Derek Walcott

Derek Walcott: On "The Gift Outright"

On that gusting day of the inauguration of the young emperor, the sublime Augustan moment of a country that was not just a republic but also an empire, no more a homespun vision of pioneer values but a world power, no figure was more suited to the ceremony than Robert Frost. He had composed a poem for the occasion, but he could not read it in the glare and the wind, so instead he recited one that many had heard and perhaps learned by heart.

The land was ours before we were the land's. She was our land more than a hundred years Before we were her people.

This was the calm reassurance of American destiny that provoked Tonto's response to the Lone Ranger. No slavery, no colonization of Native Americans, a process of dispossession and then possession, but nothing about the dispossession of others that this destiny demanded. The choice of poem was not visionary so much as defensive. A Navajo hymn might have been more appropriate: the "ours" and the "we" of Frost were not as ample and multihued as Whitman's tapestry, but something as tight and regional as a Grandma Moses painting, a Currier and Ives print, strictly New England in black and white.

By then as much an emblem of the republic as any rubicund senator with his flying white hair, an endangered species like a rare owl, there was the old poet who, between managing the fluttering white hair and the fluttering white paper, had to recite what sounded more like an elegy than a benediction. "The land was ours before we were the land's" could have had no other name, not only because he was then in his old age, but because all his spirit and career, like Thomas Hardy's, lurched toward a wintry wisdom.

From "The Road Taken." In Brodsky, Joseph, Seamus Heaney, and Derek Walcott (eds.) Homage to Robert Frost. New York: Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 1996.

Derek Walcott: On "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

A parody of Frost, on the other hand would use the doggerel of the greeting card. The trap is the poem, which snaps back at us and catches our fingers with the slow revelation of its betraying our sing-along into wisdom. Frost said it with less venom: "A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom." This leaves out the turmoil contradictions, and anguish of the process, the middle of the journey.

[quotes poem]

And even this poem, we now know, cannot be trusted. "Whose woods these are I think I know." He does know, so why the hesitancy? Certainly, by the end of the line, he has a pretty good guess. No, the subject is not the ownership of the woods, the legal name of their proprietor, it is the fear of naming the woods, of the anthropomorphic heresy or the hubris of possession by owners and poets.

The next line, generally read as an intoned filler for the rhymes, and also praised for the regionality of that "though" as being very American, is a daring, superfluous, and muted parenthesis. "His house is in the village though." Why not? Why shouldn't he live in the woods? What is he scared of? Of possession, of the darkness of the world in the woods, from his safe world of light and known, named things. He's lucky, the frightened poem says while I'm out here in the dark evening with the first flakes of snow beginning to blur my vision and causing my horse to shudder, shake its reins, and ask why we have stopped. The poem darkens with terror in every homily.

From "The Road Taken." In Brodsky, Joseph, Seamus Heaney, and Derek Walcott (eds.) Homage to Robert Frost. New York: Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 1996.

Nobel Prize Lecture: The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory

Felicity is a village in Trinidad on the edge of the Caroni plain, the wide central plain that still grows sugar and to which indentured cane cutters were brought after emancipation, so the small population of Felicity is East Indian, and on the afternoon that I visited it with friends from America, all the faces along its road were Indian, which, as I hope to show, was a moving, beautiful thing, because this Saturday afternoon Ramleela, the epic dramatization of the Hindu epic the Ramayana, was going to be performed, and the costumed actors from the village were assembling on a field strun