Hybridity in the poetry of Derek Walcott

Essay add: 30-09-2015, 12:03   /   Views: 2 224
Derek Walcott is a Caribbean writer, playwright and Nobel Laureate from Castries, St. Lucia. On both the maternal and paternal sides of his family, he was descended from a white grandfather and black grandmother. As a young man he trained as a painter, mentored by Harold Simmons whose life as a professional artist provided an inspiring example for Walcott. Walcott started his career at the age of nineteen with his self published collection of poems “25 poems” in 1948, but he came into public profile with his collection In a Green Night: Poems 1948-1960 (1962)
His initial inspiration for verse came from the sea and everything related to the sea, which began to take on a special significance. Walcott mentions that his knowledge of classical literature and history – Greek, Roman, British – was “vital and inspiring”. That, together with the African slave-tales still current on the island, led him at an early age to admire both sides of his dual heritage. His early poetry reflects the same paradox including personal and regional subject matter in verse forms highly imitative of Andrew Marvell, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound. Rather than denying either the island or his classical sources, he makes the choice of blending them together.
The West Indies, which had experienced a history of slavery, colonialism and alienation, was Walcott’s preferred residence and he did not feel the need to migrate to either England or the United States to become a writer, like many of his contemporaries. According to Ajanta Dutt, he was “dedicated enough to realise that he could work from within towards a creation of the Caribbean culture, by tempering the Standard English idiom used predominantly in the major cities for all forms of discourse with a creolised English incorporating various patois languages.
Hybridisation, according to Bakhtin, is a mixture of two social languages within the limits of a single utterance, an ‘encounter’, within the arena of an utterance, between two different linguistic consciousnesses, “separated from one another by an epoch, by social differentiation, or by some other factor”. When Robinson Crusoe encounters the criolos whom he names Friday, he teaches him English, the words of God, and above all the basics of humanity. He has “driven him out of utter darkness to overwhelming whitening light”. Doing so he created a ‘mimic man’; for Friday can only ‘mimic’ his white Master’s culture, but never be equal to him.
Benedict Anderson characterises as a ‘mental miscegenation’ - a mixture of two racial groups – those colonial educational policies which aimed to create Europeanised natives or to use Macaulay’s famous words “a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinion, in morals and in intellect”. The underlying premise was that the colonised can mimic, but never exactly reproduce English values, and that their recognition of the perpetual gap between themselves and the ‘real thing’ will ensure their subjection.

