“I am primarily, absolutely a Caribbean writer. The English language is nobody’s special property. It is the property of the imagination; it is the property of the language itself. I have never felt inhibited in trying to write as well as the greatest English poets.” – Derek Walcott.
Derek Alton Walcott was born in Castries St. Lucia in 1930. The experiences of living on the isolated volcanic Island, which was also an ex-British colony, and memories of his life as a child growing up had a strong influence on Walcott’s life and work. Walcott’s mother taught at a Methodist School in the town and his father who was a Bohemian watercolorist, died when Derek and his twin were mere infants.
“My father [who died when Walcott was one] used to write. My mother taught Shakespeare and used to act. So I had that atmosphere at home. I knew very early what I wanted to do and I considered myself lucky to know that’s what I wanted, even in a place like Saint Lucia where there was no publishing house and no theatre.” – Derek Walcott, in an interview.
He studied at Saint Mary’s College and also at the University of the West Indies Jamaica on a Colonial Development and Welfare scholarship. Although Walcott was trained as a painter, he turned to writing and eventually pursued a career as a poet and playwright. Prior to writing, he was mentored as a painter by Harold Simmons, and his paintings were later exhibited at the Anita Shapolsky Gallery in New York City exhibition called “The Writer’s Brush: Paintings and Drawing by Writers”.
He published his first poem at the age of fourteen, which appeared in the “Voice of St Lucia”.
“I wrote a poem talking about learning about God through nature and not through the church. The poem was Miltonic and posed nature as a way to learn. I sent it to the local papers and it was printed. Of course, to see your work in print for any younger writer is a great kick. And then the paper printed a letter in which a priest replied (in verse!) stating that what I was saying was blasphemous and that the proper place to find God was in church. For a young boy to get that sort of response from a mature older man, a priest who was an Englishman, and to be accused of blasphemy was a shock.” – Derek Walcott, in an interview with the Paris Review.
Walcott made his debut with 25 poems in 1948, which he printed and distributed on street corners, the best marketing strategy in those days.
“I went to my mother and said,“I’d like to publish a book of poems, and I think it’s going to cost me two hundred dollars. She was just a seamstress and a schoolteacher, and I remember her being very upset because she wanted to do it. Somehow she got it—a lot of money for a woman to have found on her salary. She gave it to me, and I sent off to Trinidad and had the book printed.” – Derek Walcott.
One year later he was moved to publish Epitaph for the Young XII Cantos with the inspiration drawn from poetic greats like T.S Eliot, William Shakespeare and Ezra Pound.
However, In The Green Night was the benchmark of his recognition in 1962. The book celebrated the Caribbean and Caribbean history as well as examined the scars of colonialism and post-colonialism within the region through Walcott’s eyes.
“I used to write every day in an exercise book, and when I first wrote I wrote with great originality. I just wrote as hard and as well as I felt. I remember the great elation and release I felt, a sort of hooking on to a thing, when I read Auden, Eliot, and everyone. One day I would write like Spender, another day I would write like Dylan Thomas. When I felt I had enough poems that I liked, I wanted to see them in print.” – Derek Walcott.
He then moved to Trinidad in 1953 where he worked as a theatre and art critic. In 1959, he founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop in which many of his plays were produced. He was awarded a fellowship in 1957 to pursue American theater by the Rockefeller Foundation. In 1981, he founded the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre at the Boston University to which he lectured.
“When I won a fellowship to go to America in 1958, I wanted to have, much as the Actors Studio did, a place where West Indian actors, without belonging to any company, could just come together and try and find out simple things such as how to talk like ourselves without being affected or without being incoherent, how to treat dialect as respectfully as if we were doing Shakespeare or Chekhov, and what was our own inner psychology as individuals, in a people, as part of a people.” – Derek Walcott.
He not only taught for many years at the Boston University, but he also taught at Yale University, Columbia University, Rutgers University, and Essex University in England to which he made invaluable contributions of intellect.
Collected Poems was published in 1986 and Omeros, the book-length recall of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey but with a twist of a Caribbean setting in the 20th-century, was launched in 1990. “For a poem, if you give a poem personality, that’s the most exciting thing—to feel that it is becoming anti-melodic. The vocabulary becomes even more challenging, the meter more interesting, and so on.” – Derek Walcott.
In 1992 Walcott won the Nobel Prize in literature; his work was described by Nobel as a “poetic oeuvre of great Luminosity, sustained by historical Vision, the outcome of a multicultural commitment”. He also won other awards, including the Royal Society of Literature Award, The Queen’s Medal for Poetry, the T.S. Eliot Prize, the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Lifetime Achievement and the 2011 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. He was inducted as an honorary member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and also received an Order of the British Empire by the British Government and Order of Saint Lucia by the St. Lucian government for his work.
