The poetics of cultural healing: Derek Walcott's Omeros and the modernist epic

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Johnson, Eugene
Walcott, Derek , Modernist , Epic , Modern poetry
This thesis examines the complex intersections between Derek Walcott’s Omeros and modernist versions of the epic. Critics generally acknowledge the pervasive presence of modernist allusions in Walcott’s early work, but see the relevance of modernism diminishing as Walcott develops his “mature” poetic strategies of mimicry and hybridity. I challenge this reading of Walcott, arguing that the modernist practices of Ezra Pound in The Cantos, T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land, and Hart Crane in The Bridge are crucial to illuminating the central theme of cultural healing in Walcott’s most ambitious work, Omeros. These four authors share the goal of creating an epic poem that encapsulates the experiences of modernity (the modern epic). Walcott adopts and transforms elements from The Cantos, The Waste Land and The Bridge in order to articulate the complex relations among self, tradition, land, and language that can allow the postcolonial subject to overcome the traumatic legacy of imperialism in the Caribbean. I define the relation between Omeros and its modernist intertexts according to this pattern of imitation and divergence (which Joseph Farrell calls the pattern of imitatio and aemulatio in the epic tradition). I organize my dissertation into four chapters, each focused on a particular issue: the process of redefining the epic, the construction of indigenous status by means of myth and imperialism, the search for alternative modes of understanding the past that would resist the hegemony of chronological history, and the mystical process of cultural healing that synthesizes the human, the divine, and the natural world. This study demonstrates the tremendous utility and ideological ambiguities generated by the specific practices of ii literary modernism when Walcott deploys them to articulate his cultural vision. My approach to Omeros provides a corrective to the critical tendency to view modernism in the postcolonial milieu as either the postcolonial artist’s response to the conditions of modernity or as a tradition whose form and meaning is radically transformed by a postcolonial vision. Walcott’s relation to modernism suggests that this postcolonial cultural vision is itself shaped by modernist poetics in ways that both empower and constrain.
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