It was Homi Bhabha’s usage of the concept of hybridity that has been the most influential for recent postcolonial studies. Bhabha uses Franz Fanon’s theory to suggest that hybridity is a necessary attribute of ‘the’ colonial condition. For Fanon, mimicry is the result of a colonial indoctrination process through which Caribbean men and women, denied “an autonomous cultural identity, have been coerced into seeking legitimacy through the imitation of western models”. Psychic trauma results when the colonised subject realises that he can never attain the ‘whiteness’ he has been taught to desire, or shed the ‘blackness’ he has learned to devalue. Bhabha amplifies this to suggest that colonial identities are always a matter of “flux and agony”.
Fanon’s image of “black skin/white mask” is not, as Bhabha explains a ‘neat division’, but a “doubling image of being in at least two places at once”. If in Fanon’s writings colonial authority works by inviting black subjects to mimic white culture, in Bhabha’s work such an invitation itself undercuts colonial hegemony. Whereas Fanon’s black mimics are “dislocated subjects”, Bhabha claims that mimicry has the effect of undermining authority. It is the effect of cracks within colonial discourse. Keeping this in mind, Bhabha contends that when re-articulated or re-written by the native, what is produced is not a copy of the colonialist original, but qualitatively different thing in itself.
Through his poems, Walcott tries to convey these anxieties that the Caribbean people have over their heritage. "A Far Cry from Africa" can be seen as the most representative poem of that period. This poem can be taken as an example of transculturation, which is a process by which a conquered people choose and select what aspects of the dominant culture they will assume. Unlike acculturation, transculturation recognizes the power of the subordinate culture to create its own version of the dominant culture.
This poem is the story of a man half African and half English, who is witnessing the death and destruction of his homeland resulting from the English colonization of South Africa. In his description he does not, however, favour one side over the other, but focuses rather on the injustices of both cultures. At the end of the poem, the narrator cries out, asking how he can choose between “this Africa and the English tongue I love?” Thus when he looks back at “the tawny pelt of Africa” and remembers the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, he cannot sympathise completely with any one side and asks the readers to “waste no compassion on these separate dead!” He sees both sides as murderers who disrupted the peace of Africa. In an essay entitled "Conflicting Loyalties in 'A Far Cry from Africa,'" the author, Heather Bradley contends, "this severely pessimistic image illustrates a consequence of displacement—isolation".
Indeed, there are several images of isolation in the final lines of the poem, and even the title takes part in the withdrawn tone of the rest of the poem. The anxiety of being a hybrid is brought to light in the lines “I who am poisoned with the blood of both, where shall I turn, divided to the vein?” The just option, as Ajanta Dutt says, would be to betray them both or accept his literary talent by accepting and admitting what he owes to his dual heritage (“give back what they give”).
His “Names” deals with the colonial practice of re-naming, of the imposition of language upon the colonised and about mimicry. Language was used by the colonisers as an instrument of control. A hegemonic force, language extended through and into education is not forced upon the native but it is accepted by consent. In the act of repeating the colonisers, the colonised people’s tongue was ‘corrupted’, in the sense that they can never be like their colonisers because of their natural inflection. This gives rise to a whole new language – and culture - called the Creole. Edward Brathwaite, in his essay “Creolization in Jamaica” defines it as a cultural process that took place within a Creole society, that is, within a tropical colonial plantation polity based on slavery. The process of Creolization is a “way of seeing the society, not in terms of white and black, master and slave, in separate nuclear units but as contributory parts of a whole”.
In “Names”, the poet seems to suggest that the Caribbean people are suffering from historical amnesia, where they cannot remember their past, where they came from, when their race began. “My race began as the sea began”, he claims. His identity in one sense is bound by the sea. The hybrid colonised subject is neither here nor there – s/he has no history, and even the future seems bleak to them. The colonial act renaming their colonised space leads to the alienation of the colonised subject. They are forced to mimic the coloniser’s language. They learn about their own geography couched in “Eurocentric allusions: These palms are greater than Versailles...” The identity of this post-colonial poet in the English language is further compounded by the fact that he comes from the French-speaking part of the Islands, and thus he cannot deny his French heritage, or his English, for both contributed to his literary career.
As critic Patricia Osmond puts it, Walcott views his own effort very much in terms of this purpose of “naming”. It has helped to shape his poetic, and finds expression in the work, both on the level of statement and enactment. This Caribbean world has been divided into White and Black by colonial history, language, education and racial prejudice. These factors make Walcott’s search for a past previous to colonial history almost futile. His poetry is a statement that his identity comes from a flow of history and events that have “taken his past and given him the present and he cannot retaliate without suffering a loss.
Book Sources:
1. The Post-Colonial Studies Reader: Ashcroft, Bill; Griffiths, Gareth; Tiffin, Helen (Routledge)
2. Neruda, Walcott and Atwood: Poets of the Americas - ed by Dutt, Ajanta.
3. The Caribbean: Culture or Mimicry? - Walcott, Derek.
4. A Tale of Two Parrots: Walcott, Rhys and the Uses of Colonial Mimicry - Huggan, Graham.

Online Sources:
1. http://hybridity.ens-lyon.fr/spip.php?rubrique23&lang=en
2. http://www.stlucianobellaureates.org/dw_biography.htm
3. http://www.duke.edu/~mht/Papers/Transculturation.html
4. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2719/the-art-of-poetry-no-37-derek-walcott
5. http://www.qub.ac.uk/imperial/key-concepts/Hybridity.htm

Article name: Hybridity in the poetry of Derek Walcott essay, research paper, dissertation