A poet’s (poetical) prose about poetry. Walcott’s (The Bounty, etc.) humid rhetoric can overwhelm a subject, as when “I try to divert my concentration from that mesmeric gritted oyster of sputum on the concrete floor.” And so, a reader wandering through the periodically flowery byways and orotund arabesques of these 14 essays may long, instead, at times, for a more plainspoken, adamantine critical voice—like that, say, of poet-critic Mary Karr. Yet entwined here with the tricky verbal vines and orchids are also insights of an unusual provenance. West Indian—born Walcott’s views of current poetry and postcolonial culture are admirably independent and syncretic. He is able to take the measure of such stylistically distinct avatars as the relentlessly, redemptively flinty British poet Philip Larkin and American confessionalist Robert Lowell. Walcott spikes his intermittently languid reveries with comments that crackle: “Modern American poetics is as full of its sidewalk hawkers as a modern American city: this is the only meter, this is the American way to breathe, this is the variable foot,” he complains. That error isn’t his. Rather, the 1992 Nobel laureate explores, in the emphatic plural, poetry’s various islands, while diverging now and then to authors of prose. He claims Hemingway as “a West Indian writer” and salutes the Trinidadian C.L.R. James for Beyond a Boundary, termed by Walcott —a cricketer’s Iliad.” Still, our critic’s lens isn’t flawless. As an apologist for Ted Hughes, Walcott proves laughably sentimental: “Poets come to look like their poetry . . . Hughes’s face emerges through the pane of paper in its weathered openness as both friendly and honest. It speaks trust.” Rather conspicuously in an era of major contemporary women poets, the book omits positive mention of women (save for Dickinson) as anything more than muselike pretty faces; they are simply not part of Walcott’s poetic roll call. But so goes literary independence. An archaic male vanity makes some mistakes on the poetic prowl.