Module 5:

[Coloniser & Colonised]

Postcolonial / Post-canonical Blues
Derek Walcott / Ian Wedde

[Derek Walcott: Another Life (1973)]

Derek Walcott:

Anthology Readings [pp. 237-56]:
  • ‘The Schooner Flight.’ In The Star-apple Kingdom. London: Jonathan Cape, 1979. pp. 3-20.
  • ‘The Muse of History.' In What the Twilight Says: Essays. London: Faber and Faber, 1998. pp. 36-64.

Here are a few quotes to get us started:

[Paul Klee: Angelus Novus (1920)]

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
- Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History" (1940)

[Derek Walcott: "The Muse of History" (1974)
[What the Twilight Says: Essays (1998)]

I accept this archipelago of the Americas. I say to the ancestor who sold me, and to the ancestor who bought me, I have no father, I want no such father, although I can understand you, black ghost, white ghost, when you both whisper "history," for if I attempt to forgive you both I am falling into your idea of history which justifies and explains and expiates, and it is not mine to forgive, my memory cannot summon any filial love, since your features are anonymous and erased and I have no wish and no power to pardon. You were when you acted your roles, your given, historical roles of slave seller and slave buyer, men acting as men, and also you, father in the filth-ridden gut of the slave ship, to you they were also men, acting as men, with the cruelty of men, your fellowman and tribes­man not moved or hovering with hesitation about your common race any longer (than my other bastard ancestor hovered with his whip, but to you, inwardly forgiven grandfathers, I, like the more honest of my race, give a strange thanks. I give the strange and bitter and yet en­nobling thanks for the monumental groaning and solder­ing of two great worlds, like the halves of a fruit seamed by its own bitter juice, that exiled from your own Edens you have placed me in the wonder of another, and that was my inheritance and your gift. [64]

Because civilizations are finite, in the life of each of them there comes a moment when the center ceases to hold. What keeps them at such times from disintegration is not legions but language. Such was the case of Rome, and before that, of Hellenic Greece. The job of holding the center at such times is often done by the men from the provinces, from the outskirts. Contrary to popular belief, the outskirts are not where the world ends—they are precisely where it begins to unfurl. That affects language no less than the eye.

Derek Walcott was born on the island of Saint Lucia, in the parts where “the sun, tired of empire, declines.” As it does so, however, it heats up a far greater crucible of races and cultures than any other melting pot north of the equator. The realm this poet comes from is a genetic Babel; English, however, is its tongue. If at times Walcott writes in Creole patois, it’s not to flex his stylistic muscle or to enlarge his audience but as an act of homage to what he spoke as a child—before he spiraled up the tower.

The real biographies of poets are like those of birds, almost identical—their data are in the way they sound. A poet’s biography lies in his twists of language, in his meters, rhymes, and metaphors. Attesting to the miracle of existence, the body of his work is always in a sense a gospel whose lines convert their writer more radically than his public. With poets, the choice of words is invariably more telling than the story line; that’s why the best of them dread the thought of their biographies being written. If Walcott’s origins are to be learned, his poems themselves are the best guide. What one of his characters tells about himself may well pass for the author’s self-portrait:

I’m just a red nigger who love the sea,
I had a sound colonial education,
I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,
and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation …

This jaunty four-liner informs us about its writer as surely as a song does—saving us a look out the window—that there is a bird outside. The dialectal “love” tells us that he means it when he calls himself “a red nigger.” “A sound colonial education” may very well stand for the University of the West Indies from which Walcott graduated in 1953, although there is a lot more to this line, which we’ll deal with later. To say the least, we hear in it both scorn for the very locution typical of the master race and the pride of the native in receiving that education. “Dutch” is here because by blood Walcott is indeed part Dutch and part English. But given the nature of the realm, one thinks not so much about blood as about languages. …

- Joseph Brodsky on Derek Walcott (1983)

[Selected Poems of Mahmoud Darwish
trans. Ian Wedde & Fawwaz Tuqan (1973)]

Ian Wedde:

Anthology Readings [pp. 257-83]:
  • 'Part IV: FOR AN OLD BITCH GONE IN THE TEETH, Sonnets 31 – 36.’ In Earthly: Sonnets for Carlos. Akaroa: Amphedesma Press, 1975. Available: nzepc.
  • Pathway to the Sea. Taylor’s Mistake, Christchurch: Hawk Press, 1975. Available: nzepc.
  • ‘Barbary Coast.’ In The Drummer. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1993. 17-19. Available: nzepc.
  • ‘Statement.’ In Andrew Johnston and Robyn Marsack, ed. Twenty Contemporary New Zealand Poets. Wellington: Victoria UP 2009, 56-57. Available: nzepc.

As you can see from his author page, Ian Wedde has published fourteen books of poems, seven books of fiction, and a number of works of non-fiction.

This session is intended principally as an examination of his poetry, since you've already had a chance to discuss his latest novel The Catastrophe in an earlier session. I think it's important for us to remember that he began as a poet, though, in the heady days of the 1970s, when the word was freed and the Old Guard was in retreat.

Ian Wedde: Earthly - Sonnets to Carlos (1975)

I've put two interviews up on the course stream site, one from Talking about Ourselves: Twelve New Zealand Poets in Conversation with Harry Ricketts (Wellington: Mallinson Rendell, 1986), pp.42-57, and the other from Gregory O’Brien's Moments of Invention: Portraits of 21 New Zealand Writers. Photographs by Robert Cross (Auckland: Heinemann Reed, 1988), pp.60-67. As well as these, I think it would be well worth your while taking a look at his introduction to The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, ed. Ian Wedde and Harvey McQueen (Auckland: Penguin 1985), pp. 23-52, available online at his author page on the nzepc.

There's also a discussion (by me) of his poem "Barbary Coast" on the Jacket2 poetics website here.

[The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse
ed. Ian Wedde & Harvey McQueen (1985)]

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