Walcott, Derek 1930–
Derek Walcott 1930–
Caribbean poet Derek Walcott is the recipient of the 1992 Nobel Prize for literature, one the world’s most prestigious awards. Walcott won the prize on the strength of his many works of poetry and his plays about island life in a post-colonial era. He is the first native Caribbean writer ever to win a Nobel for literature. His poetry confronts his own mixed ethnic legacy—Walcott is of African, Dutch, and English descent—as well as the multi-ethnic character of the West Indies in general. In the 1981 biography Derek Walcott, Robert D. Hamner wrote: “Nurtured on oral tales of gods, devils, and cunning tricksters passed down by generations of slaves, Walcott should retell folk stories; and he does. On the other hand, since he has an affinity for and is educated in Western classics, he should retell the traditional themes of European experience; and he does. As inheritor of two vitally rich cultures, he utilizes one, then the other, and finally creates out of the two his own personal style.”
Walcott’s central preoccupation has concerned the union between two racial and social strains that has produced the unique Caribbean culture. He has worked from the “schizophrenic” point of view of an islander raised to respect and appreciate the culture of an enslaving colonial force. Hamner noted that Walcott “is a living example of the divided loyalties and hatreds that keep his society suspended between two worlds.” Likewise, New Yorker correspondent Jervis Anderson claimed that in ancestry and cultural heritage, Walcott “epitomized the composite New World culture in the Caribbean—roughly half black and half white—and he had no desire to elevate one component above the other. The two were reconciled in his view of himself as an artist and a ‘divided child.’” In one of his best-known poems, Walcott perhaps spoke for himself when he wrote: “I’m just a red nigger who love the sea, /… I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me, / and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.”
Walcott and his twin brother, Roderick, were born January 23, 1930, in Castries, a colonial town on the small eastern Caribbean island of St. Lucia. At the time of Walcott’s birth, St. Lucia was part of the British protectorate, but its past as a French colony was evident in the creole dialect and religious practice of its citizens. Both of Walcott’s parents were schoolteachers. His father died when Walcott was only a year old, but his mother compensated for the loss by nurturing her two sons’ love of reading and study. She surrounded her children with English literary classics, recited Shakespeare to them, and encouraged them to appreciate poetry and drama.
Born Derek Alton Walcott, January 23, 1930, on Castries, St. Lucia, West Indies; immigrated to United States, late 1950s; son of Warwick (a civil servant and teacher) and Alix (a teacher) Walcott; married Fay Moston, 1954 (divorced, 1959); married Margaret Ruth Maillard, 1962 (divorced); married Norline Metivier (actress and dancer; divorced); children: one son, three daughters. Education: University of the West Indies, B.A., 1953.
Poet and playwright, 1953—. Founding director of Trinidad Theatre Workshop, 1959; visiting professor at Columbia University, 1981, Harvard University, 1982, and Boston University, 1985—. Has given lectures and readings at numerous colleges in the United States and abroad; fund-raiser for international center devoted to the arts and the study of economics, to be based in the Caribbean.
Selected awards: Rockefeller Foundation grant, 1957-58; Obie Award, 1971, for Dream on Monkey Mountain; John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation grant, 1981; Nobel Prize for literature, 1992.
Addresses: Office —Department of English, Creative Writing Program, Boston University, 236 Bay State Rd., Boston, MA 02215.
In those days Castries was a picturesque town with large, omate Victorian homes nestled among bright tropical gardens. Anderson noted that, as a youth, Walcott spent little time admiring the displays of affluence in the city. “His attention was drawn more strongly to the shanties of the poor, in Castries and elsewhere on the island, occupied by fascinating characters, some of whom later appeared in his book-length autobiographical poem, ‘Another, Life,’” Anderson commented. “Beyond the sociology of the land, young Walcott’s imagination was transfixed by the sea: its sounds; its fishermen and schooner men; its far horizon of limits and possibilities; the dangerous seductions of its calm and stormy moods; its record of local drownings; its legends of shipwreck and isolation.” This youthful fascination with St. Lucia’s seafaring class would one day be translated into powerful poetry in the Homeric tradition. Walcott told the New Yorker: “Islands are great places to live in because the sea is close and there is the elemental feeling of things that are bigger than you are.”
In school, Walcott learned English as a second language and became captivated by the works of Great Britain’s best poets. At the same time he was well aware that England was the seat of the colonial rule that encouraged slavery during previous centuries. He therefore approached the European canon with an ambivalent attitude that would remain with him—and shape his own writings—through the decades to come.
“Walcott’s growth into a free-spirited artist clashed on occasion with the island’s religious establishment, and around the age of nineteen he began thinking of leaving St. Lucia,” Anderson reported. Walcott rebelled against the rigid Catholicism of his homeland and sought a more congenial atmosphere for continued studies elsewhere. In 1950 he departed for the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica. The institution had only been established for a few years, but already it was “a virtual laboratory of regional integration,” to quote Anderson. Islanders from all parts of the Caribbean descended on the University of the West Indies, and their close association helped to forge a sense of regionwide community. In the New Yorker, Walcott described Jamaica as “amazingly exciting. There was good theatre, good Jamaican painters, fine galleries, gifted poets and prose writers, most of whom I came to know very well.”
