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HYBRIDITY AND WALCOTT’S POETRY

Prepared for Professor Themeem T


Prepared by – Mehr Khurana

Abstract - Hybridity, with its resonances of cross-fertilization, has gained much cur-
rency as a conceptual tool in the postcolonial context. A case in point is the work of
Derek Walcott, who stands at the confluence of the already hybrid Caribbean culture,
and the occidental poetic tradition. At a basic level, hybridity refers to any mixing of
east and western culture. Within colonial and postcolonial literature, it most commonly
refers to colonial subjects from Asia or Africa who have found a balance between
eastern and western cultural attributes.
Derek Walcott was born in 1930 on the island of St. Lucia, the child of a civil servant
and a schoolteacher and the descendant of two white grandfathers and two black
grandmothers. Though his first language was a French-English patois, he received
an English education, an apprenticeship in language that his mother supported by
reciting English poetry at home and by exposing her children to the European classics
at an early age.

Introduction

Walcott’s art arises from this schizophrenic situation, from a struggle between two
cultural heritages which he has harnessed to create a unique creolized style. His early
poetry booklets, published in the late 1940s with money borrowed from his mother,
reveal a self-conscious apprentice determined to make what Walcott called verse
“legitimately prolonging the mighty line of Marlow and Milton.” English and
American critics often have been ambivalent about his use of the Western literary
tradition and Walcott has also drawn criticism from Caribbean commentators, who
accuse him of neglecting native forms in favor of techniques derived his colonial
oppressors. To be sure, his early works seem overpowered by the voices of English
poetry, and his entire oeuvre respects the traditional concerns of poetic form. But if his
poetry demonstrates a significant relation to tradition, it also manifests an elegant
blending of sources — European and American, Caribbean and Latino, classical and
contemporary. Later works, including In a Green Night: Poems 1948-1960, reveal a
poet who has learned his craft from the European tradition, but who remains mindful
of West Indian landscapes and experiences

Early Dramatic Writings


Though his poetry displays a passion to record Caribbean life, this tendency is
more apparent in Walcott’s drama, which draws consistently not only on his
native patois, but also on regional folk traditions. In the 1950s, after taking a
degree from the University College of the West Indies, Walcott wrote a series of
verse plays, including Henri Christophe which recounts an episode in Caribbean
history using the diction and plotting of Jacobean tragedy. His subsequent forays
into dramatic writing, The Sea at Dauphin and Ione, mingle the influences of J. M.
Synge and Greek drama with a new emphasis on West Indian language and
customs. During this period Walcott also taught and wrote as a journalist in
Grenada, before moving to Trinidad, where he gathered a group of actors and
founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop. While in Trinidad, Walcott developed a
mature dramatic idiom in plays such as Ti-Jean and his Brothers and Dream on
Monkey Mountain, which put an elevated dialect in mouths of common West
Indian folk. In What the Twilight Says, Walcott describes his desire to fill
these plays with “a language that went beyond mimicry, . . . one which finally
settled on its own mode of inflection, and which begins to create an oral culture,
of chants, jokes, folk-songs, and fables.” Chronicling a peasant fantasy of rejecting
the white world and reclaiming an African heritage, Dream on Monkey
Mountain not only makes effective use of native dialect, but also satirizes the
bureaucratic idiom of colonialism. Language becomes a route to racial identity and
a necessary resource for the survival of West Indian communities.

Mature Writings
While Walcott dedicated much of the 1960s to developing the Trinidad Theatre
Workshop and to rewriting earlier dramas, his primary focus was on poetry.
Between 1964 and 1973 he published four volumes which continued his
exploration and expansion of traditional forms and which increasingly concerned
themselves with the position of the poet in the postcolonial world. In contrast to
the plays of this period which arise from a sense of shared colonial history and
local mythology, The Castaway and Other Poems (1964) draws on the figure of
Robinson Crusoe to suggest the isolation of the artist. “As a West Indian,” Katie
Jones suggests, “the poet can be seen as a castaway from both his ancestral
cultures, African and European, stemming from both, belonging to neither. To
salve this split, Walcott creates a castaway who is also a new Adam . . . whose task
is to name his world. Walcott’s castaway is a poet who creates and gives meaning
to nothingness”. Coping with internal division remains a concern in The Gulf,
which calls on the body of water separating St. Lucia from the United State as a
metaphor for the breach between the poet and all he loves, between his adult
consciousness and childhood memories, his international interests and the
feeling of community in his homeland. Walcott explores these themes again
in Another Life, a book-length autobiographical poem that examines the important
roles of poetry, memory, and historical consciousness in bridging the distances
within the postcolonial psyche.

