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The Acid Tongue
Craig Raine rains on Derek Walcott's parade

Selected By Toh Hsien Min

This one is a little dated, being from Issue Two of Arete Magazine, but still good. It's appropriate, in fact, for Craig Raine to kick off this series, meant to stimulate more aggressive and more acerbic criticism in Singapore, because Raine is the joint-top curmudgeon of English letters (together with Tom Paulin), and because this section was inspired by a column in Arete called Our Bold, in which Craig Raine attacks everybody and anybody who participates in English letters with less than good sense. According to him at any rate.

Raine originally starts off mildly, by his standards, but then gets into gear with:

But [Dylan] Thomas's legacy to Walcott isn't simply the odd purloined image or two - or more - but also the considered embrace of fuddled syntax as a chosen poetic method. When T S Eliot said that the modern poet must 'dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning', Thomas evidently took Eliot too literally. There is in Thomas and Walcott a great deal of wilfully crippled language.

Kudos to the self-parodying awkwardness of syntax in that first sentence.

In the same article, Raine points out, with quite trenchant observation if with quotation necessarily dull by dint of its subject matter, a lot of Walcott's repetitions ("Is it indolence, or inadvertence, or pure incompetence?"), but his description of Walcott's extended metaphors is almost a classic:

Walcott's extended metaphors arrive, with an air of brazen, bald contrivance one associates with the cod TV host and sports commentator Alan Partridge - 'the proof of the pudding is in the eating - and, in this case, the pudding is a football.'

Bring on the Colemanballs!

There's a fantastic bit on the sex in Omeros (Go read the original review! It's too long to reproduce...), but then we get to this:

Worse than these is the encounter in Ireland with the ghost of James Joyce - an ineffably vulgar copy of Heaney's Dante-influenced encounter with Joyce at the conclusion of Station Island. Where Heaney has Joyce hitting a litter basket with his ashplant, Walcott's account sinks under the weight of its clichés - the CNN version of the Troubles and the genial company of 'The Dead' singing along with their author, 'his voice like sun-drizzled Howth'. This isn't poetry at all. It is the Dante Experience Franchise trading at a loss.

And as for proof that Raine doesn't like Walcott? Not his statements elsewhere, e.g. "[in Derek Walcott's hands] Homer is coma". Not his carrying on the attack in an Our Bold in Issue Three of Arete. But the fact that this collection of Walcott's deficiencies occurs in an article that was supposed to be a review of Walcott's biography by Bruce King!

'The Acid Tongue' is a column that celebrates acerbic reviewing. Mail us if you know of any examples.

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  Related Links

Arete Magazine

Biography of Craig Raine
External link to the Millennium Library.

Review of Raine's In Defence of TS Eliot
External link to the Guardian.

Derek Walcott biography
External link to the New York Writer's Institute.


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