Modernism and Postmodernism in Poetry of Derek Walcott

Derek Walcott’s A Far Cry from Africa, published in 1962 is such an agonizing and didactic personal poem that explores the history of a specific uprising in Kenya, occupied by the British, in the 1950s. Davis, M. A. (2009), effectively puts in “In order to effectively colonize another’s land, the colonizer’s culture has to become so widely spread and deeply embedded in the colonized land’s culture so that the indigenous people will begin to accept that they are inferior to the colonizers.” There was divided loyalty because of this cultural acceptance and their differences. Unlike A Far Cry from Africa, Indian Reservation: Caughnawaga portrays a relatively easy life. The poem is one of Abraham Moses Klien’s famous poems, where Klien advocates preservation of traditions and depicts the corrosive impact that the western culture has effected on the Red-Indian's traditional life styles. This write up is going to discuss two different features of modernism and post modernism each in the above poems.

Sense of alienation, the questions of self is one of the features in modernist works. Many authors expressed a sense of being disconnected with questions of self. Kedar (2003), says that the lines ‘I who am poisoned with the blood of both, where shall I turn, divided to the vein?’ from the poem A Far Cry from Africa illustrates a consequence of displacement and isolation due to Walcott’s mixed blood which makes him feel foreign in both culture. A feeling of isolation is created due to his mixed blood and the poet’s hybrid heritage prevents him from identifying directly with one culture. Another feature of modernism used in the poem A Far Cry from Africa is the stream of consciousness. Stream of consciousness is the description of a character’s thoughts, feelings, or reactions in a continuous, thought-like flow. Walcott has been given an English tongue, with which he expresses himself poetically, and the ancestral blood ties of his African family, who have been oppressed by the very people whose native language he needs, to survive as a poet. On the other hand he cannot tolerate the brutal slaughter of Africans with whom he shares blood and some traditions. His conscience forbids him to favor injustice. He is in the state of indecisiveness, trouble, wishing to see peace and harmony in the region. Walcott (2000) says; ‘Between this Africa and English tongue I love?/ Betray them both or give back what they give?/ How can I face such slaughter and be cool?/How can I turn from Africa and live?’

Klien advocates preservation of tradition in the poem Indian Reservation: Caughnawa which takes the poem towards confronting the modern world. Depiction of the corrosive impact of the western culture on the Red-Indian’s traditional life style confronts aspects of the modern poems. Klien laments the extinction of the ancient Red Indian Race in the first stanza of the poem as follows: ‘Where are the braves, the faces like autumn fruit/ who stared at the child from the coloured frontispiece/And the monosyllabic chief who spoke with his throat?’ He proceeds to describe the degradation of the Red Indians giving up their traditional life style. They adopt modern French names, wear overalls and dancing their traditional dance to please a white Mayor. According to Professor Dave Braunschweig, (2015), Klien laments in the last stanza that the relics of Red Indian Civilization have become saleable commodities. He mourns that ‘their past is sold in the shop’. The things once used by them such as the beaded shoes, the sweet grass baskets, the burnt wood by which they drew designs on their bodies, gaudy clothes, and inch-canoes are affordable for sales. The ‘grassy ghetto’ is no more their home and even the animals hunted at their risk of their life are kept in the museum. They have abandoned their native religion and converted to Christianity which is according to Professor Michael Webster of Grand Valley State University a modernist work showing a denial of historical or psychological continuity.

Literary work becomes a patch work in the age of Postmodernism. Juxtaposition is one of the devices of Postmodernism. It includes pastiche, collage, montage, and contrast between grand past and trivial present. The opening lines in the poem A Far cry from Africa ‘Again brutish necessity wipes its hands/ Upon the napkin of a dirty cause, again/ A waste of our compassion, as with Span,/ The gorilla wrestles with the superman’ of the last stanza juxtapose historical reference with a visual here and now, embodied in gorilla and superman. The poet compares the Mau Mau uprising to the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Line 25 presents a cynical view of the Mau Mau Uprising as just another colonial conflict where gorillas negatively animalized Africans fight with superman a negative characterization of Europe. Ambiguity is another feature of Postmodernism which is been used by the poet Walcott. The title of the poem is very ambiguous in nature. In involves an idiom: 'a far cry' which means an impossible thing. But the poet seems to use the words in other senses also; the title suggests in one sense that the poet is writing about an African subject from a distance. Writing from the island of St. Lucia, he feels he is at a vast distance - both literally and metaphorically from Africa. Another possible explanation of the title might be the contrast between the beautiful setting of the African veldt and the bloody violence that occurred there. And a third level of meaning to title is the idea of Walcott hearing the poem as a far cry coming all the way across thousands of miles of ocean. He hears the cry coming to him on the wind.

Use of intertextuality is one of the major characteristics of Postmodernism. The term “intertextuality” was coined by Julia Kristeva. Each and every text is an intertextual adaptation of other texts which opens up a new horizon. It is an umbrella term which includes the echoing of a text into another. Klien uses this feature in his poem Indian Reservation: Caughnawaga. He calls the Red Indians affectionately as ‘feathered bestiaries’, because they with their fur and feathers resemble mythic animals such as Chief Running Deer, Black Bear, and Old Buffalo Head featured in the fables of Aesop, a Persian story teller. Klein (2000) says, ‘Where are the tribes, the feathered bestiaries/ Rank Aesop’s animals erect and red, with fur on their names to make all live things kin/ Chief Running Deer, Black Bear, Old Buffalo Head? There is nothing real in the postmodern world. Inhabitants of this world are so unreal that they cannot even show their true identity to the world. The Red Indians in the poem Indian Reservation: Caughnawaga have given up their culture being lured by the commercial western culture. They neither daub themselves with paints nor wear bronze jewels. The Red Indian wives no longer cover themselves with vegetables outfit which puffed like a tent but wears overalls. They grow very commercial and degrade themselves by adorning themselves with dedraggled feathers and dancing their traditional dance to please a white Mayor after receiving a Bribe. Their children ‘bite’ the dust to pick up the brown pennies thrown by the tourists at church.

Finally to conclude, the poem Indian Reservation: Caughnawaga epitomizes Klein’s feelings that the civilization of the Red Indians has disappeared and can never be revived or revitalized which means the poem is moving towards confronting the modern world. A Far Cry from Africa, in this poem we see that the central message of Walcott is the disappearance of the Kikuyu culture, so is the Indians’ rich culture. Walcott in his poem tries to portray the importance of the language and the powerful English culture taking over the transcendent culture of the Kenyans thereby making them look and feel inferior showing stream of consciousness. Klein on the other hand portrays the changing times in the lives of Indians from Caughnawaga depicting the fake identity to the world. He attacks the influence of the French culture on the Indians while Derek attacks the influence of the British Culture on the Kenyan lives.


  1. Braunschweig, D. (2015). Theme of preservation of tradition in a.m.klein’s indian reservation. Retrieved from
  2. Davis, M. A. (2009). Literary criticism, Derek Walcott. Retrieved from
  3. Keder, N. S. (2013). Summary and critical analysis of a far cry from Africa by Derek Walcott. Retrieved from
  4. Klein, A. M. (2000). N. C. Kevin McNeilly, currents, stories, essays, poems and plays indian reservation: caughnawaga. (p.266). Ontario: Prentice Hall Canada.
  5. Walcott, D. (2000). N. C. Kevin McNeilly, currents, stories, essays, poems and plays a far cry from Africa. (p.266). Ontario: Prentice Hall Canada.
09 March 2021
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