Two forms of retrieving slave history

The narrative voices and perspectives in Caryl Phillips' "Crossing the River" and Derek Walcott's Caribbean-Diaspora Poetry

Essay, 2005

11 Pages, Grade: 2,0


List of Content

I. Introduction

II. The Poetic Form
II.I Derek Walcott’s Caribbean-Diaspora Poetry

III. Prose Narration
III.I Caryl Phillips’ Voices and Perspectives in Crossing the River

IV. Conclusion

I. Introduction

Fictional literary forms are generally divided into three genres, namely poetry, prose and drama.[1] All these stylistic ways of transforming thoughts into (written) language have their own distinctive hallmarks and can, thus, have very different effects on the reader/ the audience. Whereas prose narrations are usually read by a sole reader, drama is supposed to be performed on stage, and poetic texts live especially on their orality. There are, unquestionably, many more discrepancies between these three fictional archetypes; they take for instance advantage of dissimilar narrative voices.

This leads to the assumption that a literary writer must have certain reasons for choosing one of all possible forms of fiction; he, moreover, must aim at achieving a special effect on his audience employing a particular style with specific perspectives.

The diverse forms of literature often digest identical topics[2] always dealing with them in a unique way, which gives literature an enormous variety. The same applies to one special kind of literature, which is in the centre stage of this essay: slave literature about the experience and history of the Black Diaspora.

Starting from these considerations, my intention is to analyse divergent works of two specific contemporary black diasporic writers, plus their special forms of employing narrative voices and perspectives in order to retrieve the history of slavery: Caryl Phillips postmodernist prose narrative Crossing the River and the Caribbean-diasporic poetry of Nobel Prize Winner[3] Derek Walcott.[4] How do the two of them use narrative devices in their disparate forms of art, prose and poetry? This is to be examined in the course of this essay.

II. The Poetic Form

The essential feature of poetic language is, apart from its special form, its rhythm and orality, its conciseness: “[T]he language of poetry must have an extremely high information content.”[5] Moreover, poetry must be capable of illuminating the world itself, since “[p]oetic perception is that way of viewing the world which focuses on the figures of reality.”[6] Poets, thus, have to select from real events and transform experiences into images, metaphors, etc. with a deeper sense.[7] The narrative instance that mediates between audience and author is, for this purpose, the lyrical I, whose voice determines the particular perspective from which the reader perceives the poetic view.

Besides, Poetry has the tendency to attract the audience’s senses, emotions and feelings, and, therefore, is an appropriate literary form to create lasting effects with the audience – for instance grave historical events that are not to be forgotten like the horrifying acts during the diasporic ‘Middle Passage’.

So, how does Walcott employ poetic features for his intention to reclaim slave history, in particular the problems of Caribbean-diasporic identity?

II.I Derek Walcott’s Caribbean-Diaspora Poetry

Derek Walcott’s controversial ethnic background outstandingly influenced his writing career: In 1930, he was born in a mixed, middle-class Methodist family with African, English and Dutch roots in St. Lucia (Caribbean), a place that had constantly changed hand in times of colonisation and wars, but that had finally become British in 1814. Yet, the official language of St. Lucia is French Creole and there is a strong African, Asian, Iberian, and Dutch presence. Growing up in this complex world of inconsistent cultures, races, and languages, not surprisingly, had its effect on Walcott.[8] Furthermore, he got a thoroughly ‘Colonial’ education, which made the European culture become part of him.[9] However, Walcott also affects popular Caribbean folk and crossing-over cultures, although he has stayed at some distance from it at all times. Speaking a mixture of Standard English and Creole, he also acknowledges his circumstances in his writing, which he sees as an attempt to bring two worlds together. In addition, Walcott admits his borrowing from other poets whom he quotes straightforwardly. And he is extremely influenced by the countryside in which he grew up.[10] Accordingly, the contribution to landscape poetry is one of Walcott’s great achievements.[11] The intention of his early writing is outlined by John Thieme:

Bringing […] the hitherto unwritten St. Lucian world into literature was, of course, a project that had social implications; it represented an attempt […] to reclaim ordinary St. Lucian lives from […] the ‘nameless, anonymous, hopeless condition’ of slavery.[12]

Walcott’s poetry totally reflects his personal multiplicity. His work consists mostly of complex mosaics, linking Caribbean with European history, present with past, orality with literality. Thus, it implies a dialectical continuity across cultures and periods.[13] For example in the poem “A Far Cry from Africa” (pp. 17f.),[14] Walcott seems to be searching for a voice that is capable of speaking to two cultural houses, since the lyrical I would like to be “[b]etween this Africa and the English tongue I love” (p.18).[15] The perspective Walcott offers here is a very desperate one, a questioning voice torn between unlike ethnicities. Fittingly, one of Walcott’s poetic subjects is the self-reflective, partly autobiographic issue of questioning his own existence, especially his existence as a poet.


[1] Of course, there are also numerous literary works that mix fictional styles.

[2] Like love, nature, war, self-reflecting considerations, political issues, comedian works etc.

[3] Walcott won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1992. (Cf. Thieme (1999), p. 2.)

[4] I will especially focus on Walcott’s collections between 1965 and 1970, primarily on The Castaway.

[5] Roberts (1991), p. 64.

[6] Cardinal (1981), p. 205.

[7] Further information on lyrical devices, patterns etc. are supplied by Philip Davies Rodberts in his introductory approach How poetry works. (Cf. Roberts (1991).)

[8] More on the multiple division of Derek Walcott can be found in Thiemes study on the poet. (Cf. Thieme (1999), p. 9.)

[9] Critics even reproach Walcott with a certain denial of his Caribbean roots, since his poems without doubt are strongly English.

[10] This idea is supported by John Thieme. (Cf. Thieme (1999), p. 7.)

[11] Cf. Brown (1991), p. 37,

[12] Thieme (1999), p.7.

[13] Cf. Thieme (1999), p. 23.

[14] Published in the collection In a Green Night (1962). (The page numbers in brackets after a quotation always refer to the edition stated as primary source in the bibliography.)

[15] Cf. also Higinio (2002),

Excerpt out of 11 pages


Two forms of retrieving slave history
The narrative voices and perspectives in Caryl Phillips' "Crossing the River" and Derek Walcott's Caribbean-Diaspora Poetry
University of Southampton  (University of Southampton - School of Humanities: Film Studies)
The Literature of the Black Diaspora
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
398 KB
Literature, Black, Diaspora
Quote paper
Sabine Buchholz (Author), 2005, Two forms of retrieving slave history, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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