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by Bamber Gascoigne

Derek (Alton) Walcott (1930-2017)


Derek Walcott, who lived most of his life in Trinidad, was the major West Indian poet and dramatist writing in English. In his work Walcott studied the conflict between the heritage of European and West Indian culture, the long way from slavery to independence, and his own role as a nomad between cultures. His poems are characterized by allusions to the English poetic tradition and a symbolic imagination that is at once personal and Caribbean. Walcott was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1992.

"Poetry, which is perfection's sweat but which must seem as fresh as the raindrops on a statue's brow, combines the natural and the marmoreal; it conjugates both tenses simultaneously: the past and the present, if the past is the sculpture and the present the beads of dew or rain on the forehead of the past. There is the buried language and there is the individual vocabulary, and the process of poetry is one of excavation and of self-discovery." (from the Nobel Lecture, 1992)

Derek Walcott was born at Castries, St Lucia, an isolated Caribbean island in the West Indies. His father, Warwick, was a Bohemian artist; he died when Walcott was very young. "I was raised in this obscure Caribbean poet," he later wrote in a poem of his family, "where my bastard father christened me for his shire, / Warwick. The Bard's country." Walcott's mother, Alix, was a teacher, born in Dutch St Maarten. She was very well read and also taught her children to love poetry. Alix Walcott never remarried but devoted  her life to her work, childred, and charity. She died in a Catholic old people's home in St Lucia.

Walcott educated at St Mary's College, Castries. He received a scholarship to the University College of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica, where he studied French, Latin and Spanish. Walcott's first poem appeared in a local paper when he was 14. His first play, Henri Christopher, was performed in 1950. In 1953 Walcott moved to Trinidad and in 1958-59 he studied theater in New York. While in Trinidad he worked for the local newspaper the Trinidad Guardian. Walcott's marriage to Fay Moston, a secretary, broke up after a few years. His second wife, Margaret Maillard, was an almoner in a hospital. In 1976 he married Norline Metivier; this marriage also ended in divorce.

From 1953 to 1957 Walcott worked as a teacher at schools on several Caribbean islands. He then started his career as a journalist, writing features for Public Opinion in Kingston and features and drama critics for the Trinidad Guardian. In 1950 Walcott founded the St Lucia Arts Guild. He has worked as a professor of poetry at the University of Boston, and divided his time between Trinidad and the USA. Walcott also wrote a large number of plays for stage and radio.

In 2009 Walcott withdrew from the election of Oxford's poetry professor. The reason behind Walcott's decision was old allegations of sexual harassment while he was teaching a poetry workshop at Harvard. Another accusation from a Boston University student in 1996 was settled out of court. Walcott said that the election degenerated into character assassination. Ruth Padel, who was elected to the chair, resigned after it was revealed that she had been involved in the anonymous campaign. Walkott was appointed teacher of poetry in 2009 at the University of Alberta in Canada. He also accepted a visiting professorship at the University of Essex in 2010. Walcott died on Matrch 17, 2017, at his home in Cap Estate, Saint Lucia. He was 87.

His first volume of poety, the privately printed Twenty-Five Poems, Walcott published when he was 19; the work was funded by his mother. Walcott's widespread recognition as a poet came with In a Green Night (1964). It manifested his primary aims: to create a literature truthful to the West Indian life. In The Fortunate Traveller (1981) and Midsummer (1984) Walcott explored his own situation as a black writer in America, who has become estranged from his Caribbean homeland. The very titles of such books as Castaway (1965) and The Gulf  (1969) referred to his feelings of artistic isolation and alienation, even when visiting his homeland. St. Lucia, where he was born, belongs to a belt of French-speaking islands. Walcott himself was a native English speaker and bilingual in also speaking Creole, the language of the rural areas.

During his trips to the United States and Europe in the 1960s, Walcott made friends with several writers in England and America. In an interview in Walcott said: "But there is still an isolation in the sense that, as West Indian writers, whether we live in London or the West Indies, we are both cut off from and are a part of a tradition." Among the subjects Walcott continually returned, is the story of Robinson Crusoe, and the multicultural mixture of identities. Walcott rejected the label of "voice of the Caribbean people", saying: "I'm not even interested in sharing feelings of the people, because those who have been asked to share the feelings of the people are the ones who get shot first."

