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Creole Baroque in Derek Walcott’s Archipelagic Imagery

Joanny Moulin
p. 73-79


This paper proposes to explore some specific aspects of imagery in Derek Walcott’s poetry, with special reference to the concepts of the archipel (“pensée archipélique”) and the baroque, such as they are found in the writings of other Antillean writers as well, as for instance E. Glissant, P. Chamoiseau or R. Confiant, etc. My thesis will be that Walcott’s imagery is baroque by its practice of the fugue and the detour, and archipelagic by its patterning recurrences and iterations.

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1Derek Walcott is a superficial poet. Perhaps that is because he is also a painter, for painters deal with nothing but surfaces. This is especially true of water-colour painters, who do not even have the minimal, crusty thickness of oil paint. All their art must be contained in the minute film that sips in the water-colour at the surface of a sheet of paper. You can rework an oil on canvas again and again, even wipe it off and start over again on the same surface. But you cannot do so with watercolour. You take another piece of paper and make another painting, write another poem, another stanza, another chapter. In the same way, Derek Walcott’s poetry has this superficial horizontality and moves on. It runs on. “Ecriture.” “Trace,” etc. It is predominantly cursive. Not discursive, in the sense that most of the time it takes care to steer clear of ideologies, all ideologies, including the romantic, although he has defined himself as being “by nature a romantic.” (Conversations with Derek Walcott 184). By nature he may be so, but he is culturally a post-modern poet (if perhaps not quite a postmodernist) and a great deal of the superficiality does reside in the sheer postmodernity. This is all in the spirit of the age. We are all dreadfully superficial. However, this takes on special relief (so to speak), this has a peculiar relevance in the Antilles, for historical and geographical reasons. Come to think of it, the Antilleans (whoever they may be) are people who live on mountain tops, with the valleys in between flooded up to the brim by sea water. They share a common culture which is essentially young and impressively gifted with the exuberant calypsonian life force of the bacchanal. Like the carnival, it draws its strength from its being superficial, ever-changing, and processional, always on the move, dancing, metamorphic, mobile. The poems of Derek Walcott also have this special quality of glittering, shimmering surfaces, and its images do not strike root or lay foundations. Walcott’s imagery does not build a system of symbols or construct a cosmology in any way. His metaphors are rather metonymies. They proceed by contiguities. They are endowed with transitoriness, transience — one is almost tempted to say speed; they flicker, vanish and return, like mirages. This is a touch-and-go poetics. The poetry does not take stock, it does not try to erect a here-and-now, but remains opera aperta; as open as the horizons.

  • 1 Unless otherwise specified, all references are to the Collected Poems.

