they were fragments or shards washed up on (this) shore and looking at them for the first time.’ (White, 1990, 35) In this way Omeros, through its focus on a syncretic Caribbean experience,rewrites the paradigm of diversity and gives hope to the newly arrived and dispossessed wherever they may be.
To read Walcott’s poem on its own terms requires attentiveness to the specificity of Caribbean migration and its syncretic consequences, its peculiar history. Without this, Omeros remains trapped in a postcolonial paradigm of speaking back from the unhistorical margins to the ‘civilised’ metropole that Homer’s Odyssey represents for western culture.
The poem’s wider demands are that we see migration as an unfinished process, endlessly renewed, rather than an outward journey and a triumphant return. That complexity is the new thing on which it signifies, the act of naming of which it is a part.
Homer, 1991, The Odyssey, Translated by E.V. Rieu, Penguin Classics, London.
Friedman, R D. 2007, Derek Walcott’s Odysseys, International Journal of the Classical Tradition, 14,3-4, 455-480.
Laird, N, 2017, Why Poetry is the Perfect Weapon to Fight Donald Trump, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar17/donald-trump-poetry-nick-laird-don-patterson-z00-of-the-new
Observer, 1992, Derek Walcott: Homer of the Caribbean,11:10, London.
Raybin, D, 1990, Aesthetics, Romance and Turner, in Kathleen M Ashley (ed) Victor Turner and the Construction of Cultural Criticism: Between Literature and Anthropology, Indiana University Press, Bloominghton and Indianapolis.
Sampietro, L. Derek Walcott on Omeros: An Interview. http://unimi.it/caribana/On Omeros html accessed 18/9/ 2017.
Walcott D, 1990, Omeros, Faber and Faber, London.
Walcott D, 1998, What the Twilight Says: Essays, Faber and Faber, London. White, J.P. 1990, An Interview with Derek Walcott, Green Mountains Review, 4.1 (Spring/Summer)
 These comments come from an interview with Derek Walcott conducted by Luigi Sampietro in 1992. See http://unimi.it/caribana/OnOmeros.html