Georgia Tindale is currently studying for an MPhil in Renaissance Literature at Cambridge, having completed her undergraduate degree in English with Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham. She also edits Porridge alongside Nora and Kitty.
Derek Walcott (23 January 1930- 17 March 2017) was a Saint Lucian poet and playwright who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992. One of Walcott’s major achievements was his Homeric epic poem Omeros (1990), which won him numerous awards. He was also a prolific playwright, and adapted Homer’s Odyssey for the stage in 1993, and it is these two works which I will be discussing in this essay.
The question of how to approach Derek Walcott’s use of the epic genre in Omeros and his stage version of Homer’s Odyssey is a contentious one. What happens when a Caribbean author takes one of the most important genres of Western literature – a genre referred to as a ‘master narrative’ by Irene Martyniuk – and transforms Achilles into a Saint Lucian fisherman? This essay suggests an answer to this question: the terms of the epic genre itself are altered. Although Walcott denies that Omeros fits the definition of an epic, I posit that this denial is specifically of Western canonical epic, and that different kinds of epic – slave epics and the oral epics which Homer’s Odyssey began as – are brought to our attention by Walcott.
Since Joyce’s Ulysses, the definition of epic as a poem which ‘celebrates in the form of a continuous narrative the achievements of one or more heroic personages of history or tradition’ has been called into question, and neither Omeros nor Walcott’s Odyssey fit this definition. Indeed, the possibility of looking at a drama like The Odyssey in epic terms is opened up by the generically transformative power of Ulysses as a modernist epic novel. Walcott’s denial of serious canonical epic as his model is achieved through his use of Caribbean political satire, picong, linguistic wordplay and his undermining of Odysseus’ heroic status.
Despite Walcott’s denial of any affiliation between his work and the ancient epics, the slapstick humour and irony also found in Homer’s Odyssey connect it unexpectedly to Walcott’s postcolonial epics. With that in mind, Walcott’s approach to epic in Omeros and his Odyssey can be seen to adhere to his concept of literary history as ‘simultaneous’ rather than ‘chronological.’
Firstly, Walcott’s rejection of epic in Omeros is partly because he believes epic necessarily has a ‘political destiny’ requiring the nationalist elevation of a people’s history to match a predecessor’s. Indeed, Joseph Farrell agrees that Saint Lucia, the setting of Omeros, seems an ‘unlikely subject for a triumphalist national epic and an unlikely heir to the epic tradition handed down from Greece, Rome and Christendom.’ Walcott rejects this European, competitive conception of history as part of his status as a New World poet.
Instead, Walcott wishes to celebrate the ordinary nature of the Caribbean people: ‘It is the ordinariness, not the astonishment, that is the miracle…worth recalling.’ In both The Odyssey and Omeros, it is the survival of these people from slavery which is truly epic, a people described by Walcott as ‘not groups of degraded people but [as] extremely strong.’ This postcolonial resilience is epitomised in The Odyssey and Omeros through verbal sparring, and is presented through epic allusion and references to another kind of epic: spiritual, slave epic.
Beginning with Omeros, the exchange between Philoctete and Ma Kilman demonstrates the resilience of the Caribbean voice through punning:
“Mais qui ca qui revait-’ous, Philoctete?”
“But what is wrong wif you, Philoctete?
“I am blest
wif this wound, Ma Kilman, qui pas ka guerir piece.
Which will never heal.”
Two colonial languages – English and French – spar against one another through Caribbean English dialect and creolised punning in French. This is evident from the pun on the French word ‘blessé’ – ‘injured’– as ‘blessed. This lightheartedness juxtaposes with the narrator’s explanation of Philoctete’s wound as coming from the historical wound of slavery: ‘He believed the swelling came from the chained ankles/of his grandfathers…’ (19) This resilience against a history of colonial oppression is a source of pride for Walcott in his people, as seen from his description of the slaves taken from Africa in Omeros ‘…they crossed, they survived. There is the epical splendor’ (149). This verbal virtuosity is developed further in The Odyssey, where the islander – presumably Caribbean – narrator of the Prologue, Billy Blue, improvises over the first line of Homer’s The Odyssey using the hexameter of the original Greek and embeds it into his spiritual, blues song:
Gone sing ‘bout that man because his stories please us,
Who saw trials and tempests for ten years after Troy.
