in A Level, CIE, English Literature, Essay Technique, Writing Skills

One of my students completed this essay on Walcott recently for the CIE / Cambridge A-Level Literature Exam Board.

It received a borderline A grade (80%, 20/25) — there are some absolutely brilliant parts of it, and also some aspects which have room for improvement, so I’ve put my mark breakdown and suggestions for how to improve next time at the end of the exemplar too for you to read through. Hope it’s useful!


If you find this resource helpful, you can take a look at the full Walcott poetry course.

I have a lot of Derek Walcott’s poetry analysis, so be sure to check it out too by clicking this link.


THE QUESTION:

Walcott has said that the process of poetry is ‘one of excavation and of self-discovery’. How far do you see this process in his work? In your answer, you should refer in detail to three poems.

THE ESSAY:

Much of Walcott’s poetry displays excavation and self-discovery through the exploration of themes such as nature, the environment and politics. By holding up a mirror to the issues surrounding these themes, Walcott arguably recreates the past and present as a form of excavation. Within his examination he is able to ignite an awareness for the reader, around the issues of slavery, post-colonialism and urbanisation. This awareness arguably awakens the reader to self-discovery, through being informed on the aforementioned issues. Likewise, by speaking of these issues, Walcott himself is also examining his own frustrations and expressing these views through his poetry.

With reference to the poem, ‘Ebb’, Walcott sets out to explore the theme of urbanisation and its harmful effects. The environment takes centre stage and is heavily prominent throughout each stanza. For instance, the first verse of the poem describes the endless cycle of how the earth is scorched and ‘fretted’ upon, how the earth resembles a ‘frayed hide’. The verb, ‘fretted’ refers to how the land has been tampered with and spoiled, and the adjective of ‘frayed’ shows the violent extent to which this has happened. Lastly, the noun, ‘hide’ is used as a metaphor for a heavily lashed animal hide. The use of this visual imagery effectively connotes how human greed disrespects nature. This is arguably because Walcott strongly believed that since the Caribbean islands left the federation and became independent islands like Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago in 1962, and Walcott’s own native island, Saint Lucia in 1979, they all suffered a lack of unity among the Caribbean as a whole. In turn this led islands to be exploited for commercial greed. Another example of this can be found in the line, ‘rainbow-muck’, which again is a metaphor used to describe oil. Of all of the Caribbean Islands, Trinidad and Tobago is renowned for its copious oil supply, yet the island itself appears not to prosper from it. Rather, the wealth generated from it is passed directly into the pockets of other countries. Walcott further criticises the effects of urbanisation by portraying nature as victim with the image of an ‘oil-crippled gull’. Again ‘oil’ is used a symbol of urbanisation and greed, while the adjective of ‘crippled’ represents the damage caused. Through the use of powerful imagery denoting the destruction of nature, the reader is made to feel informed and aware of the issues raised.

In the poem ‘Veranda’ Walcott reconnects the reader to past and vividly turns his spotlight on the plight of slavery and colonialism, by vividly tying a link from past to present through language featuring ghosts and apparitions. From the second stanza a reference is made to slavery with ‘planters’ whose ‘tears’ are described as ‘marketable gum’. The noun, ‘tears’ laments the pain and suffering endured by the slaves to then be exploited as ‘marketable gum’ The noun, ‘gum’ is used as a triviality, something insignificant to be consumed by the masses, to then be spat out tasteless on the ground. This visual image strongly reflects the facelessness of greed and acknowledges the pain and toil to bring about such a triviality. Another ghost described is that of the ‘colonel’ whose heart is ‘hard’ as the ‘Commonwealth’s greenheart’. The colour ‘green’ with reference to the ‘greenheart’ could connote the colour of money and also represent envy for riches. Also the colonel himself, described as ‘hard’ is a fitting image of colonialism, for they enslaved the ‘planters’ without conscience. With this poem Walcott eerily describes the sins of history’s ugly past, presenting them as ghosts either in despair or still power-hungry. Walcott argued that British colonists took away Africa’s history and the colonisers themselves argued that they had no history before their presence there. This is why Walcott frequently opposes colonialism in his poetry, to raise awareness of the wrongs of the past and show that much African culture and history very much exists. Through painting a portrait of the past, Walcott arguably shows the reader the unflinching truth of what came before. This in-turn recreates the past and educates the reader on the former ills of slavery and colonialism.