This investigation transferred to his dramatic writings in the 1970s, which


address the problems of Caribbean identity against the backdrop of political and
racial strife and which increasingly find solutions to these troubles in the
individual. These works also display an expansion of his artistic concerns into
different genres. After a comical turn in Jourmard, Walcott wrote two musicals in
collaboration with Galt MacDermont: The Joker of Seville (1974), a patois
adaptation of Molina’s El buladorde Sevella, and O Babylon! (1976), a portrayal of
Rastafarians in Jamaica at the time of Haile Selassie’s 1966 visit and which uses
reggae music as a means of exploring West Indian identity. O Babylon! also
marked the end of Walcott’s association with the Trinidad Theatre Workshop and
the beginning of new period of dramatic writing, highlighted by plays such
as Remembrance (1977) and Pantomime (1978). The protagonist of Remembrance,
Albert Perez Jordan, is a schoolmaster who lost his oldest son in the 1970 Black
Power uprising and who remains distressed by a political commitment he cannot
understand. Unable to connect with his family or with his own past, Jordan finds
himself divided between an older generation committed to tradition and a
younger one playing at revolution. Characters in the comedic Pantomine confront
similar divisions, but here the issue of race comes to the fore. Reviving the Crusoe
story once again, Walcott creates a play-within-a-play and recasts the roles so
that Jackson, a black hotel servant, plays Crusoe and his white employer plays
Friday. This reversal highlights the fraught relationship that binds black to white,
master to slave, and colonizer to colonized. Far from being an irreparable
situation, however, Jackson’s ability to synthesize his calypso talents with a poetic
use of the English language suggests a respect for differences and a possibility for
healing old wounds.

Analysis of famous works

The poem, A Far Cry from Africa creates the binary of Orientalism and depicts the poet’s
inner conflict, owing to his mixed origins. It focuses on the brutalities of colonization both in
Africa as well as the Caribbean islands. The title itself is very significant and can be read in
more than one way. A “far cry” suggests the literal and metaphorical distance between him
and Africa. Thus, he looks at it from a third person’s perspective.
It can also mean the cry or the shriek from the violence in Africa that the wind and Kikuyu has
brought him from the distant lands of Africa. Another meaning can be the paradox that African
paradise has been tampered with and is actually the sight of inhuman slaughters. The poem
opens with the imagery of massive bloodshed in America, which was the result of
the clash of British power and Kenyan rebellion. However, he cannot bring himself
to sympathize with any side because he loves his African roots but also his English
education that has enabled him to understand all these aspects of imperialism and
colonization. He observes how colonization has reduced the Africans to the status of savages
that must be ‘hunted’. He then condemns the colonial ideologies of apparently rational
thinking:
Statistics justify and scholars seize
The salients of colonial policy.
The last two lines of the first stanza compare the Africans with the Jews and Walcott invokes
not just the Biblical imagery but also the disturbance in the Nazi Germany during the Second
World War.
The second stanza examines Africa’s side and how the Africans have been bestialized. The
cries of the ibises can either stand for the cry of pain or for the cry of civilization. He says that
Africa has survived since the birth of mankind. He refers to the white ibis which is found in
the Americas and tries to connect it with Africa as being the land of civilization since the dawn
of mankind. He then mentions the drum beating tradition and says that the cultural richness of
African tribes has been dismissed as irrational by the colonizers. He celebrates the
hybridization of the many cultures that assimilate together to make Africa and the West Indies.
He creates the binary between the colonizer and the colonized by calling them superman and
gorilla respectively. He cites Spain to indicate either the tensions in the Spanish Civil War or
the discoveries of the Americas by Columbus. Thus, he again connects his European and
Caribbean identities.
The poem ends with the poet asking the reader five different questions, pertaining to his
conflicted cultural identity. He says that he is torn between the English language and the
oppression of the colonizers on his homeland. He says that he cannot turn a blind eye to the
slaughter that they have carried out in Africa but can also not abandon his English education.
He, therefore, implies that he will always be located somewhere between the two cultures –
that he is both the gorilla and the superman. He says that his historical location originates from
Africa but his present revolves around his English literacy which gives him the power to
subvert the colonial structure by using the colonizer’s language and criticize his own
malpractices. A Far Cry from Africa is more of a pessimistic account but it weighs colonization
in the scales of both the Caribbean land and Africa. It provides an objective account of both
and leaves it open to the readers to interpret this friction between his cultural identities.