2The Guadeloupean-born poet Saint-John Perse, of whom Derek Walcott said that he had been one of his role models, famously entitled his 1957 collection Amers, a French word which translates rather prosaically into English as “landmarks”, or “seamarks”, referring to whatever is high enough to crop up over the horizon and serve as fixed points for sailors to find their bearings by. But Walcott’s poetry diverges and differs from Saint John Perse’s precisely by turning away from this ideal verticality. Rather, Walcott adopts the outlook of another of his poetic fathers, the Martiniquan Aimé Césaire, who in his Cahier d’un retour au pays natal very explicitly placed his negritude on the side of a horizontal openness: “ma négritude n’est ni une tour ni une cathédrale / … / Eia pour ceux qui n’ont jamais rien inventé / … / poreux à tous les souffles du monde / … / lit sans drain de toutes les eaux du monde.” (47) In his poem “Verandah”, Derek Walcott has this image: “Your genealogical tree, fallen, survives, / Like seasoned timber through green, little lives” (90).1 This makes a powerful little myth of Antillean culture, which could be taken as an equivalent of the myth of the bog by which Seamus Heaney has offered to translate and revise for Ireland Frederic Jackson Turner’s myth of the American Frontier — “Our pioneers keep striking / Inwards and downwards, / Every layer they strip / Seems camped on before,” Heaney would say (Door into the Dark 41-2). The Yggdrasil, the “world-tree” of colonial Western culture, has been felled and lies rotting away, serving as mould and compost for the growth of a plethora of disseminated “little lives”. Of course, it is tempting to make a rapprochement with the concept of the rhizome, developed by Deleuze in Thousand Plateaus (1980), which meant to account for modes of artistic production that depart from the western predilection for tree-images and organizations. The Rhizome is literally a root-like network that, instead of plunging deep into the ground, runs in all directions just beneath the surface of the ground, and lets young plants sprout up here and there. But this is also the botanic principle that presides over the genesis of a perfect English lawn. Another image, more appropriate, perhaps, would be that of the stolon (also called “off-set” or “runner”). The stolon is this branching off by which some plants (like the strawberry) proliferate, not by sending root-like rhizomes into the ground, but by launching these special stems through the air. Indeed the image suits Derek Walcott’s poetry better, because there is an aerial flight-footedness, even a disorderly levity to his imagery. Its sense of place is no rootedness. This is no “muddy booted poetry” as Philip Hobsbaum once said of Seamus Heaney’s: it hops lightly over seaside sand, it sails with the changing clouds, it flies with the sandpipers and ciseaux-la-mer. Derek Walcott is not a digger poet, he is no archaeologist. In his poetic world, the land has no hidden treasure: it has all been shipped away long ago. And there is no Ursprache, either. The original language of the Arawaks or the Caribs has not been suppressed; it has been erased, irrecoverably. And anyway it is not the cultural heritage of the Black people, who were transported from Africa and transplanted here against their will. Neither is it that of the Asian, the Levantine or the béké. Creole languages are not a bygone past to be recovered, like the Irish language in Ireland. They are peculiar ways of inventing the present, they are accents, they are styles. And as Bossuet has it, “le style c’est l’homme même” (1753 speech to the Académie Française). But style is superficial. It is a mere scratching of surfaces. Style is the pen, the pencil, the brush, whose trace is a unique signature. Style is a stolon, by which a man extends his own essence over the surface of the world, bridging the gap between this vision and the next, hopping on and on from image to image, reading on, writing on. Thus, poetry is relation — this is what Edouard Glissant, the Martiniquan poet, calls Poétique de la Relation, in the title of a book published in 1990. Each image relates the world, with a hermetic degree of opacity that calls for an explication (explicare means “to unfold”), an unfolding, an unveiling which keeps relating it to yet another image. Deleuze’s reflexion in Le Pli, Leibnitz & le baroque (1988) indirectly casts some light on what is at stake in Walcott’s poetry, and especially for instance his poem “Names”:

My race began as the sea began,
with no nouns, and with no horizon

I began with no memory,
I began with no future,

as a fishline sinks, the horizon
sinks in the memory.

Behind us all the sky folded,
as history folds over a fishline,
and the foam foreclosed
with nothing in our hands
but this stick
to trace our names on the sand
which the sea erased again, to our indifference (306).