With reference to the poem, ‘Parades, Parades, Walcott arguably demonstrates his use of excavation by hovering his lens over the theme of Caribbean politics. Consisting of two lengthy stanzas, the first, written in third-person, offers abstract imagery, such as a ‘wide desert’ that ‘no one marches’ and a vast ‘ocean’ of which ‘keels incise’. The adjective of ‘wide’ arguably paints an image of empty sparseness and the second person pronoun, ‘no one’ refers to loss of identity pertaining to the ills of post-colonialism. The verb, ‘marches’ could also symbolise a stagnant lack of progress for the Caribbean as a whole. The noun, ‘ocean’ refers to beautiful Caribbean beaches, only to then be ‘incise’(d) by the luxury liners filled with indulgent tourists. Walcott also cites the politicians who ‘plod’ devoid of ‘imagination’. Again, the active verb of ‘plod’ connotes the sluggish progress made to better the Caribbean and the abstract noun, ‘imagination’ paints the politician as dull and backward thinking. The second stanza then shifts tonally with a volta, and also to a first person plural, addressing the Caribbean locals, belonging to the parade. Walcott questions why they should have propaganda ‘drummed into their minds’ and why they should be made to feel ‘shy’ and ‘bewildered’. The stative verb of ‘drummed’ portrays the idea that people have been force-fed political ideas which do not hold their best interests in mind. The abstract noun ‘shy’ also connotes that they have been led astray and exploited. Walcott clearly demonstrates his ideas about ineffective politics by confronting the issues and in turn dismantling them in order to present them in a new light. This arguably informs the reader of the political injustice and also offers a sounding board for Walcott himself to air his frustrations.

While it could be argued that Walcott’s poetry doesn’t show evidence of the excavation process or self-discovery, owing to the sometimes abstract and esoteric manner in which he presents his work, there appears to be clear evidence pointing to the opposite. With the cynical and retrospective tone that seems to dominate his poetry, there appears to be compelling evidence that he is shedding light on the themes of politics, slavery and post-colonialism, by confronting the ills they caused, and in turn allowing the audience, and himself to re-discover the toil they have brought about.

GRADING (CIE Cambridge Mark Scheme)

Band 2 20/25 80% Borderline A Grade

Evidence of proficiency in selecting relevant knowledge to address the question with precise and integrated direct references to the text and supporting quotation. There may be evidence of awareness of the contexts in which the literary works studied were written and understood. U Evidence of intelligent understanding of ways in which writers’ choices of structure, form and language shape meanings, with analysis and appreciation of literary methods, effects and contexts.

P Evidence of personal response to the texts, relevant to the question, supported from the text, some originality of thought, straightforward and vigorously articulated, perhaps, rather than penetrating and subtle.

C Expression confident, with some complex ideas expressed with some fluency. Structure is sound. Literary arguments will be coherent, with progression of ideas through clearly linked paragraphs.

O Considers varying views and argues a case with support from the text. – This is the main one you’re lacking in, you don’t argue a case clearly or consider varying views.

HOW TO IMPROVE:

  • Make sure to address the question argumentatively or discursively (depending on the type of question) — rather than each paragraph is about a poem, make it about a point that answers the question, all linked together with a clear thesis
  • Alternative interpretations / critical theories — use these to develop your analysis further and achieve greater sensitivity of interpretation
  • Needs more specific, detailed use of contextual ideas
  • More structure/form points — good on language

Thanks for reading! If you found this resource helpful, you can take a look at the full Walcott poetry course.

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