Derek Walcott: Omeros

A few years ago I had the good fortune of hearing Mr. Walcott read a portion of his book-length poem Omeros (1990) in person. He has an incredible voice — soft and deep — and the beautiful language really struck me. I bought the book and began to read it, though when it didn’t flow as naturally for me as when Walcott read it I put it down. Then a month or two ago I heard a feature on the BBC World Service Book Club about the poem (just a week ago the same program convinced me it’s time I gave Toni Morrison’s Beloved another read, even though I didn’t like it the first time). I decided that Omeros must be approached again.

omeros

(Incidentally, the painting on the cover was also done by Walcott)

This is the only modern epic (though Walcott says he doesn’t see this poem as “epic”) poem I’ve read, so I have no ability to compare it to what else is being done today. Walcott himself has written a few others (e.g., Tiepolos Hound and Prodigal). However, I have read a few of the classics — The Iliad, The Odyssey, Beowulf, The Aeneid, and The Divine Comedy — and their power stretches over the centuries. Omeros pays tribute to all of these poems: “Omeros” is Greek for Homer; the poem’s meter is hexameter; he makes great use of compound words, as Beowulf; and the structure of the verse is terza rima, as The Divine Comedy). Surely the tribute is not limited to these quite obvious schemes, but they were the ones that I could point out. This appropriation is entirely appropriate: Walcott is not just being a virtuoso; one of the largest themes in the book is the influence of history, how things that happened once, even if not remembered, still leave their mark. Many of the allusions are done out of the spirit of memory, not mimicry.

This modern-day epic poem is centered on the Island of St. Lucia in the Carribean. Two of the main characters, though there are other threads to the story, are named Achille and Hector. They . . . well, let Walcott introduce them:

Hector came out from the shade. And Achille, the
moment he saw him carrying the cutlass, un homme
fou, a madman eaten with envy, replaced the tin

he had borrowed from Hector’s canoe neatly back in the prow
of Hector’s boat. Then Achille, who had had enough
of this madman, wiped and hefted his own blade.

And now the villagers emerged from the green shade
of the almonds and wax-leaved manchineels, for the face-off
that Hector wanted. Achille walked off and waited

at the warm shallow’s edge. Hector strode towards him.
The villagers followed, as the surf abated
its sound, its fear cowering at the beach’s rim.

Then, far out at sea, in a sparkling shower
arrows of rain arched from the emerald breakwater
of the reef, the shafts travelling with clear power

in the sun, and behind them, ranged for the slaughter,
stood villagers, shouting, with a sound like the shoal,
and hoisting armes to the light. Hector ran, splashing

in shallows mixed with the drizzle, towards Achille,
his cutlasss lifted. The surf, in anger, gnashing
its tail like a foaming dogfight. Men can kill

their own brothers in rage, but the madman who tore
Achille’s undershirt from one shoulder also tore
at his heart. The rage that felt against Hector

was shame. To go crazy for an old bailing tin
crusted with rust! The duel of these fishermen
was over a shadow and its name was Helen.

Later we get: ‘Helen said: “Girl, I pregnant, / but I don’t know for who.” Another Homeric echo is a blind poet named Seven Seas. And it is during his first introduction that we get the Homeric invocation of the muse, who is Homer himself here.

Except for one hand he sat as still as marble,
with his egg-white eyes, fingers recounting the past
of another sea, measured by the stroking oars.

O open this day with the conch’s moan, Omeros,
as you did in my boyhood, when I was a noun
gently exhaled from the palate of the sunrise.

As you can see, there are many odes to Homer in particular in this poem. However, one should not be under the impression that Walcott is revising one of Homer’s epics, juxtaposing the modern Caribbean with Homer’s Aegean; this is no Ulysses, and Walcott is not attempting to redo what Joyce did. On the contrary, alluding to Homer is only one of the ways this book reaches across time to show just how connected, or disconnected, things really are. And St. Lucia — with its wealth of cultural heritage bearing from Europe, Africa, and the Americas, not to mention its own unique history of colonization, slavery, and tourism — is a perfect setting for such a work.

For example, one part of the book that stood out to me the first time was the history of slavery on the island. The opening lines of the book belong to Philoctete, as he shows off the island to some tourists and eventually, for some extra money, shows them a scar on his leg caused by a rusty anchor. A few pages later, we are taken to see the beginning of the scar:

“Mais qui ca qui rivait-’ous. Philoctete?”
“Moin blesse.”
“But what is wrong wif you, Philoctete?”
“I am blest
wif this wound, Ma Kilman, qui pas ka querir piece.

Which will never heal.”
“Well, you musr take it easy.
Go home and lie down, give the foot a lickle rest.”
Philoctet, his trouser-legs rolled, stares out to sea

from the worn rumshop window. The itch in the sore
tingles like the tendrils of the anemone,
and the ouffed blister of Portuguese man-o’-war.