"I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
(from A Far Cry from Africa, 1962)

Omeros (1990) was entirely in terza rima, first used by Dante in his Divine Comedy. This 325-pages-long epic poem, Walcott's most ambitious work, takes its title from the Greek word for 'Homer', and recalls the dramas of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey in a Caribbean setting. Besides subject of the contemporary life it is informed by sufferings of exile; the task of the bard is sing of lost lives and a new hope. Omeros consist of sixty-four chapters divided into seven books. The central characters are two fishermen, Achilles and Philocrete. The Odyssean figure of Shabine in 'The Schooner Flight' expresses his rage against racism and rejection of colonial culture: "I'm just a red nigger who love the sea, / I had a sound colonial education, / I have Dutch, nigger and English in me, / and either I'm nobody, or I'm a nation."

From 1959 to 1971 Walcott was the founding director of the Little Carib Theatre (later the Trinidad Theatre Workshop). Heavily engaged in theatre, he wrote fewer new plays. Of these Dream of Monkey Mountain was commissioned originally by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the late 1960s but produced finally in the USA. The work, which follows Ti-Jean and His Brothers in exploring the nature of Caribbean cultural identity, is considered to be his most impressive play. Walcott also collaborated on several musicals with Galt McDermott, best-known from the hippie musical Hair. The Basement Theatre, directed by Walcott, participated in 1967 in Canada's Centennial Celebrations. It was the first West Indian drama company to perform outside the region.

Walcott wrote both in standard English and in West Indian dialect – he once called himself "a mulatto of style." His plays examining the postcolonial condition owe much to folk and Creole tradition and history. They combine story-telling, singing, dancing, and the rhythms of calypso with richly metaphorical speech which mingles verse and prose. When Naipaul expressed in his work his disillusionment with the Caribbean, Walcott celebrated its landscape and the people and denounced Naipaul's "virulent contempt toward the island of his origin". In a poem called 'The Mongoose,' which he read at the Calabash Literary Festival in 2008, he mocked his opposite: "The mongoose takes its orders from the Raj" and "He doesn't like black men but he loves black cunt." Naipaul refused to comment on the poem.

Walcott's autobiographical works include the poem Another Life (1973), inspired James Joyce's self-examination in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Tiepolo's Hound (2000) was about the painter Camille Pissarro and the poet himself. The book was published with reproductions of Walcott's paintings. Walcott exhibited his watercolor painting at the State University New York-Albany in 1998. Walcott' success inspired many aspiring Caribbean writers. His twin brother Roderick was a playwright. The death of Roderick was one of the subjects of The Prodigal (2004), which Walcott called his last book.

For further reading: Derek Walcott. Memeory as Vision: Another Life by E. Baugh (1979); Derek Walcott: Poet of the Islands by Ned Thomas (1980); Derek Walcott by R.D. Hamner (1981); Derek Walcott's Poetry by R. Terada (1993); Critical Perspectiveson Derek Walcott, ed. by R.D. Hamner (1993); Postcolonial Literatures: Achebe, Ngugi, Desai, Walcott, ed. by M. Parker and R. Starkey (1995); Conversations With Derek Walcott, ed. by by Derek Walcott & William Baer (1996); Derek Walcott & West Indian Drama by Bruce King (1997); Beating a Restless Drum: The Poetics of Kamau Brathwaite and Derek Walcott by June D. Bobb ( 1998); Derek Walcott by John Thieme (1999); Derek Walcott: A Caribbean Life by Bruce Alvin King (2000);  The Flight of the Vernacular: Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott and the Impress of Dante by Maria Cristina Fumagalli (2001); Derek Walcott by Edward Baugh (2006); Postcolonial Drama: A Comparative Study of Wole Soyinka, Derek Walcott, and Girish Karnad by Nasser Dasht Peyma (2009); Postcolonial Odysseys: Derek Walcott's Voyages of Homecoming by Maeve Tynan  (2011); Interlocking Basins of a Globe: Essays on Derek Walcott, edited by Jean Antoine-Dunne (2013); Walcott's Omeros: A Reader's Guide by Don Barnard (2014) ; Global Anglophone Poetry: Literary Form and Social Critique in Walcott, Muldoon, de Kok, and Nagra by Omaar Hena (2015); The Creole Psychology, Language, and Theatre of Derek Walcott: The Caribbean Roots of His Poetry by Viola Davis; with a foreword by Esther Phillips (2015) - Other writers born from Caribbean: George Lamming, Paula Marshall, E.K. Brathwaite, Austin Clarke, Jamaica Kincaid, G.C. Thomas, Caryl Phillips, Edouard Glissant, Jean Rhys, Phyllis Shand Allfrey, Aimé Fernand Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Merle Hodge, James Berry, John Hearne, Andrew Salkey, Michael Thelwell, Joan Riley, C.L.R. James, Eric Williams, Samuel Selvon, Michael Anthony, V.S. Naipaul, Eark Lovelace, Shiva Naipaul

