The Lingering Question

Well, we finished Omeros rather abruptly.  We just read this vast, genius, beautifully complex poem and I feel like we barely skimmed the surface of what this poem stands for and why it’s so important.  Maybe it’s just because we didn’t have class yesterday, but I have this lingering “So what?” feeling that’s really dissatisfying.  My train of thought is somewhat like, okay, so Walcott’s a poetic mastermind and was inspired by Homer…so what?  Okay, art is history’s nostalgia…so what?  Cultural amnesia, the ocean, fishing, Hector being a horrible driver, Achille forgiving Hector, the Plunketts, Ma Kilman healing Philoctete’s wound, the rain cleansing things, conch shells, the anxiety behind rewriting history, etc. etc.  We identified all these fragments but never put them all together.  So, what does Omeros mean?  What can we take away from it?  What is the glue binding this work together?

I’m not foolish enough to think I can fully pinpoint Walcott’s intention, as it would most likely take years of studying Omeros to completely understand it, but I want to offer some final thoughts to wrap up our study of the work.

First of all, the glue is in the title.  The glue is in the name: Omeros.  All these sections within each chapter, within each book, are bound together under this name.  We already know it means Homer, but is that its true significance?  No.  Walcott would not have written a poem with the mere title “Homer.”  That would be akin to me writing a long poem about people being buried alive and then calling it “Poe.”  That would just be stupid.    Yes, it refers to Homer, but that’s not its real significance as it pertains to the poem.

First, let’s look at the scene on page 14, when Walcott first hears the word “Omeros,” the catalyst for inspiration to write an epic of the same name.

“I said, “Omeros,”/and O was the conch-shell’s invocation, mer was/both mother and sea in our Antillean patois,/os, a grey bone, and the white surf as it crashes”

This is Walcott’s moment of inspiration not simply because the word refers to Homer, associated with the sea more than any poet, but because he realizes that it also refers uniquely and perfectly to the nature of life on St. Lucia.

I want to interpret the word “invocation” in the sense of the calling, the bringing up, the invoking of spirit from within.  This gives a sort of spell-bound nature to the conch shell, the whooshing call of the sea it produces against the ear, symbolized by the letter O.  Mer is a little more obvious.  Walcott identifies it as representing the sea as the mother of his ancestors, the slaves brought over from Guinea on ships, the fishermen whose canoes are extensions of themselves, manifestations of their souls.  Then we have os, Latin for “bone”, symbolizing the framework of the human body, and, if we consider the marrow it contains, can symbolize strength and virtue.

Now you’re thinking, “So, what?”

So, let’s look now to Book Seven, page 296, on which Walcott contemplates the mythical power of the sea, the source of it all, the source of this poem, the source of Homer’s epics, the source of human life on Earth:

“It was an epic where every line was erased/yet freshly written in sheets of exploding surf/in that blind violence with which one crest replaced/another with a trench and that heart-heaving sough/begun in Guinea to fountain exhaustion here, however one read it, not as our defeat or our victory; it drenched every survivor with blessing.  It never altered its metre/to suit the age, a wide page without metaphors./Our last resort as much as yours, Omeros.”

This is perhaps the most revealing paragraph in the entire book.  First of all, it identifies why the sea is such an inspiration for epic poetry.  It is the natural epic, with an ever changing surface, fluid yet permanent, ageless, each pattern of waves a wordless poem instantly to be erased and rewritten, an ocean of continuous beginning, simultaneously archaic and new.  It is Earth’s literature.  At least, that is how I think Walcott views it here.

Second of all, in the literal sense, this serves to describe the voyage of slave ships from Guinea to St. Lucia.  However, the epiphany Walcott reaches here is the influence of those qualities I just described; this passage was not the delivery of his ancestors, but rather their spiritual deliverance.  The sea inspired Walcott to write this poem because it led him to realize that his ancestors’ history was not merely being obliterated, erased, but being rewritten.

The “heart-heaving sough” refers to the rush of wind heard in the conch-shell, the wind that carried his ancestors across the sea, mer, the mother from which they were reborn into a new culture of their very own.  Those who survived, “drenched…with blessing”, Walcott sees as being baptized by the sea, symbolizing their death, burial, resurrection and thus the purifying effect this terrible event had on them.  The steadfast, untamable nature of the sea, that which “never altered its metre/to suit the age, a wide page without metaphors,” relates to os, the bone, the internal strength given to the slaves by the sea when it blessed them.  The sea gifted to Walcott’s ancestors its attributes in this respect, which is why his characters are so intimately connected to it, because it birthed them.  This is exactly why Hector dies upon abandoning the sea for the land.  The sea was the source of him.  

This is the poetic nature of the suffering endured by Walcott’s ancestors, and it fuels his inspiration.  It justifies his turning their suffering into his art, because through the word “Omeros,” through the work of Homer, through awe of the sea he discovered something wildly profound.  He reveals, through this work, the fluid and ongoing epic quality to history, the quality making it impossible to erase, the quality which turns endings to beginnings, just as “one crest replace[s] another with a trench.”

A present example of this lies in African-American culture.  They were originally brought over as slaves, and while their past culture came to an end, it gave birth to them writing a new one uniquely for themselves.  To be vague, this led to Gospel music, to so much literature, Obama becoming president etc.

The presence of characters like Achille, Hector, Helen, Philoctete and others, who resonate literary history, shows even further what Omeros means as a whole.  It means that history is not something which remains in the past.  Like the sea it is perpetual and transforming, and it is what writes us.  History is the skeleton of humanity, and with it we endure.  It is our blank page; inspiration.

3 Responses to “The Lingering Question”

  1. Gwendolyn says:

    :”It means that history is not something which remains in the past. Like the sea it is perpetual and transforming, and it is what writes us. History is the skeleton of humanity, and with it we endure. It is our blank page; inspiration.”

    Based on your conclusionI definitely think your quote matches your analysis.
    This was a great wrap-up Claire. I appreciate your focus on character significance and symbol.

    I like to think of a changing yet maintained history of ourselves.

  2. C-Thomps says:

    And by “fits in well with everything I was trying to say,” I really mean, “fits in perfectly”

  3. Claire says:

    I just found this quote of Derek Walcott, and I think it fits in well with everything I was trying to say:

    “So if someone asks me, as a Caribbean person: ‘‘Where is your history?’’ I
    would say: ‘‘It is out there, in that cloud, that sky, the water moving.’’ And
    if the questioner says: ‘‘There’s nothing there,’’ I would say: ‘‘Well, that’s
    what I think history is. There’s nothing there.’’ The sea is history.”