He believed the swelling came from the chained ankles
of his grandfathers. Or else why was there no cure?
That the cross he carried was not only the anchor’s

but that of his race, for a village black and poor
as the pigs that rooted in its burning garbage,
then were hooked on the anchors of the abattoir.

Now, Philoctete has no memory of slavery. Those belong to his ancestors. What he can see is more the resonance, or the signal, of slavery. Incidentally, we know from the first page that the wound is eventually cured, but this is no sentimental journey, giving humans more credit than they deserve.

Moving away from direct Homeric reference, there is also Major Plunkett and his wife Maud. We first meet him sipping a Guinness, uncomfortable with his middle-class Britishness. This is almost sans Homer, but Major Plunkett is looking for a son. And like other characters in the book, Plunkett is wounded. It is here that Walcott inserts himself into the work for the first time:

This wound I have stitched into Plunkett’s character.
He has to be wounded, affliction is one theme
of this work, this fiction, since every “I” is a

fiction finally. Phantom narrator, resume:

Getting through this book is no easy endeavor. The layers of meaning are in place for years and years of dedicated scholarship, something most of us are not in a position to take on. However, there is still much to be gleaned from this book on a first read, and it is an enjoyable experience. In fact my only major problem with it — and it’s a problem I have when I read poetry in general — is that often I’m distracted by the beauty of the language and don’t pay attention to what it is actually saying. I get sound but no meaning. Many times I read a paragraph, or an entire section, and couldn’t tell someone next to me what it was about. This is by no means a failing of the book. It’s just another layer of skill to be enjoyed in a book worth the time.

24 thoughts on “Derek Walcott: Omeros

  1. tuesday says:

    Hi,

    This isn’t strictly related to your post, but thank you for your contribution to the blogging community. You’ve been awarded the Primo Darios award :D

  2. I’m honored, Tuesday! Thanks!

  3. workingwords100 says:

    Most interesting post!

    I don’t think anyone is writing modern epics, but I might be wrong! Ask Poet in Residence; maybe he knows.

    http://poet-in-residence.blogspot.com/

    Tell him Isabel (aka WorkingWords100 from the haiku group blog) sent you to him!

  4. claire says:

    Hi Trevor, like Tuesday, there’s an award for you over at my blog: http://kissacloud.blogspot.com/2009/01/premio-dardos-award.html

    You have fans! :D

  5. Carly says:

    Love this post! I’m doing a research project on Derek Walcott for my English class and I’ve fallen in love with his poetry. Thank you for this post! I couldn’t find time in my busy schedule to read this epic book, but thanks to you have have the jist of it. Enough, at least, to support my research. Thanks again and feel free to visit my site!
    http://carlyegr5.edublogs.org

  6. Sorry, Trevor, but I can’t resist — it is one of those blogger’s questions. Does it trouble you that your reviews are soe good that students feel they don’t have to go beyond the review and actually read the work? (And I am pretty sure I know what Mrs. Berrett’s view on that would be.) I look forward to your response — it it a question that I have contemplated.

  7. Trevor says:

    Carly, thanks for your love of my post! I’m going to respond to Kevin now, and I hope you don’t take offense that I’m doing it by way of talking to you directly. That you’re engaging with (and loving) Walcott says something about your diligence, so when I talk here, I might be talking past you, though it might not feel like it. I’m sure I’ll come of as a strict pedant, though I don’t like seeing myself that way. Here goes:

    I do hope you read the book! For one thing, that is the goal of this blog. For another, your research will not be complete. I guarantee my review is not that good, and it definitely is not even close to doing justice to Walcott. I remember slapping this one together in a very short amount of time. I do that because I hope only to get a discussion going, to point the way to (or from) a book for people who’ve never heard of it before or who have been thinking about it. It’s purpose is not to be scholarly (and I know it’s not!).

    While you can obviously use what you want, I would hope the post (can I really call it a “review”) provides more of a jumping off point rather than a finishing point. I have faith that your love of Walcott will take you to the text when you have time. And hopefully there you’ll find I was not lying through my teeth here! Though how can you be sure? What if I am? What if I never read the book but posted things I’d spliced together from other blogs?? What if I’m only a very strange ten-year-old? Things to consider. These are the reasons I never accepted a citationg to a blog (or any other online source) when I was teaching. At any rate, best of luck on the research project! Walcott is excellent, and I hope you’ll share your thoughts on this!

    On a similar note, Kevin, I often can tell when a class (or group of classes) is reading a book I’ve posted about because, say for example, The Great Gatsby gets a few hundred hits a day for a week or so and then it all dies down. I wish more of the people using it for starting points came back and provided us their own thoughts! Thankfully, Carly has provided a link where we can read her thoughts on Frost and Walcott. (And here’s a pop quiz, Carly, and anyone else engaging Robert Frost: What does “The Road Less Travelled” really mean? People never read that poem correctly, though there are contradictions to the conventional interpretation throughout the entire poem.)