He later produced collections including Tiepolo’s Hound (2000), the Prodigal (2004), Selected Poems (2007), White Egrets (2010) The Poetry of Derek Walcott (2014) and Morning Paramin (2016). Themes of language police and power resonated through his published works. His work [poetry] has Western and Island influences, shifting between Caribbean Creole and the English language while addressing his West Indian and English ancestry. Although he loved to travel to many other countries of the world, he attributes some of the inspiration of his poems from his sojourns. However, he always found himself deeply rooted in the Caribbean society which had a unique cultural Fusion of European, Asiatic and African aspects.
“I have an absolute sense of it. The luckiest thing I’ve ever had in my life, is to feel that St. Lucia is home. To really feel that every time I go back. It’s ordinary and very renewed every time. To have that has been my luckiest thing, because I think that out of that certainty that I feel when I’m there, I’m not talking to people or looking at people as if they’re subjects that I would write about. I really feel, unembarrassedly privileged to talk to anyone in St. Lucia, about anything.” –Derek Walcott.
He was also known as a prestigious playwright as the New Yorker described his piece “Dream on Monkey Mountain” as a “poem in dramatic form” which won for him an Obie Award. He was known for his plays The Odyssey: A Stage Version (1992); The Isle is Full of Noises (1982); Remembrance and Pantomime (1980); The Joker of Seville and O Babylon! (1978); Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays (1970); The Last Carnival; Beef, No Chicken; and A Branch of the Blue Nile (1969) among others. His plays exude components of the unique West Indian experience which deals with the epistemological and socio-political implications of the colonization aftermath with forms such as folk morality, allegory, and fable plays. Having written, produced, and directed more than 80 plays, which explored the issues faced by Caribbean people and the overall problems of Caribbean identity against political strife and racism was a phenomena his audience could relate to which only increased his recognition and skyrocketed his career.
Walcott’s perspective on the future of the constitution of the artistic generation in the Caribbean should not be taken lightly by present governments, but instead advice should be drawn to improve the state of artists and art as a career for youth:
“An artistic generation in this part of the world is about five years. Five years of endurance. After that, I think people give up. I see five years of humanity and boredom and futility. I keep looking at younger writers, and I begin to see the same kind of despair forming and the same wish to say the hell with it, I’m getting out of here. There’s also a problem with government support…. Because we have been colonies, we have inherited everything, and the very thing we used to think was imperial has been repeated by our own stubbornness, stupidity, and blindness.” – Derek Walcott
“I go back to St. Lucia and the exhilaration I feel is not simply the exhilaration of homecoming and of nostalgia,” he said. “It is almost an irritation of feeling: Well, you never got it right. Now you have another chance. Maybe you can try and look harder.” –Derek Walcott.
Many would attest that Derek Walcott did get it right. He met an untimely death but lived a fulfilling life. He searched for love, marrying three times to Fay Moston, Margaret Maillard and Norline Metivier, and although they did not last his children who were born from the unions live on to recall the memories of their father. He passed at Cap Estate in St. Lucia on March 17th, 2017 at the age of eighty-seven and his memorial service was held at Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Castries and burial at Morne Fortune. His legacy will truly live on both in the Caribbean region and the world as a legendary artist, poet and playwright.
“These continuing polarities shoot an electricity to each other which is questioning and beautiful and which helps form a vision altogether Caribbean and international, personal (him to you, you to him), independent, and essential for readers of contemporary literature on all the continents.” – Arthur Vogelsang, Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor
“His poems expose the discrepancy between blooming flowers and sparkling waters with these island economies built on the history of sugar plantations and slavery and forced labor…. It’s kind of grandeur mixed in with imprisonment.” – David Biespiel, a literary critic and author.
“One of the handful of poets currently at work in English who are capable of making a convincing attempt to write an epic … His work is conceived on an oceanic scale and one of its fundamental concerns is to give an account of the simultaneous unity and division created by the ocean and by human dealings with it.” – Sean O’Brien, critic and poet
“For almost forty years his throbbing and relentless lines kept arriving in the English language like tidal waves, coagulating into an archipelago of poems without which the map of modern literature would effectively match wallpaper. He gives us more than himself or ‘a world’; he gives us a sense of infinity embodied in the language.” – Poet Joseph Brodsky
“The rich sensualities of his writing are deeply evocative and also definitive, and its extraordinary historical and literary reach – in his long Homeric poem Omeros especially – gives everything in the present of his work the largest possible resonance. He will be remembered as a laureate of his particular world, who was also a laureate of the world in general.” – Former poet laureate Andrew Motion
“His poetry was supremely ambitious. He was taking on Shakespeare, he was taking on Chaucer, he was taking on Dante – all of these were his forefathers and he thought of himself as equal to them. This is what great writing was and this is what he wanted to produce … he wanted to stand alongside them.” – Jamaican poet, Kei Miller
“[He was] both a lighthouse and an anchor… Over the four decades the imprint has published his work: “A light to illuminate the terrain by which we have marked our lives – love, truth, loss, happiness, moral engagement; an anchor, to measure and affirm our convictions and our commitments.”… Like the classics to which he was constantly drawn, he could bring forth truth from such minute detail, and remind us, vividly and unforgettably, why the examined life truly mattered.” – Matthew Hollis, poetry editor at Faber.
By Alexandra Daley