Selected works:

  • Poetry: 25 Poems (1948); Epitaph for the Young: Xll Cantos (1949); Poems (1951); In a Green Night: Poems 1948-60 (1962); Selected Poems (1964); The Castaway and Other Poems (1965); The Gulf and Other Poems (1969); Another Life (1973); Sea Grapes (1976); The Star-Apple Kingdom (1980); Selected Poetry (selected annotated and introduced by Wayne Brown, 1981); The Fortunate Traveller (1982); Midsummer (1984); Collected Poems, 1948-1984 (1986); The Arkansas Testament (1987); Omeros (1990); Poems 1965-1980 (1993), The Bounty (1997); Tiepolo's Hound (2000); The Prodigal (2004); Selected Poems (edited by Edward Baygh, 2007); White Egrets (2010); The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948-2013, 2014 (selected by Glyn Maxwell);  Morning, Paramin, 2016 (illustrated by Peter Doing)
  • Plays: Cry for a Leader (prod. 1950); Henri Christophe: A Chronicle in Seven Scenes (prod. 1950); Robin and Andrea (in Bim, 1950); Senza Alcun Sospetto (radio play, 1950); Three Assassins (prod. 1951); Harry Dernier (radio play, 1952); Wine of the Country (1953); The Sea at Dauphin (prod. 1954); The Charlatan (prod. 1954); Crossroads (prod. 1954); The Golden Lions (1956); Ione: A Play with Music (prod. 1957); Ti-Jean and His Brothers (prod. 1957); Drums and Colours (1958); Jourmard; or, A Comedy till the Last Minute (prod. 1959); Malcauchon; or, The Six in the Rain (prod. 1959); Batai (prod. 1965); Dream on Monkey Mountain (prod. 1967); Franklin: A Tale of the Islands (prod. 1969); The Joker of Seville (with G. McDermott, prod. 1974); O Babylon! (with Galt MacDermott, prod. 1974); Remembrance (prod. 1977); The Snow Queen  (TV play, 1977); Pantomime (prod. 1978); Marie Leveau (with G.McDermott, prod. 1979); The Isle Is Full of Noises (prod. 1982); Beef, No Chicken (prod. 1982);The Ghost Dance (prod. 1989); Walker (opera, prod. 1992); Odyssey: A Stage Version (1993); Moon-Child  (a musical restaging of Ti-Jean and His Brothers, 2011); O Starry Starry Night: A Play, 2014; Marie LaVeau; and, Steel: Plays, 2016
  • Other Works: The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory: The Nobel Lecture (1993); Conversations with Derek Walcott (edited by William Baer, 1996); What the Twilight Says: Essays (1998); Another Life: Fully Annotated (with a critical essay and comprehensive notes by Edward Baugh and Colbert Nepaulsingh, 2004); The Journeyman Years: Occasional Prose 1957-1974, edited by Gordon Collier (2013)

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