I’m Blind Billy Blue, my main man’s sea-smart Odysseus,
Who the God of the Sea drove crazy and tried to destroy.
Andra moi ennepe mousa polutropon hos mala polla…
Walcott’s embedding of songs like this within the action of The Odyssey enables a natural comparison with the poetry of Omeros, as it is what Peter Burian calls a ‘poetic drama.’ Here, like Philoctete, Billy Blue mixes languages. Blue’s combination of the American English vernacular, ‘main man’ and ‘drove crazy’ with the first line from The Odyssey beginning ‘Andra moi’ fits into Walcott’s concept of the New World culture as a ‘culture of references’ caused by a history of colonialism. The highly alliterative language here – each line has at least four alliterative sounds – connects Billy Blue to the oral origins of Homer’s Odyssey, as alliteration aided memorization through repeated sounds.
Furthermore, Walcott’s formal modelling of Homer fits his poetic practice more widely, since he describes taking an older poem and ‘model[ling] directly onto it…like an overlay, down to the rhymes and the metre, but out of my own background and landscape.’ This adaptation of epic form and language to a Caribbean background adheres to what Robert D. Hamner calls Walcott’s ‘creolization’ of epic, and is epitomised in the play’s final song where Billy Blue moves into the form of a slave spiritual through his repetition of ‘rock’ and use of ‘amen’:
For a rock, a rock, a rock, a rock-steady woman
Let the waves clap their hands and the surf whisper amen. (160)
These spiritual songs bookending the play draw it into another kind of narrative epic described by Walcott: the spiritual epic of slaves. This stems from the poetry of slaves now living in the New World – who were some of Walcott’s ancestors – and served as the ‘beginning of poetry’ for that region. Notably, Walcott also allows the content of the spiritual to push against the form inherited from classical epic, as these lines exceed the hexameter by one syllable. Furthermore, the formal qualities of Billy Blue’s final song – where the final five lines chime together on a ‘-men’ or ‘-man’ sound – evoke the rhyming couplets described by Walcott in this sung epic:
The blues is not… the individual voice… each new poet can contribute his couplet, and this is based on the concept that the tribe, inured to despair, will also survive: there is no beginning but no end.
This communal epic is characterised by formal circularity and timelessness, and this is also evident at the endings of The Odyssey and Omeros through the descriptions of the sea. In Omeros, the final section ends with the hexameter: ‘When he left the beach the sea was still going on’ (325), and The Odyssey begins and ends with the stage direction ‘(Fade. Sound of surf.)’ (160). This formal circularity also relates to the so-called ‘ring composition’ of Homer’s Odyssey, where a narrative: ‘develops to reach its most significant theme, before returning to its starting point.’
This circular poetic form also fits into Walcott’s idea of literary history as circular; or as working in a ‘simultaneous’, rather than a ‘chronological’, manner, since Walcott and Homer use related formal techniques to convey oral narratives, despite writing their works thousands of years apart. Despite this similarity, Walcott’s Odyssey also ‘overlays’ the slave origins of the Caribbean onto the epic subject matter, thus introducing the reader to a different type of epic from the canonical kind: the slave epic.
