J. Mae Barizo on The Poetry of Derek Walcott, 1948-2013, in the LA Review of Books:
The collection, published by FSG and edited by Glyn Maxwell, is not the first selected by Walcott, but it is the most comprehensive. It includes seldom-seen poems written by the teenage Walcott, and provides a sweeping yet thorough examination of the octogenarian’s work. Walcott is usually referred to as a Caribbean poet (he was born in St. Lucia, educated in Jamaica), but that classification alone diminishes the breadth and significance of his oeuvre. Walcott embraces the formal English tradition to elucidate his Caribbean experience. The uniqueness of his voice stems from its hybrid of formal extravagance and graceful simplicity. This is apparent even in his 25 Poems, published when he was 18:
Where you rot under the strict gray industry
Of cities of fog and winter fevers, I
Send this to remind you of personal islands
For which Gauguins sicken, and to explain
How I have grown to know your passionate
Talent and this wild love of landscape.
(from “Letter to a Painter in England,” 25 Poems)
Walcott absorbs the world as a painter. He has always excelled with his lush collection of visual details (“flare of the ibis, rare vermilion”; “darkening talons of the tide;” “roads as small and casual as twine”), but his poetry is not simply a meditation on art and nature. His work devotes itself not to interpretations, but to intimacies. That is, he uses nature to explore his poetic experience. Walcott noted in a 1986 Paris Review interview that “the body feels it is melting into what it has seen,” and “if one thinks a poem is coming on […] you do make a retreat, a withdrawal into some kind of silence that cuts out everything around you.” So, while Walcott’s work is sometimes rooted in heady descriptions, his poems indulge both in transitory moments and the quiet after something has been seen, in the wake of astonishment.