What the Twilight Says; Essays

Overview

The first collection of essays by the Nobel laureate.

Derek Walcott has been publishing essays in The New York Review of Books, The New Republic, and elsewhere for more than twenty years. What the Twilight Says collects these pieces to form a volume of remarkable elegance, concision, and brilliance. It includes Walcott's moving and insightful examinations of the paradoxes of Caribbean culture, his Nobel lecture, and his reckoning of the work and significance of such poets as ...

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Overview

The first collection of essays by the Nobel laureate.

Derek Walcott has been publishing essays in The New York Review of Books, The New Republic, and elsewhere for more than twenty years. What the Twilight Says collects these pieces to form a volume of remarkable elegance, concision, and brilliance. It includes Walcott's moving and insightful examinations of the paradoxes of Caribbean culture, his Nobel lecture, and his reckoning of the work and significance of such poets as Robert Lowell, Joseph Brodsky, Robert Frost, Les Murray, and Ted Hughes, and of prose writers such as V. S. Naipaul and Patrick Chamoiseau. On every subject he takes up, Walcott the essayist brings to bear the lyric power and syncretic intelligence that have made him one of the major poetic voices of our time.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"There is no one writing in English at present who can join power with delicacy the way Walcott can."—Sven Birkerts, The New Republic

"Walcott is a kingfisher critic, with flashing insights, an original who writes a profound, poetic prose . . . Derek Walcott's words go from strength to strength."—Paula Burnett, The Times (London)

From The Critics
...[A] densely poetic exploration of one heralded Caribbean writer's musings about other writers — heralded, Caribbean or otherwise.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In essays originally published between 1970 and 1997, Walcott, winner of a Nobel prize in 1992 for his poetry and plays (Omeros, The Bounty), engages with literature, politics and their intersection. This is Walcott's first prose collection but the writing here is so intense that it threatens to disintegrate into lyric; in fact, the pieces deserve to be read aloud for their finely wrought metaphors, their intelligent, conversational observations and the beauty of their sound. Brilliant insights come suddenly, even unexpectedly, as in the aside that "reading [Wallace] Stevens is like having Chocolate for breakfast." Most of the essays are considerations of a wide range of writers such as Patrick Chamoiseau, Joseph Brodsky and Ernest Hemingway. The remaining few, including the Nobel prize address, "The Antilles: Fragments of an Epic Memory," are intense meditations on the state of West Indian writing and culture. A recurring concern is the relation of the postcolonial writer to the imperial language: Walcott, who now lives in both the United States and his native St. Lucia, describes "barbarian Bards" who "recite long passages of the imperial literature as if it were their own; and with a vigour, even a love, that brings a blush to the civilized cheek." But while he criticizes V.S. Naipaul for turning his back on the West Indies, and praises card-carrying anti-imperialists like C.L.R. James and Aime Cesaire, Walcott is no hard-liner. He is indignant toward those who reject any aspect of the West Indian heritage, whether it be African, Asian, indigenous American or European, acting on his own contention that poetry must not dwell on the scars of history, but should instead embrace the beauty and the possibilities of the present. (Nov.)
Paula Burnett
Walcott is a kingfisher critic, with flashing insights, an original who writes a profound, poetic prose . . . Derek Walcott&#39s words go from strength to strength.
#151;The London Times
Sven Birkets
There is no one writing in English at present who can join power with delicacy the way Walcott can.
The New Republic
Kirkus Reviews
A poet's (poetical) prose about poetry.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374526832
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 10/28/1999
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 1,148,191
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Derek Walcott was born in St. Lucia in 1930. His recent works include Omeros and The Bounty. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992. He lives in New York City and Castries, St. Lucia.