In addition, although Walcott’s alignment of Omeros with the oral qualities of Homer’s work suggests closer affinities between Walcott and Greek epic than is usually acknowledged, Walcott’s representation of Caribbean politics and carnival satire draws classical epic into something distinctly Caribbean. In Walcott’s The Odyssey, he presents the episode on Circe’s island using the form of a kaiso – identified by Robert D. Hamner as a ‘(calypso-styled) chorus’ in his scene:
The island of Calypso
Is the place to go
O Lord have mercy
Before I dead
Let me lie down with Miss Circe
Stroking me head
Stroking me bald head
That have only one eye (75)
Walcott locates this scene within the Caribbean by referencing two of its cultural practices: ‘carnival’ and ‘bacchanal’. He also puns on ‘Calypso’ as both the island where Odysseus was held prisoner, and the popular form of Trinidadian music. Furthermore, this passage uses the lexis of patois, where ‘my’ is replaced by ‘me’ and ‘have’ is used instead of ‘has’. In addition, as Hamner points out, this passage is laced with the ‘double entendre’ characteristic of kaiso. The use of short lines and a rhyme scheme which shifts between alternate rhyme and couplets propels the lines into the rhythm and energy of a kaiso; elements which would be highlighted by the musical performance of the song on stage.
This formal and stylistic metamorphosis of this episode from Homer contradicts one school of thought about Walcott’s Odyssey represented by Irene Martyniuk, who describes The Odyssey as a ‘straightforward retelling’ due to it following Homer’s structure closely. Martyniuk’s argument can be complicated, as although Walcott presents the same sequence of events as in Homer – the arrival onto the island, the transformation of the sailors into pigs and so on – this scene is metamorphosed into something recognisably Caribbean, and turned from narrative poetry into a dramatic episode.
However, despite this transformation – or perhaps, ‘creolization’ – this scene functions by highlighting the similarities between the ancient Aegean and the Caribbean. The dialogue between Walcott’s Aegean sailors before the kaiso illustrates this:
EURYLOCHUS: Try, sailor. How do you feel?
FIRST SAILOR. In a different archipelago. But the same.
SECOND SAILOR. They worship the elements. They kneel like you kneel. (74)
This exchange reflects Walcott’s justification for his references to the Aegean in Omeros, where he describes himself as able to write naturally connecting the Aegean and the Caribbean due to them both being ‘superstitious people[s]’, both living in an archipelago and having a culture of fishing which he describes as ‘legendary’. The sailors explicitly reference this shared mythology and geography, thus involving The Odyssey in Walcott’s theory for Omeros. Crucially, it becomes clear, therefore, that Walcott is not unwilling to accept ‘epic’ as an appropriate description of The Odyssey or Omeros, but that his concept of the world of Homer’s epic already naturally fits into his idea of the Caribbean.
Turning to Omeros, Walcott’s presentation of Professor Static’s political rallying in Book 2 can be compared with the kaiso from The Odyssey, as it also employs humour and allusions to Homer’s epics. However, unlike the kaiso, this scene is not adapted from Homer’s Odyssey but is original. This originality allows Walcott to explicitly satirize both contemporary Caribbean politics and epic as a source of metaphor, thus demonstrating a more political intention than in The Odyssey.
That said, however, it should be noted that kaiso music is often politically subversive – as its origins were with slave music, thus connecting it with spirituals described by Walcott as helping the ‘tribe in bondage’ to ‘fortify itself’. Furthermore, the performative element of the kaiso – often for the benefit of Western tourists in the Caribbean – can itself be read as political within the play’s performative framework.
In Omeros, the narrator describes the political campaigner Professor Static in inflated terms as feeling ‘like the Pope’ and learning to ‘atone’ for the poverty of Saint Lucia. Walcott also uses a metaphor referring to Moses for Static’s: ‘power/that parted the sea of their roaring affections’ (106-7). This inflated language satirizes Professor Static’s emotive speeches and presents him as ridiculous. This is reinforced earlier on, when the Professor begins his rallying speech, but is told by Hector: ‘The mike not on’, to which he replies ‘Shit!” (106). The narrator ironically describes the Professor speaking ‘with usual acumen’ here (106). This humour is directed at Static’s sincere efforts, rather than with the revellers in the kaiso, and can be read as satirizing the political situation in Saint Lucia since it is one of Omeros’ only political episodes.