3Derek Walcott’s poetic style is that of the stick that traces transitory signs on the earth. In Another Life, “The Estranging Sea”, it is “the heron’s foot / on the mud’s entablature, / by this augury of ibises / flying at evening from the melting trees,” which “brings towards us, again and again, in beaten scrolls, / nothing, then nothing” (286-7). Remarkably, the poet never uses the metaphor of the palimpsest, for the palimpsest retains the memory of its erased texts that can be at least partly recovered. Instead, Walcott regularly returns to the image of the slate, which is that of the tabula rasa, the scribbling on sand that the sea wipes off, leaving no trace. Here, Walcott’s Adamism takes peculiar import; it is the feeling that one is naming the world, writing it for the first time, as if no one else had done so before, not even oneself only just the day before. That is why Derek Walcott appears ceaselessly to return to the same themes, scenes, images, and by all accounts to be doing so erratically, as his cursive poetic writing returns, renames, repeats and rephrases itself. It is a continual ebbing and flowing, the eternal return of cyclical time, a thickness, and opacity, an amnesia — “forests / Of history thickening with amnesia” (195). Twilight, the twilight of evening that Léopold Sedar Senghor awaited impatiently for the same reason, is for Derek Walcott a perpetual unfolding, an opening up — “widening with amnesia / evening dims the mind. / I shake my head in the darkness, / It is a tree branched with cries” (133). But it is an aerial, not a grounded depth. It is something dynamic, a momentum, a soaring. Derek Walcott’s relation to the Antillean land is just as ephemereal as Friday’s footprint in the seaside sand. “First,” he says, “we have not wholly sunk into our own landscapes, and one gets the feeling at funerals that our bodies make only light, unlasting impressions on our earth.” (What the Twilight Says 19). Walcott’s Antillean is a rootless peasant in a forgotten pastoral, a nomadic castaway stranded on a desert Cythera. In Omeros, some black Greek expresses this melancholy condition with bitter-sweet humour: “He cursed the yams: / ’Salope! / You all see what it’s like without roots in this world?” (21).

  • 2 Migan: traditional dish of the Antilles; a mixture of meat and fruits, peppered, sweet-and-sour, ma (...)
  • 3 “The stuffed dark nightingale of Keats, / bead-eyed, snow-headed eagles, / all that romantic taxide (...)
  • 4 “The characteristic trait of the baroque is the fold which goes on to infinity.”

4The levity, the lightness, the hovering quality of Walcott’s style goes with a perceptible immateriality of the land, an evanescence of these islands that always strangely seem on the brink of being swallowed up by the sea and the wind. The Antilles, especially the diminutive southern islands, appear like a dotted line on the map, so that “The mind… / Seeks, like the polyp, to take root in itself” (14). The Archipelago is the geographical, the geopolitical model of this relation to the world, which is on the whole what Edouard Glissant calls archipelagic — la pensée archipélique. The images in Walcott’s poetry are not constructed so as to form a system or a structure, they are juxtaposed and make up an archipelago, which is less a habitat than a climate or a mental atmosphere. The Anglo-Saxons, who were also sea-faring peoples, figured out their fatherland as “middle-earth”, somewhere between the water of the sea and the water of the sky. In much the same way the ancient Greeks envisioned their nation of many islands and peninsulae as Archipelagos, the Aegean Sea considered as the arch-sea, the original super-sea containing all the smaller lands that Greece is made of. In the world of Derek Walcott, one can sense the abstract idea of an Antillean nation that would be an archipelagic emanation, a mélange, a migan2 of many lands, several people, variegated languages and a syncretic assemblage of cultures from diverse parts of the worlds. Glissant expresses it by a graphic poetic image: “the archipelago makes a foam,” he says, “we inhabit the foam” — “l’archipel fait écume, nous habitons l’écume.” (Glissant, Traité du Tout-Monde 40). The foam is an excess, “a fine excess” as Keats would say (in his less taxidermic3 moments). It is the produce of the waves of passion and feeling with which the surface of the sea seems to come alive and plays with the surface of the earth. The foam is the visible exasperation of the fold. It is characteristically baroque, in the Deleuzean sense of the term: “Le trait du Baroque, c’est le pli qui va à l’infini” (Le Pli 5)4. Walcott’s poetry has this particular style, which consists in permanently overreaching itself, as if stretching ahead of itself. Walcott’s poetic idiom blooms forth; it pursues a barely hidden agenda of overtaking the English language, of out-englishing anglophone literature. It is baroque, rococo, by its often garish decorativeness; grotesque, grottesco, by the peculiar way in which his imagery and metaphors constantly blend and mix and graft one thing with another. Much as baroque art typically overwhelmed the rules and limits of the classical, Walcott’s poetry is characterised by a disorderly proliferation of imagery, languages and dialects, voices, quotations, allusions and misprisions, translations, cross-references to other art forms, cock-and-bull digressions, etc. It works very deliberately by garrulous accumulation, and for all these reasons it deserves to be called creole baroque. For creoleness is not just a mixture. It is a melange that detonates. The explosion, the bursting forth, is baroque. “Origins” — “The flowering breaker detonates its surf. / White bees hiss in the coral skull. Nameless I came among olives and algae, / Foetus of plankton, I remember nothing” (CP 11). Creoleness is baroque by its essential, adamic growth or flowering forth. That is why Glissant explains that in the Americas — in the plural, for in the Antilles even more than elsewhere there are several — “in the Americas, the baroque is naturalized”:

  • 5 “Pour l’art baroque, la connaissance pousse par l’étendue, l’accumulation, la prolifération, la rép (...)

In baroque art, knowledge grows by spreading, accumulation, proliferation, repetition and not primarily from the depths of the order (or disorder) of orality. In the Americas, this goes with the endlessly repeated beauty of cross-breeding and creolisation, where the angels are Indian, the Virgin is black, the cathedrals are like stony vegetable growths, and this echoes the words of the storyteller that also spread in the tropical night, accumulate, reiterate. The storyteller is Creole or Quetchua, Navajo or Cajun. In the Americas, the baroque is naturalized. (Glissant, Traité du Tout-Monde 116, my translation)5

5The Ewige Wiederkehr, the eternal return that pulses in this poetry like the surf on Atlantic beaches, is not at all a going round and round in a sleepy, mechanical circle. It is an iteration. It is the constantly reiterated overlapping of all frames. It is the schooner Flight — whose art is that of the fugue — literally dia-lectal poetry, a style that plays truant, the incorrigible branching off into tangent lines. “Poetry,” Walcott writes, “is an island that breaks away from the main” (“The Antilles” What the Twilight Says 70). It is a diffraction, which opens up a space of creative freedom in the otherwise invisible twilight that lurks on the borders of established concepts. In Another Life, Gregorias the Antillean Greek is an “astigmatic saint”, and there is much in Derek Walcott’s style that is astigmatic indeed; the stigmata, the signs that his stick traces in the sand are always slightly off the mark, and dynamically projected onward by a metonymic shift, a lag, an off-set — that is one of the names of the stolon. Speaking of the Antillean landscape, which suffuses his poetry to the point of serving as a model for his creative imagination, Derek Walcott once explained that “In a sense, the Caribbean has a stagnancy about it. Well, that stagnancy is very fertilizing… The shape of what grows out of it is convoluted, like the plants of the Caribbean. They’re Baroque plants… It’s an aesthetic based on vegetation.” (Conversations 91) In a poem entitled “The Hotel Normandy Pool”, he has an image that epitomizes his poetic aesthetic: “At dusk, the sky is loaded like watercolour paper / with an orange wash in which every edge frays—” (445). Perhaps that is, to some extent, a Bloomian revision of W.H. Auden’s poésie de départs — “poetry of departures” — for it is a poetic art characterised by its brimming over. It is an aesthetic of overspill. Derek Walcott’s enthusiasm for the “vigor and elation” of Caribbean or Antillean culture rests on his empirical witnessing of precisely this baroque energy which he has also called a “barbarous exotica”, in a text where he praised the ancient Greeks by saying that “If we looked at them now, we would say that the Greeks had Puerto Rican tastes.” (Baer 183) His book-length epic Omeros (1990) was an attempt at developing just this idea that Caribbean culture might be the kernel of an aesthetic for the future, the homeland of a Creole Renaissance. Naturally, the seminal art form from which this new-baroque aesthetic has sprung is the carnival — the Bacchanal — and its literary avatar the calypso, which has in common with the ancient, Menippean satire, or the satura, that it is a transgressive medley of all genres, but also that it is joyfully opaque, and darkly Dionysian. It proliferates on mélange, mixture, the metamorphic plurality of styles, voices and forms. But it is more exactly characterized by the momentous departure, the swerve, the clinamen. This creole baroque poetics rests on a culture of hybridity all right, but it is primarily an art of fine excess — an aesthetic of overspill.