    Now, Kevin, you asked if it troubled me. Yes it does, particularly as I had to deal with similar situations many times. There’s no substitute for engaging with the literature itself—even if my blog were a work of scholarship. Students do themselves a disservice by not doing it themselves. But this definitely doesn’t bother me enough to make me stop. I get too much out of it myself, and I hope that for the most part my blog is being used to get people to read the books (or not, based on their taste) and engage in a discussion about truly great ideas and writing.

  8. Trevor says:

    Carly, I’ve read your blog and feel a need to reiterate my opening paragraph above: I was more responding to Kevin than trying to teach you particularly.

    I see that in your blog you didn’t quote me or anything but rather pulled some of the quotes from Omeros I had in my post; that is very different. Still no substitute for settling down with the book, but from the number of Walcott (among other poets) poems you have read and analyzed, I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before you do just that :) . I look forward to more of your thoughts.

  9. It troubles me too, but I get over it. Yes, you can see when there has been some mass assignment. But what has certainly changed from my student days is that instead of heading to a library to look for journal articles that some keener had already taken out, or even worse checking out the Coles Notes or Cliff Notes summary, students today can at least find a range of opinions from the blogging world. I too like to think that is the start of a process that will eventually result in the book being read — and I do have empathy with a student contemplating a 300-page epic poem at this time of year.

  10. Trevor says:

    Incidentally, it looks like over the past week there was an assignment to read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, at least the short story of the same title.

    You know, Kevin, I miss the good old days of the library. I went through my undergraduate career with internet in its early stages. I don’t remember ever using it for a research paper. I think there’s something students today are missing from the pleasure of scholarship when they don’t have to roam the stacks of books. I think late night in the library is more condusive to research than late night on a computer with iTunes and wikipedia and chat and all.

  11. The world is a very small place — I was on the phone with Sheila, who is in Ho Chi Minh City, talking about Tim O’Brien’s book when this post showed up on your site. She visited Graham Greene’s bar last night and I was also touting your review of The Quiet American (which she is going to buy there for airplane reading on the way home).

    Part of me does miss roaming the stacks but I have to admit that roaming the internet certainly is faster. The other thing I was doing this morning was finding the TLS article about Durrell in response to Colette’s post on my site. In less than five minutes, I was able to find it and link it — I can’t imagine how difficult the process would have been in my student days.

  12. Trevor says:

    It truly is an amazing amazing tool, even when wielded incorrectly. I’m sure I’m just romanticizing the past. It was miserable at the time!

  13. What a bizarre article. And here I thought poets were nice sedate people, above politics. Obviously I am wrong.

  14. Now I see that the successful candidate has resigned because she pointed journalists to the controversy from decades ago. Turns out the poetry world is much more political than I ever imagined — obviously another gaping hole on my part.

  15. Trevor says:

    I found it incredible! I think she should be ashamed of herself. Not that Walcott was in the right in the first place (decades ago), but I can’t believe it came to that kind of dirty play.

  16. I am in the same boat as you. I can’t imagine that something that happened a quarter of a century ago — and was subject to debate then — would be relevant now. And then drawing attention to it. Oh well — glad I am not a poet looking for a chair.

  17. On the subject of students and the pleasure of scholarship, I suspect for many students the driver isn’t the pleasure of scholarship but the pleasure of getting good enough marks to pass the course while simultaneously finding time to pass all their other courses.

    Back when I studied English lit, for all I loved it, there were works I didn’t take to and any shortcut I could have found that would have helped me avoid reading the whole book would have been gratefully accepted.

    And that was for a subject I liked, some students are just doing it because it’s obligatory. Not Carly, who talks about her love for Walcott’s poetry but a lack of time to read 300 pages (fair enough really), but many others.

    Oh, and I went over to Carly’s blog, there’s a lovely anaylsis of Act II of Hamlet there in the style of Laguna Beach. Fun stuff. Carly likes Hamlet a lot more than I do, but I digress…

  18. Trevor says:

    Well, this mess has resulted in an interesting anonymous poem. You can read it here.

  19. lulu brenda harris says:

    I am doing Omeros for my dissertation study and the poem is how can i put it -wow though a bit complex i love the whole Achille, Helen and Hector drama but one does get lost in Walcott’s use of poetic language, which is a good thing because one reads how Walcott uses his english for the descriptions and whole storyline. oh theres also some wit too.

  20. I have enjoyed what I read of Omeros. I am writing an epic poem about scientists I call Hermead, which is currently at 68,000 lines of blank verse. I am still writing, so it will be longer than that over the long run. I am writing biographies of philosophers and scientists. So far I have written 23 books, each about the length of Beowulf or a Shakespeare play, that covers the life of one Greek philosopher. I posted some online free, which includes the tale of Plato: http://scribd.com/surazeus

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