Furthermore, although the Professor metaphorically connects Saint Lucian politics with Homer’s Iliad – he refers to two other political parties as ‘one Greek and the other Trojan/both fighting for Helen’ (107) – the undermining of the Professor’s position indicates that this is not a comparison Walcott wants the reader to take seriously. With this in mind, Walcott can be seen to engage with classical epic using different levels of sincerity in the kaiso and Static’s speeches. The kaiso embeds Caribbean humour into the epic genre, and Static’s allusive speeches ironize his attempts at political sincerity. This political approach to epic in Omeros shows Walcott turning briefly away from the celebration of the Caribbean people explored earlier, and turning towards a critical engagement with the state of Saint Lucia after its independence in 1979.
In addition, Jason Lagapa argues that both cursing and picong act as a source of ‘subversive power’ in Walcott’s early poetry which ‘redefine[s] epic poetry…. through parody and irony’. This can be expanded to encompass Walcott’s later works, The Odyssey and Omeros. Although Lagapa reads Omeros as a serious poem in which Walcott ‘moves from obscenity to oath’ and which acts as a ‘profession of artistic integrity,’ a closer look at cursing and picong in both works contradicts this assertion. Lagapa’s use of the Trinidadian term picong here means something like ‘continuous teasing, banter, or joking’ at someone’s expense. Beginning with cursing, in Book 5 of Omeros, Walcott describes Odysseus’ crew cursing him in Caribbean English dialect:
Hunched on their oars, they smile; “This is we Calypso,
Captain, who treat we like swine, you ain’t seeing shore.
Let the sun burn you black and blister your lips…” (202)
The curse implicates Odysseus in the history of African slavery, as clear from ‘let the sun burn you black’. The crew describe themselves as ‘we Calypso’ – using the Caribbean English pronoun ‘we’, instead of the Standard English ‘us’ – and reverse the situation of slavery by holding Odysseus captive. The same pun on ‘Calypso’ as both the island in The Odyssey and the type of music is evident here as was in the kaiso scene discussed earlier. Furthermore, this use of Caribbean English in punning is significant, as calypso music was originally associated with the creole teasing songs towards a massa, the white slave owner, by slaves.
As Odysseus is the object of this cursing, he is placed in the role of a massa, and cursed with the sunburn and dehumanisation suffered by the slaves. The plosive repetition of ‘burn’, ‘black’ and ‘blister’ and the heavy use of monosyllables establishes a harsh tone, and connects the passage with Caliban’s cursing in The Tempest – a character frequently read as an allegory for the colonised subject in postcolonial criticism – through this shared sound pattern. Caliban curses Prospero with a ‘south-west’ [wind associated with unhealthy, damp air] to ‘blow’ and ‘blister’ him (1.2.325-6).
Although the crew’s cursing seems too severe to fit the meaning of picong as ‘banter’, their ‘smile’ towards Odysseus suggests possible humour behind it. With this in mind, Lagapa’s argument for cursing acting subversively in epic is clearly supported here, since Odysseus’ capture on Calypso is placed into the postcolonial framework of a massa being cursed by his slaves. In addition, Odysseus’ supposed complicity in slavery forces the reader to reconsider his traditionally heroic status. As Irene Martyniuk argues, he is both ‘warrior and slave owner’ in Homer’s Odyssey and thus: ‘Walcott’s retelling works because it is both Homer’s episode and something seemingly new that was, in fact, already present.’
Similarly in Walcott’s Odyssey, the Cyclops episode in Homer is reconfigured by involving Odysseus in the Caribbean practice of picong. This, however, is complicated by the Odysseus’ appropropriation of a ‘black accent’.
ODYSSEUS: The ugliest thing is a liar. So you’re really ugly, sir.
How ugly am I?
Man, you so ugly nobody would believe it.
ODYSSEUS (Black accent)
I’m nobody, dude. You’re ugly, I believe it.
CYCLOPS (Roaring with laughter)
God, what accent is that? I’m going to die.
Oh, you will, you will boss. (65-66)
This lighthearted interaction is much closer to picong as ‘continuous teasing at someone’s expense’ than the cursing of Odysseus in Omeros. Odysseus’ shift between a more formal register ‘…So you’re really ugly, sir’ to the colloquial, ‘Man, you so ugly,’ in combination with his adoption of a black accent shows him performing African American informal speech to entertain Cyclops and make him ‘…Weep […] with laughter...’ (66). This idea of Odysseus’ black accent as performative can also be linked to Henry Louis Gates’ concept of dialect functioning as a mask.
