White Egrets, By Derek Walcott

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The Independent Culture

"The perpetual ideal is astonishment": Derek Walcott sees no point in aiming for anything less than great poetry, and he has certainly achieved it. The penalty he has sometimes paid lies in being tempted to grandiloquence in the effort to ignite the charge of imagination and feeling which makes his best work (for instance "The Schooner Flight") so compelling and authoritative. Published in poet's 80th year, White Egrets contains work of both kinds. The best is remarkable, with passages as good as anything he has written.

Elegy and regret are to the fore, as in "The Acacia Trees", with its superb evocation of presence and loss in thinking of dead friends: "I go down to the sea by another road/ with manchineel shadows and stunted sea grapes/ dwarfed by the wind. I carry something to read:/ the wind is bright and shadows race like grief,/ I open their books and see their distant shapes/ approaching and always arriving, their voices heard/ in the page of a cloud, like the soft surf in my head."

Walcott is to a remarkable degree a landscape artist. Almost everything arrives on the page via place, light, climate and tide, and out of these arise the rich moral and imaginative reveries which fill the book. Language and place seem continuous: in "Spanish Series", "A train crosses the scorched plain in one sentence." Part of Walcott's power lies in the fact that the physical world is almost always there for its own sake. The avoidance of allegory and of mechanical equivalents between the interior and exterior realms is an important feature of his contribution to the romantic tradition, one he shares with Seamus Heaney.

White Egrets is also a book of self-accusation. Again in "Spanish Series", there is "The boring suffering of love that never tires./ Though you change names and countries, España, Italia,/smell your hands, they reek of imagined crimes./ The cypresses writhe in silence, while the oaks, sometimes,/ rustle their foliate lyres." The background presence of Dante can be felt both in the emotional power and the combination of beauty and stringent matter-of-factness. Watching ancient tourists, Walcott finds himself to be "one of them /.../ wracked by a whimsical bladder and terrible phlegm."

There is also the need to face errors and sins. There have been failures of love, and the taste of loss and failure is bitter and persistent – "love and the suffering that love likes". Yet White Egrets is not a confessional work in the exposed sense we encounter in Robert Lowell or John Berryman. The poems hold little interest as gossip, seeking instead for the truthfulness of intense distillation. Walcott's combination of honesty and tact will not last long as firewall against the curious, but it speaks for an artistic seriousness he is at pains to protect, since poetry is his vocation, and any confession will have to face an unforgiving verdict at the bench of art itself. At times he wonders if his gift itself has withered, whether he should let it go – like, he says, a woman who deserves not to be injured.

The book extends its leavetaking beyond the personal life into dramatised images of the end of the British empire. In "The Spectre of Empire", a Conradian exile, white-suited and fallen from grace, haunts the scenes of lost power. Not for the first time, Walcott examines his complex fascination with an imperium whose exploitation of human and natural resources happened to offer him a language which both condemns and affirms but above all evokes, and which now speaks for the levelling effects of mortality on both great and small.

A lesser writer might be content to mark this recessional, to retire into a safe simplicity, but Walcott manifests a technique at once immensely assured and driven by restless musical curiosity. The same combination of pride and ruthlessness requires him to decide that in his other art, painting, he cannot meet his own standards. At least, he comments, he has discovered this for himself, and it seems typical that self-knowledge should take the form of dignity rather than despair. The view of the sea, light falling on the sea, and the sound of the sea will suffice, whatever judgment the poet delivers on himself, and it is part of his gift to imagine peace even he if cannot achieve it – which takes us back to Dante.

Sean O'Brien's 'The Drowned Book' won the TS Eliot and Forward Poetry prizes