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Read an Excerpt

But I see what it is, you are not from these parts, you don't know what our twilights can do. Shall I tell you?-Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

When dusk heightens, like amber on a stage set, those ramshackle hoardings of wood and rusting iron which circle our cities, a theatrical sorrow rises with it, for the glare, like the aura from an old-fashion brass lamp, is like a childhood signal to come home. Light in our cities keeps its pastoral rhythm, and the last home-going traffic seems to rush through darkness that comes from suburban swamp or forest in a noiseless rain. In true cities another life begins; neons stutter to their hysterical pitch, bars, restaurants, and cinemas blaze with artifice, and Mammon takes over the switchboard, manipulator of cities; but here the light makes our strongest buildings tremble, its colour hints of rust, more stain than air. To set out for rehearsals in that quivering quarter-hour is to engage conclusions, not beginnings, for one walks past the gilded hallucinations of poverty with a corrupt resignation touched by details, as if the destitute, in their orange-tinted back yards, under their dusty trees, or climbing to their favelas, were all natural scene designers and poverty were not a condition but an art. Deprivation is made lyrical, and twilight, with the patience of alchemy, almost transmutes despair into virtue. In the tropics nothing is lovelier than allotments of the poor, no theatre is as vivid, voluble, and cheap.

Years ago, watching them, and suffering as you watched, you proffered silently the charity of a language which the could not speak, until your suffering, like the language, felt superior, estranged. The dusk was a raucous chaos of curses, gossip, and laughter; everything performed in public, but the voice of the inner language was reflective and mannered, as far above its subjects as that sun which would never set until its twilight became a metaphor for the withdrawal of empire and the beginning of our doubt.

Colonials, we began with this malarial enervation: that nothing could ever be built among these rotting shacks, barefooted back yards, and moulting shingles; that being poor, we already had the theatre of our lives. So the self-inflicted role of martyr came naturally, the melodramatic belief that one was message bearer for the millennium, that the inflamed ego was enacting their will. In that simple schizophrenic boyhood one could lead two lives: the interior life of poetry, the outward life of action and dialect. Yet the writers of my generation were natural assimilators. We knew the literature of empires, Greek, Roman, British, through their essential classics; and both the patois of the street and the language of the classroom hid the elation of discovery. If there was nothing, there was everything to be made. With this prodigious ambition one began.

If, twenty years later, that vision has not been built, so that at every dusk one ignites a city in the mind above the same sad fences where the poor revolve, the theatre still an architectural fantasy, if there is still nothing around us, darkness still preserves the awe of self-enactment as the sect gathers for its self-extinguishing, self-discovery rites. In that aboriginal darkness the first principles are still scared, the grammar and movement of the body, the shock of the domesticated voice startling itself in a scream. Centuries of servitude have to be shucked; but there is no history, only the history of emotion. Pubescent ignorance comes into the light, a shy girl, eager to charm, and one's instinct is savage: to violate that ingenuousness, to degrade, to strip her of those values learnt from films and books because she too moves in her own hallucination: that of a fine and separate star, while her counterpart, the actor, sits watching, but he sits next to another hallucination, a doppelganger released from his environment and his race. Their simplicity is really ambition. Their gaze is filmed with hope of departure. The noblest are those who are trapped, who have accepted the twilight.

If I see these as heroes it is because they have kept the sacred urge of actors everywhere: to record the anguish of the race. To do this, they must return through a darkness whose terminus is amnesia. The darkness which yawns before them is terrifying. It is the journey back from man to ape. Every actor should make this journey to articulate his origins, but for these who have been called not men but mimics, the darkness must be total, and the cave should not contain a single man-made, mnemonic object. Its noises should be elemental, the roar of rain, ocean, wind, and fire. Their fist sound should be like the last, the cry. The voice must grovel in search of itself, until gesture and sound fuse and the blaze of their flash astonishes them. The children of slaves must sear their memory with a torch. The actor must break up his body and feed it as ruminatively as ancestral storytellers fed twigs to the fire. Those who look from their darkness into the tribal fire must be bold enough to cross it.

The cult of nakedness in underground theatre, of tribal rock, of poverty, of rite, is not only nostalgia for innocence but the enactment of remorse for the genocides of civilization, a search for the wellspring of tragic joy in ritual, a confession of aboriginal calamity, for their wars, their concentration camps, their millions of displaced souls have degraded and shucked the body as food for the machines. These self-soiling penitential cults, the Theatre of the Absurd, the Theatre of Cruelty, the Poor Theatre, the Holy Theatre, the pseudo-barbarous revivals of primitive tragedy are not threats to civilization but act of absolution, gropings for the outline of pure tragedy, rituals of washing in the first darkness. Their howls and flagellations are cries to the lost God which they have pronounced dead, for the God who is offered to slaves must be served dead, or He may change His chosen people.