Walcott lost little time in making his own contribution to Caribbean arts. His first play, Henri Christophe: A Chronicle, was written and produced in St. Lucia while he was still an undergraduate. Another piece, Henri Dernier, played on radio in 1950. He also began to publish poetry, art criticism, and essays in periodicals such as the Trinidad Guardian and Jamaica’s Public Opinion. After earning his bachelor’s degree in 1953, he returned to St. Lucia to teach at St. Mary’s College, the high school he had attended.
By 1954 Walcott was spending substantial time in Trinidad. His plays The Sea at Dauphin and Ione premiered there in the mid-fifties, and he became deeply involved with the establishment of a resident theater project on the island. In 1957 he received a Rockefeller Foundation grant to study theater arts in New York City. There he worked with Off-Broadway directors and companies, appropriating the skills he would need to establish a repertory group in Trinidad. “The New York experience was an unhappy one for Walcott,” claimed Anderson. “He felt terribly alone in the city, an alien in its racial and theatrical communities—repelled, almost, by its segregated sensibilities. Neither Broadway nor Off-Broadway seemed the right model for the kind of theatre he had envisioned for the West Indies.”
Walcott returned to Trinidad and founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop in the capital city of Port of Spain. The group performed some of Walcott’s plays and others that explored the myths, rituals, and superstitions of West Indian folk life. The workshop eventually folded, but Walcott found an audience for his plays in New York City at the Off-Broadway Public Theatre. There, in 1971, his most famous drama, Dream on Monkey Mountain, drew enthusiastic reviews and an Obie Award as best foreign play of the year.
Poetry drew more and more of the writer’s energies as the 1960s began. At first he published primarily in magazines, but in 1962 his verse came to the attention of editors at the British publisher Jonathan Cape. Cape released Walcott’s first major collection, In a Green Night, in 1962. The volume was well received; in fact, poet Robert Lowell was so impressed that he visited Trinidad to meet Walcott. “I remember sitting on the living-room floor while Lowell showed me some of the poems he was working on,” Walcott told the New Yorker. “I was so flattered to hear this great writer asking me what I thought of his work. When he returned to New York, he called up Roger Straus and urged him to sign me on as a new writer. I’ve been with [publisher Farrar, Straus] ever since.”
Having found a congenial publisher, Walcott turned out numerous books of verse. His work was hailed for its expressive language—”an old-fashioned love of eloquence, an Elizabethan richness of words and a penchant for complicated, formal rhymes,” to quote New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani. Critics also commended Walcott for his brave exploration of the question of cultural ancestry. In the New York Review of Books, poet Joseph Brodsky called the Caribbean “the place discovered by Columbus, colonized by the British, and immortalized by Walcott.”
In the early 1970s Walcott began to spend part of the year in the United States, teaching creative writing at universities such as Columbia, Rutgers, Yale, Harvard, and Princeton. Farrar, Straus published volumes of his poetry regularly, including The Gulf (1970), Another Life (1973), Sea Grapes (1976), The Star-Apple Kingdom (1979), The Fortunate Traveller (1981), Collected Poems (1986), The Arkansas Testament (1987), and Omeros (1990). In 1981 Walcott received a sizeable sum of money from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation—a no-strings-attached award that has come to be called the “genius grant.”
The New Yorker reported that Walcott was in the running for a Nobel prize for years before he received it. Walcott tried not to be distracted by the politics of the prize. “Look at some of the great writers who died without winning the Nobel Prize—[James] Joyce, [W. H.] Auden, Graham Greene, Jorge Luis Borges,” the author told the New Yorker. “Why should my chances be any better than theirs?. . . It got to the point where I learned to put the whole business out of my mind.” Walcott kept busy writing and teaching at Boston University, where he began holding a part-time position in 1982.
The Nobel committee announced Walcott’s selection on October 8,1992. The date is doubly significant since 1992 marked the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s landing in the Caribbean. From Sweden came the announcement that Walcott had been chosen for his “poetic oeuvre of great luminosity, sustained by historical vision” and his “multi-cultural commitment.” In Walcott, the committee stated, “West Indian culture has found its great poet.” Perhaps nowhere was the joy more visible than on St. Lucia, where the weekly newspaper in Castries devoted an entire 40-page issue to its native son.
The 1992 Nobel Prize for literature came with a cash award of $1.2 million. Its effects are far more lasting than mere dollars, however. Walcott’s stature in the literary community is assured, and his opinions on everything from poetry to politics will be sought and valued. Most certainly, Walcott has earned the distinction—long held by some critics and fellow poets—of being among the very best writers in the English language. For his own part, Walcott accepted the acclaim with humility. His work, he told the New Yorker, “had already been written in the mouths of the Caribbean tribe. And I felt that I had been chosen, somehow, to give it voice. So the utterance was inevitable.… I was writing it for the island people from whom I come. In a sense, I saw it as a long thank-you note.” Walcott’s future projects include collaborating with American folk-rocker Paul Simon on a Broadway musical.