Gates argues that, due to the ‘cultural or ethnic’ privacy of meanings in languages – caused by culturally specific meanings within languages – cultures can mask their meanings from outsiders through dialect. This can be connected with Odysseus’ performative picong here, but instead of using a speech pattern like dialect to mask his meaning from Cyclops, Odysseus dances about, imitating the accent of another culture to mask his true identity.
Odysseus’ performance of this accent in Walcott’s theatrical play is significant, due to the long history of blackface minstrel shows in Britain and America. Although Odysseus’ mimicry of this accent is a mild example of appropriation in comparison to minstrel shows, Walcott’s representation of this mimicry in this episode from Homer’s epic may draw our attention to what Gates describes as the ‘insidious archetypal portraiture of the black man as a… happy-go-lucky fool’, which is evident in Western culture.
Crucially, this idea of the outsider performing for entertainment purposes connects Walcott’s work unexpectedly with Homer the poet, whose place of origin is still unknown, and who is described by Robert D. Hamner as ‘the itinerant bard who entertained the Greeks of his day before he and they were idealized by historical and artistic canonization.’ This connection shifts the conception of Homer away from the canonical poet, and closer to the margins, where subversive, postcolonial works are written, and where minorities are exploited for entertainment.
Although Walcott’s use of humour in Omeros and The Odyssey is seen as a subversive transformation of the epic genre by critics like Lagapa, Daniel Turkeltaub’s work on Odyssean humour contradicts this by finding this subversive humour already present in The Odyssey. Turkeltaub argues that The Odyssey:
regularly uses humour….by applying traditional epic formulaic structures to a broader range of subjects than they normally accommodate and thus redefining the heroic virtues that those structures encode so that they exalt mundane human experience.
Critics like Turkeltaub find humour throughout The Odyssey, from the irony behind the masculine presentation of the middle-aged Penelope’s ‘stout hand’ in Book 21 to Odysseus’ slapstick killing of the suitors in Book 22, which contains the lines: ‘One hit a doorpost in the hall, another/stuck in the door’s thick timbering’. In addition, Turkeltaub’s argument that Homer used humour alongside epic formulae to expand out the genre, and to ‘exalt mundane human experience’ connects to Walcott’s desire to celebrate the ordinary Caribbean person.
Furthermore, although Walcott refuses to align his work with the serious nation-bolstering projects of ancient epics such as Virgil’s The Aeneid, following Turkeltaub’s argument suggests that both Walcott and Homer had a shared transformative goal; to use humour in order to shift the structural parameters of the genre. This shifting is evident formally from Walcott’s adaptation of epic into a non-linear poem – Omeros – and a stage play – The Odyssey.
Finally, although the epic genre has been positioned historically at the centre of the Western literary canon, Pascale Casanova’s concept of a ‘world literary space’ transcending national borders provides a helpful framework through which to reassess the epic status of Omeros and The Odyssey as postcolonial texts. Casanova argues for innovation in countries existing outside of the literary centre – such as postcolonial countries which have less ‘prestige’, the currency of the world literary space– like Saint Lucia as taking place through compromise.
This compromise produces literature which exists not too close to, or too distant from the aesthetics and themes of canonical literature. With this in mind, the adaptation of episodes from Homeric epic within Omeros and The Odyssey to fit his postcolonial Caribbean background – the Cyclops scene, Odysseus’ capture on Circe’s island and so on – suggests that Walcott reaches for precisely this kind of compromise.
In conclusion, it is clear that Walcott both adapts and ironizes the canonical genre of epic in order to reflect Caribbean postcolonial concerns in Omeros and The Odyssey. He achieves this through his satirical engagement with St Lucian politics, his embedding of Caribbean cultural practices such as the kaiso within these works, and his formal mirroring of communal slave epics. However, his use of recognisably Homeric epic elements as a postcolonial writer suggests that his adaption of the genre is achieved through the kind of aesthetic compromise outlined by Casanova. This compromise enabled him to secure the ultimate symbol of prestige from the Western literary centre: the Nobel Prize in Literature.