The colonial begins with this knowledge, but it has taken one twenty years to accept it. When one began twenty years ago it was in the faith that one was creating not merely a play but a theatre, and not merely a theatre but its environment. Then the twilight most resembled dawn, then how simple it all seemed! We would walk, like new Adams, in a nourishing ignorance which would name plants and people with a child's belief that the world is its own age. We had no more than children need, and perhaps we have remained childish, because fragments of that promise still surprise us. Then, even the old rules were exciting! Imitation was pure belief. We, the actors and poets, would strut like new Adams in a nakedness where sets, costumes, dimmers, all the "dirty devices" of the theatre were unnecessary or inaccessible. Poverty seemed a gift to the imagination, necessity was truly a virtue, so we set our plays in the open, in natural, unphased light, and our subject was bare, "unaccommodated man." Today one writes this with more exhaustion than pride, for that innocence has been corrupted and society has taken the old direction. In these new nations art is a luxury and the theatre the most superfluous of amenities.

Every state sees its image in those forms which have the mass appeal of sport, seasonal and amateurish. Stamped on that image is the old colonial grimace of the laughing nigger, steelbandsman, carnival masker, calypsonian, and limbo dancer. These popular artists are trapped in the state's concept of the folk form, for they preserve the colonial demeanour and threaten nothing. The folk arts have become the symbol of a carefree, accommodating culture, and adjunct to tourism, since the state is impatient with anything which it can not trade.

This is not what a generation envisaged twenty years ago, when a handful of childish visionaries foresaw a republic devoted to the industry of art, for in those days we had nothing else. The theatre was about us, in the streets, at lampfall in the kitchen doorway, but nothing was solemnised into culturel significance. We recognized illiteracy for what it was, a defect, not the attribute it is now considered to be by revolutionaries. Language was earned, there was no self-contempt, no vision of revenge. Thus, for the your poet and actor, there was no other motivation but knowledge. The folk knew their deprivations and there were no frauds to sanctify them. If the old gods were dying in the mouths of the old, they died of their own volition. Today they are artificially resurrected by the anthropologist's tape recorder and the folk archives of departments of culture.

To believe in its folk forms the state would have to not only hallow its mythology but rebelieve in dead gods, not as converts either, but as makers. But no one in the New World whose one God is advertised as dead can believe in innumerable gods of another life. Those Gods would have to be an anthropomorphic variety of his will. Our poets and actors would have not only to describe possession but to enact it, otherwise we would have not art but blasphemy, and blasphemy which has no fear is decoration. So now we are entering the "African" phase with our pathetic African carvings, poems, and costumes, and our art objects are not sacred vessels placed on altars but goods placed on shelves for the tourist. The romantic darkness which they celebrate is thus another treachery, this time perpetrated by the intellectual. The result is not one's own thing but another minstrel show. When we produced Soyinka's masterpiece The Road, one truth, like the murderous headlamps of his mammy-wagons, transfixed us, and this was that our frenzy goes by another name, that it is this naming, ironically enough, which weakens our effort at being African. We tried, in the words of his professor, to "hold the god captive," but for us, Afro-Christians, the naming of the god estranged him. Ogun was an exotic for us, not a force. WE could pretend to enter his power, but he would never posses us, for our invocations were not prayer but devices. The actor's approach could not be catatonic but rational; expository, not receptive. However, Ogun is not a contemplative but a vengeful force, a power to be purely obeyed. Like the professor, only worse, we had lost both gods, and only blasphemy was left.

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Table of Contents

What the Twilight Says 3
The Muse of History 36
The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory 65
On Robert Lowell 87
On Hemingway 107
C.L.R. James 115
The Garden Path: V.S. Naipaul 121
Magic Industry: Joseph Brodsky 134
The Master of the Ordinary: Philip Larkin 153
Ted Hughes 176
Crocodile Dandy: Les Murray 182
The Road Taken: Robert Frost 193
A Letter to Chamoiseau 213
Cafe Martinique: A Story 235
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