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Derek Alton Walcott

Derek Alton Walcott

Nobel Prize winning poet and dramatist from the West Indies, Derek Alton Walcott (born 1930) used a synthesis of Caribbean dialects and English to explore the richness and conflicts of the complex cultural heritage of his homeland.

Derek Alton Walcott was born in Casties, St. Lucia, West Indies, on January 23, 1930. The son of a civil servant and a teacher, he was of mixed African, Dutch, and English heritage. He received a B.A. from St. Mary's College, St. Lucia, in 1953 and attended the University of the West Indies at Kingston, Jamaica. A Rockefeller fellowship brought him to the United States in 1957; he studied under the American stage director Jose Quintero, returned to the islands in 1959 to found the Trinidad Theatre Workshop. He taught in St. Lucia, Grenada, and Jamaica and at many American universities: Boston, Columbia, Harvard, Rutgers, and Yale.

Walcott was married to dancer Norline Metivier and had three children by previous marriages. Unlike fellow West Indian writer V. S. Naipaul, he kept a home in Trinidad and was a familiar and revered figure in his homeland. Walcott received a five-year "genius" grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 1981.

Central to both Walcott's drama and his poetry is an exhilarating tension between two disparate cultural traditions, the Caribbean and the European. Sometimes the two idioms jostle uncomfortably; yet upon occasion they combine with stunning effect to form a brilliant synthesis.

Walcott observed: "My society loves rhetoric, performance, panache, melodrama, carnival, dressing up, playing roles. Thank God I was born in it… ." In his dramatic works, this vivacious island culture, with its historical roots and its political subtexts, takes precedence. Henri Christophe: A Chronicle (1950), his first play, explores the popular story of a 19th-century slave who became king of Haiti. Another early play, The Sea at Dauphin (1953), experiments with French/English island patois, transforming it into a powerful poetic tool. Dream on Monkey Mountain (Obie Award winner, 1971) illustrates the way the dreams of a poor charcoal vendor, however flawed and quixotic, help preserve tribal memories within the sterile colonial world. O, Babylon (1974) employs interludes of dance, along with a contemporary score by Galt McDermott, to recount events in a small Rastafarian community during the 1966 visit of Haile Selassie.

In all these dramas, Walcott struggled to be true to his roots without sacrificing literary virtuosity. He was eager to incorporate native elements, "chants, jokes, folk-songs, and fables," into his dramas;" to write powerfully … without writing down … so that the large emotions could be taken in by a fisherman or a guy on the street"; "to get something clean and simple into my plays … something Caribbean"; and to achieve a balance "between defiance and translation." The central character of Remembrance (1979), a retired schoolteacher of Port of Spain who loses one son to a revolution, another to the "slower death" of art, may reflect his powerful, if conflicting, loyalties.

While Walcott's plays were often commended for their colorful performances, they tended to meet resistance from more stringent critics. Pantomime (1978), which examines the ambiguous relationship between a Tobagan innkeeper and his servant, is one example. Though Walter Goodman found it "fresh and funny … filled with thoughtful insights," Frank Rich downgraded the play for lacking the "esthetic rigor" of Walcott's poetry.

This poetry is, indeed, extraordinary—complex, powerful, almost Elizabethan in its delight in form, its flamboyant eloquence and lush imagery. From the beginning—his first poem was published in a local newspaper when he was 14—Walcott sought inspiration among great poets of the English language; Shakespeare, Marvell, Auden, Eliot, Lowell. Nevertheless, Caribbean rhythms, themes, and idioms inevitably find their way into the verse—through vivid dialect personae like Shabine, the sailor in The Star-Apple Kingdom (1979), often regarded as the poet's alter-ego; in the perennially anguished voice of a "divided child," "schizophrenic, wrenched by two styles," that lurks beneath the cosmopolitan surface.

Walcott's range as a poet was remarkably varied and generous. Another Life (1973), a sweeping, open-hearted narrative, can be ranked among the best verse autobiographies in the language. The exuberant ten-poem sequence The Star-Apple Kingdom, which consolidated Walcott's stature as a major poet, features multiple narrative voices tracing the arc of the Caribbean archipelago through space and time, with near-epic scope.

In The Fortunate Traveller (1981) the poet chronicled provocative journeys of self-discovery through New England and the American South to Dachau and other places that illuminate his sense of himself as artist and man. The 54 separate poems in Midsummer (1984), a diary in verse, offer a year's worth of meditations on approaching middle age, divided linguistic allegiances and the consolations of art. The Arkansas Testament (1987) contains a stunning love sequence, along with the powerful title work, a further exploration of the poet's role as racial and cultural exile. This poignant, accomplished volume shows the poet working at the height of his powers.

Walcott's other popular poems include "A Far Cry from Africa" (1962), "Codicil" (1965), "Sainte Lucie" (1976), "The Schooner Flight" (1979), and "North and South" (1981). Collected Poems (1948-1984) (1986) provides an excellent selection of his work.

Walcott's epic-length Omeros, which echoed the Iliad and the Odyssey was chosen by The New York Times as one of the best books of 1990. Omeros took up the classic themes of abandonment and wandering, but it also revealed Walcott's love for his native Caribbean. During an interview, Walcott once described the fondness he had for his native homeland surrounded by the sea: "nobody wishes to escape the geography that forms you. In my case it is the sea, it is islands, I cannot stay too long away from the sea."

In 1992 Walcott received the Nobel Prize in literature. His verse play The Odyssey was produced on stage in New York and London in 1993. His love of grand themes continued with the publication of a collection of poems titled The Bounty (June 1997). In Bounty Walcott used his poetic talents to eulogize the beauty of his native land. Walcott's contributions to West Indian drama and poetry were immense. He created a world-class theater ensemble in a post-colonial environment and used his poetic skills to describe the culture and beauty of his Caribbean.

Further Reading

James Altas' article in the The New York Times Magazine, "Derek Walcott: Poet of Two Worlds," (May 23, 1982) gives a lively, balanced picture of the poet. Essays in the New York Review of Books by Helen Vendler (March 4, 1982) and Joseph Brodsky (November 10, 1983) are provocative, yet fair. Robert D. Hamner's Derek Walcott (1981) and Irma Goldstraw's Derek Walcott: An Annotated Bibliography of His Works (1984) are quite useful as well. The poet's revealing essay "What the Twilight Says" appears in Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays (1970). Rei Terada's Derek Walcott's Poetry: American Micicry (Northeastern University Press, 1992) is recommended. A collection of critical perspecitves on the works of Walcott was edited by lifelong friend Robert Hammer: Critical Perspectives on Derek Walcot (Critical Perspective No. 26; Passeggiata Press, 1993). □

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