And it’s funny she and sefton should be engaged in this discussion. I started a post that was inspired by this one, by Geoffrey Philp, talking about engagement, and putting into words what has been true in my own reading and thinking about Caribbean literature and out great poets. I have always followed the school that believes Brathwaite is as great as Walcott (and, apparently far, far more engaged) but is greatly overlooked. In truth, there was a time when I thought Brathwaite was greater, and regarded Walcott’s global popularity with a selling out — in form, if not in substance, and in poetry, what difference is there? — of his identity, his politics, and his place in the world, akin, if not equivalent, to Naipaul’s repudiation of everything that made him.
Philp’s observation has changed my mind.
… even as I read more and more books by Caribbean writers and got rid of the ideas that Africa represented “impurity and immorality” and Europe represented “purity and morality,” I fretted over my immortal soul. This is not to say that some of the binary oppositions did not materialize in my readings. I suspect now that the placement of Walcott and Brathwaite in opposite camps may have to do with this tendency. Read Walcott and go to heaven; read Brathwaite and go to hell.
Imagine, then, my surprise a few years ago as I was reading Omeros in which Walcott meditates on the themes of character, observation, and language, and I came upon this passage:
Then everything fit. The pirogues crouched on the sand
Like hounds with sprigs in their teeth. The priest
sprinkled them with a bell, then he made the swift’s sign.
When he smiled at Achille’s canoe, In God We Troust,
Achille said: “Leave it! Is God’ spelling and mine.”
In this very telling scene, the position of the priest as a representative of the patrician order and European tradition, and Achille as the natural Caribbean man who inhabits a universe where “Ogun can fire one with his partner Zeus” intrigued me. The priest’s bemusement with Achille’s character is reflected in his condescending smile. Achille responds to this seeming moral indictment because he cannot spell the word, “trust” with the retort, “Leave it! Is God’ spelling and mine.” A battle over individuality, morality, divinity, and spelling was being fought on a Caribbean beach. I loved it.
That passage was also a point of confluence for me. For despite what some of their followers claim, Brathwaite and Walcott have many traits in common. For example, both Walcott and Brathwaite are fascinated with the slippages and neologisms that have become part of the Caribbean vocabulary and how they convey identity.
I started to read Walcott late in life. His style was too classical for my taste, too formal, too European, not challenging or oral or revolutionary enough for my mind. He wasn’t doing what a Caribbean man, a man of colour and with social obligations, a man with a responsibility to advocate for his community, should do. And I had been weaned on Brathwaite, who is an in-your-face iconoclast, to the point of having broken faith with all his communities. Walcott lives much of the time in the Caribbean now, despite the superficial Eurocentrism of his style. Brathwaite visits, but lives in the US. He claims Barbados breaks his heart.
Now, having spent most of my career judging our two greatest poets, I’d rather not do it any more. Their first responsibility is to themselves, not to me or their countrymen or anybody else. Their cultures will define them whatever they consciously choose; Naipaul’s has defined him, and continues to do so, despite his desperation to cleanse himself of his Caribbeanness.
So I’ll end, as sefton did, by invoking Blake, and saying that all good art is revolutionary. Something to keep in mind.