 Irene Martyniuk, ‘Playing with Europe: Derek Walcott’s Retelling of Homer’s Odyssey’, Callaloo, 28 (2005), 188-199 (p.188).
 Derek Walcott, ‘Reflections on Omeros’, The South Atlantic Quarterly, 96 (1997), 229-246 (p.240).
 Walcott, ‘Reflections,’ p.240.
 Ibid., p.243.
 Joseph Farrell, ‘Walcott’s Omeros: The Classical Epic in a Postmodern World,’ in Epic Traditions in the Contemporary World: The Poetics of Community, ed. by Margaret Beissinger and others (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), pp. 270-296 (p.280).
 Walcott, ‘Reflections’, p.243.
 Ibid., p.233.
 Unitedpac Saint Lucia, Saint Lucia’s Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott interview on his extended poem Omeros, online video recording, YouTube, 25 January 2014 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z67iA4QCF14> [Accessed 14 December 2015].
 Derek Walcott, Omeros (London: Faber, 1990), p.18. All subsequent references will be to this edition and cited in text in parentheses.
 Derek Walcott, The Odyssey: A Stage Version (London: Faber, 1993), p.1. All subsequent references will be to this edition and cited in text in parentheses.
 Peter Burian, ‘“All that Greek Manure under the Green Bananas”: Derek Walcott’s Odyssey’, The South Atlantic Quarterly, 96 (1997), 359-377 (p.375).
 Walcott, ‘Reflections’, p.239.
 Robert D. Hamner, ‘Creolizing Homer for the Stage: Walcott’s “The Odyssey”, Twentieth Century Literature, 47 (2001), 374-390 (p.375).
 Walcott, ‘The Muse of History’ in What the Twilight Says (London: Faber, 1998), pp.36-64 (pp.46-7).
 Ibid., p.47.
William C. Scott, The Oral Nature of the Homeric Simile (Leiden: E. J Brill, 1974) p.185.
 Walcott, ‘Reflections,’ p.240.
 Hamner, ‘Creolizing Homer’, p. 379.
 Martyniuk, ‘Playing with Europe’, p.190.
 Walcott, ‘Reflections,’ pp. 235-6.
 Walcott, ‘Muse of History’, p.43.
 Jason Lagapa, ‘Swearing At-Not By-History: Obscenity, “Picong” and Irony in Derek Walcott’s Poetry’, College Literature, 35 (2008) 104-125 (p.105).
 Lagapa, p. 121.
 ‘give picong’ (vb.) in Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage, ed. by Richard Allsopp (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p.256.
 ‘massa’ (n.) in Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage, ed. by Richard Allsopp (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p.375.
 William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. by Virginia Mason Vaughan and Alden T. Vaughan (Arden Shakespeare: London, 2003), p.172-3.
 Martyniuk, p.195.
 Henry Louis Gates, ‘Dis and Dat: Dialect and the Descent’ in Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the Racial Self. (Oxford University Press, 1989) pp.167-195.
 Ibid., p.172.
 Ibid., p.179.
 Hamner, ‘Creolizing Homer,’ p.388.
 Daniel Turkeltaub, ‘Penelope’s ‘Stout Hand’ and Odyssean Humour,’ Journal of Hellenic Studies, 134 (2014), 103-117(p.103).
 Turkeltaub, ‘Penelope’s ‘Stout Hand.’’
 Homer, The Odyssey, trans. by Robert Fitzgerald (London: Collins Harvill, 1986), p.430.
 Pascale Casanova, ‘Literature as a World,’ New Left Review, 31 (2005) 71-90 (p.72).
 Ibid., p.83.
 Ibid., p.89.
Featured image credit: Aneil Lutchman via Flickr. ‘View of Petit Piton in Saint Lucia as seen from the slope of the nearby Gros Piton’