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Baer, William, ed. Conversations with Derek Walcott. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996.

Barnabé, Jean, Patrick Chamoiseau et Raphaël Confiant. Éloge de la Créolité / In Praise of Creoleness. Paris : Gallimard, 1989.

Césaire, Aimé. Cahier d’un retour au pays natal. 1947. Paris, Dakar: Présence Africaine, 1983.

Deleuze, Gilles & Félix Guattari. Mille Plateaux. Paris: Minuit, 1980.

Deleuze, Gilles. Le Pli; Leibnitz & le baroque. Paris: Minuit, 1988.

Davis, Gregson. The Poetics of Derek Walcott: Intertextual perspectives. Special issue of The Southern Atlantic Quarterly. Spring 1997. Vol. 96 nb 2.

Durix, Jean-Pierre. Derek Walcott; Collected Poems. Paris: Atlande, 2006.

Glissant, Édouard. Poétique de la relation. Paris: Gallimard, 1990.

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Heaney, Seamus. Door Into the Dark, Londres: Faber, 1969.

Perse, Sain John. Éloges. Paris: Gallimard, 1960.

Walcott, Derek. Collected Poems 1948-1984. London: Faber, 1986, 1992.

Walcott, Derek. Omeros. London: Faber 1990.

Walcott, Derek. What the Twilight Says. London: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1998.

Wallart, Kerry-Jane. “La métaphore chez Derek Walcott: à la recherche d’une ’arrière-langue’ ”. Études anglaises 58.4 (octobre-décembre 2005). 456-72.

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1 Unless otherwise specified, all references are to the Collected Poems.

2 Migan: traditional dish of the Antilles; a mixture of meat and fruits, peppered, sweet-and-sour, made from breadfruit mash. “Notre créolité est donc née de ce formidable ‘migan’. (…) Nous nous sommes forgés dans l’acceptation et le refus, donc dans le questionnement permanent. (…) Notre Histoire est une tresse d’histoires. Nous avons goûté à toutes les langues, à toutes les parlures.” (Barnabé, Éloge de la Créolité 26)

3 “The stuffed dark nightingale of Keats, / bead-eyed, snow-headed eagles, / all that romantic taxidermy” (CP 183).

4 “The characteristic trait of the baroque is the fold which goes on to infinity.”

5 “Pour l’art baroque, la connaissance pousse par l’étendue, l’accumulation, la prolifération, la répétition et non pas avant tout par les profonds de l’ordre (ou du désordre) de l’oralité. Cela rencontre dans les Amériques la beauté toujours recommencée des métissages et des créolisations, où les anges sont indiens, la Vierge noire, les cathédrales comme des végétations de pierre, et cela fait écho à la parole du conteur qui elle aussi s’étend dans la nuit tropicale, accumule, répète. Le conteur est créole ou quechua, navajo ou cajun. Dans les Amériques, le baroque est naturalisé.” (Glissant, Traité du Tout-Monde 116)

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Bibliographical reference

Joanny Moulin, “Creole Baroque in Derek Walcott’s Archipelagic Imagery”Commonwealth Essays and Studies, 28.2 | 2006, 73-79.

Electronic reference

Joanny Moulin, “Creole Baroque in Derek Walcott’s Archipelagic Imagery”Commonwealth Essays and Studies [Online], 28.2 | 2006, Online since 15 January 2022, connection on 14 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Joanny Moulin

Université de Provence

Joanny Moulin is Professor of English Literature at the University of Provence, where he teaches English poetry and contemporary literature. He is also editor-in-chief of the e-journal Erea (Revue d'Etudes Anglophones) and the author of several books on Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Robert Burns and Derek Walcott.

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