The poem, Names has been divided into two parts. The title signifies the abstract entity of
name, which can stand for two things – nomination and domination. While the first section
talks about nomination, from the perspective of the natives, the second part depicts the idea of
domination through naming. The poem celebrates Walcott’s mixed ancestry as he moves back
and forth between Europe and the West Indies.
The poem begins with his “race”, which could either mean his ethnic identity or his race, his
contest with himself to find his identity. The poem says that his race (incorporating both
meanings) originated with the sea, when the European forces had not yet found his homeland.
with no nouns, and with no horizon,
He talks about having “no nouns”, which can be read as him shedding any cultural identities
that he could be associated with. His consciousness is a tabula rasa, devoid of any names and
recognized only by the pronoun, “I”. He repeatedly mentions the horizon, which stands for the
binary between Europe and the Caribbean, between the self and the Other. He says that the
Caribbean lands have existed long before these binaries halved them. This repetition suggests
a continual search which has no results. He has “no memory” and “no future” because his
journey has transcended the barrier of time. The pronoun “I” can mean multiple things. It can
stand for Identity, or the Individual consciousness or the sound of a shriek which is uttered so
as to make existence felt. The sea-eagle imagery is invoked to assert that the Caribbean
existence is not two-dimensional – the sea provides them the depth. The last stanza depicts the
poet’s attempt to mark out an identity which the sea erases. This can be read as the sea’s
negation of the identity given to him by the colonizer. Thus, the indifference arises from the
enforced European ideals upon the Caribbean lands.
Similar to A Far Cry from Africa, Walcott tries to give an objective account so as to depict
the multi-cultural facet of the West Indies. The second section looks at the anxieties of the
colonizer. Since he is overpowered by nostalgia for their homeland, he is unable to appreciate
the beauty of the Caribbean islands. He cannot see beyond the “uncombed forest” and the
“uncultivated grass”. The colonizer yearns for the glories and the grandeur of Versailles,
Castille and Valencia and thus, his consciousness of foregrounded by the poet. Since he cannot
find these glorious structures there, he tries to cope up by naming monuments in West Indies
after them and thereby creating an “imaginary homeland”. Here the natives become the Other
as the colonizer has to deal with his acidic and sour memories. The last three stanzas invoke
the power dynamics in the colonial society. The natives become children and the colonizer
takes on the role of the teacher who teaches them about their own country through a
Eurocentric view. The natives, on the other hand, subvert the colonial authority by using their
creole accent and tone to utter the European and English words. Thus, the power keeps on
shifting. The worm from A Far Cry from Africa comes in here again who takes over the
colonizer as their ruler.
tell me, what do they look like?
Answer, you damned little Arabs! Sir, fireflies caught in molasses.
In these concluding lines, Walcott cites another imagery to denote the relationship between
the colonizer and the natives. The natives, here, produce their own images and metaphors in
the colonizer’s language, thereby attaining the Adept part in the process of colonization. The
fireflies are the Caribbean people who are stuck in the history of colonization, or the molasses.
Even though they are caught in it, they have their own light. This light might not be constant
but it is their own, which frees them from the authority of the colonizer.
The Sea is History examines the poet’s sense of disillusionment with the idea of his origin. He
looks for answers to his cultural and ethnic dilemmas and alludes to historical and
mythological tales to find metaphors that can explain this disillusionment. He is aware of the
fact that the blacks do not have any history of their own so through this poem, he tries to
provide them a historical backbone. This poem also propagates the homogeneity of the
Caribbean islands, and urges the natives to celebrate this multi-cultural existence which the
British do not have. It also draws a demarcation between the Old Testament and the New
Testament of the Bible and draws parallels between them and the history of slavery.
The poem begins with the colonizer asking the natives where their grand monuments are
and whether they have any glorious history of their own.
Sirs, in that grey vault. The sea. The sea has locked them up. The sea is history.
In the above lines, the poet calls the sea “the grey vault”, which means coffin. After this,
instead of directly explaining the significance of this, he begins telling the origins of slavery
in the Americas. He alludes to the hardships suffered by the slaves who were brought to the
Americas in the fifteenth century. By doing so, he gives evidence of having history dating
back to the Renaissance.
like a light at the end of the tunnel, the lantern of a caravel, and that was Genesis.
Here, he is talking about the origin of slavery that marked the Caribbean islands. He also refers
to Mayflower, the first ship (or caravel) that was used by the Spanish and the Portuguese to
bring the slaves from Africa to the Americas. The tunnel and light imagery used here stands
for the inhuman conditions that the slaves were exposed to in their journey to America. Thus,
he is condemning the colonizer for these inhuman slave practices. Similar to the Biblical
imagery of Genesis, he then talks about the Exodus of Israelites from Egypt as well as the
Jews. In this way, he refers to the violent history of Europe and also says that the shark
(colonizer) has overshadowed the remains of their own lineage which are buried in the sea.
Therefore, the sea becomes the Genesis of the natives. Similarly, he alludes to the 1692 Port
Royal earthquake and the large fish swallowing Jonah, and says that the Caribbean
Renaissance is resting safe in the sea.
He then shifts to the New Testament and the animal imageries occur again. However, in this
part, the varying animal metaphors stand for the diversity in the West Indies. As Ajanta Dutt
says, through this section, Walcott is trying to provide a voice to the natives.
...in the salt chuckle of rocks… of History, really beginning
In the above lines, Walcott talks about the Caribbean islands coming together, celebrating their
mixed cultural identities and becoming one, unified consciousness. He urges them to write a
new history together. He says that earlier the Caribbean was the sight of history writing, but
now it will become history, which is dissociated from all these colonial influences.
Conclusion –
Through different references and allusions, Walcott depicts the colonial power structures in
the West Indies. He uses English to subvert the colonial sovereignty of the British by showing
how the natives learning the European languages is a way to gradually take the upper hand.
By repeatedly using the animal imagery, especially the fireflies, he investigates the origins of
the Caribbean history and provides them a new identity of their own. Talking about his mixed
lineage, Walcott says, “The problem is to recognize our African origins but not to romanticize
them.” Thus, these poems explore the racial, colonial and cultural tensions inherent in
Caribbean history and identity and by doing so, it celebrates the hybridity and
cosmopolitanism of Caribbean culture.