Henri Christophe: A Chronicle (play), Advocate, 1950.
The Sea at Dauphin (play), University College of the West Indies, 1954.
Ione: A Play with Music, University College of the West Indies, 1957.
In a Green Night (poetry; includes “A Far Cry from Africa”), J. Cape, 1962.
Selected Poems, Farrar, Straus, 1964.
The Gulf (poetry), Farrar, Straus, 1970.
Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays, Farrar, Straus, 1970.
Another Life (autobiographical poetry), Farrar, Straus, 1973.
Sea Grapes (poetry), Farrar, Straus, 1976.
The Star-Apple Kingdom (poetry), Farrar, Straus, 1979.
The Fortunate Traveller (poetry), Farrar, Straus, 1981.
Collected Poems, 1948-1984, Farrar, Straus, 1986.
The Arkansas Testament (poetry), Farrar, Straus, 1987.
Omeros (poetry), Farrar, Straus, 1990.
Black Literature Criticism, Gale, 1992.
Black Writers, Gale, 1989.
Hamner, Robert D., Derek Walcott, Twayne, 1981.
Ebony, February 1993, p. 46.
Jet, October 26,1992, p. 14; December 28,1992, p. 24.
Newsweek, October 19, 1992, p. 73.
New Yorker, June 26, 1971, p. 30; December 21, 1992, p. 71.
New York Times Magazine, May 23, 1982, p. 32.
New York Review of Books, November 10,1983, p. 39.
New York Times, March 21, 1979; August 21, 1979; May 30, 1981; May 2, 1982; January 15, 1986; December 17, 1986.
New York Times Book Review, September 13, 1964; October 11, 1970; May 6, 1973; October 31, 1976; May 13, 1979; January 3, 1982; April 8, 1984; February 2, 1986; December 20, 1987.
Time, October 19, 1992, p. 65; April 5, 1993, p. 13.
—Anne Janette Johnson
"Walcott, Derek 1930–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/walcott-derek-1930
"Walcott, Derek 1930–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved July 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/walcott-derek-1930
Derek Walcott, 1930–, West Indian dramatist and poet, b. Castries, St. Lucia, grad. Univ. College of West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, 1954. His grandfathers were both white, one of English, the other of Dutch extraction; his grandmothers were both brown-skinned West Indians of African background. He has spent most of his life in various parts of the West Indies, including St. Thomas, Barbados, Grenada, and for a long period Trinidad, where he was a journalist and founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop. Walcott's meticulously honed poems and evocative dramas exalt the English language while also using a rich mix of Latin, French, and patois. Skillfully fusing folk culture and oral tradition with the classical and avant-garde, he writes eloquently of the history, landscape, everyday life, and multiracial peoples of the islands. He also examines his own African and European heritage, addressing personal conflicts, many of which arise from his mixed-race background.
Often focusing on West Indian folk traditions, Walcott's plays include Dream on Monkey Mountain (1970), The Joker of Seville (1975), Remembrance: Pantomime (1980), A Branch of the Blue Nile (1986), The Odyssey (1992), and The Capeman (1997), a musical (and Broadway flop) written with Paul Simon. Walcott has proved to be a master of lyric, narrative, and epic poetry. His verse collections include the breakthrough In a Green Night (1962), which first brought him to international attention, and the autobiographical Another Life (1973) as well as Sea Grapes (1976), Midsummer (1984), The Bounty (1997), and the intensely personal poems of old age in White Egrets (2010). His epic poem Omeros (1990) echoes and reimagines Homer's Iliad and Odyssey in the Caribbean's colonial past and complex present. Tiepolo's Hound (2001), in which he interweaves his own story with that of the St. Thomas–born painter Camille Pissarro, and The Prodigal (2004), a memoir of journey and return and a meditation on fame and death, are also book-length narrative poems. The selections in The Poetry of Derek Walcott (2014) cover six decades of his work. Walcott is also a realist painter; his cover art and illustrations have sometimes accompanied his poetry. He lives in St. Lucia and the United States, where he has taught at several universities. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992.
See his Selected Poems (ed. by E. Baugh, 2007); biography by B. A. King (2000); W. Baer, Conversations with Derek Walcott (1996); studies by N. Thomas (1980), R. Terada (1992), R. D. Hamner (1981, rev. ed. 1993; as ed., 1993), B. A. King (1995), and J. L. Espejo and J. M. P. Fernández, ed. (2001).
"Walcott, Derek." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/walcott-derek
"Walcott, Derek." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved July 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/walcott-derek
"Walcott, Derek." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/walcott-derek
"Walcott, Derek." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved July 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/walcott-derek