Walcott, Derek Alton

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Walcott, Derek Alton

January 23, 1930

The poet, playwright, and essayist Derek Walcott is the son of Warwick Walcott, a civil servant and skilled painter in watercolor who also wrote verse, and Alix Walcott, a schoolteacher who took part in amateur theater. He and his twin brother Roderick were born in Castries, Saint Lucia, a small island in the Lesser Antilles of the West Indies. He grew up in a house he describes as haunted by the absence of a father who had died quite young, because all around the drawing room were his father's watercolors. He regards his beginnings as an artist, therefore, as a natural and direct inheritance: "I feel that I have continued where my father left off." After completing his studies at St. Mary's College in his native Saint Lucia, he continued his education at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica.

His literary career began in 1948 with his first book of verse, 25 Poems (1948), followed not long thereafter by Epitaph for the Young, XII Cantos (1949), and Poems (1951), all privately published in the Caribbean. The decade of the 1950s, however, marked his emergence as a playwright-director in Trinidad. His first theater piece, Henri Cristophe (1950), a historical play about the tyrant-liberator of Haiti, was followed by a series of well-received folk-dramas in verse. The Sea at Dauphin (1954), Ione (1957), and Ti-Jean and His Brothers (1958) are usually cited among the most noteworthy, along with his most celebrated dramatic work, Dream on Monkey Mountain (an Obie Award winner), which he began in the late 1950s but did not produce until 1967 in Toronto. After a brief stay in the United States as a Rockefeller Fellow, Walcott returned to Trinidad in 1959 to become the founding director of the Trinidad Theatre Workshop. He continues to work as a dramatist, contributing a libretto for the Paul Simon Broadway musical Capeman (1997), and is still more likely to be identified by a West Indian audience as a playwright.

Walcott debuted internationally as a poet with In a Green Night: Poems 19481960 (1962), followed shortly thereafter by Selected Poems (1964). These volumes established the qualities usually identified with his verse: virtuosity in traditional, particularly European literary forms; enthusiasm for allegory and classical allusionfor which he is both praised and criticized; and the struggle within himself over the cruel history and layered cultural legacy of Africa and Europe reflected in the Caribbean landscape, which some critics have interpreted as the divided consciousness

of a Caribbean ex-colonial in the twilight of empire. A prolific quarter-century of work was shaped by recurrent patterns of departure, wandering, and returnin his life as well as in his poetryand a powerful preoccupation with the visual imagery of the sea, beginning with Castaway and Other Poems (1965), in which he establishes an imaginative topography (e.g., of "seas and coasts as white pages"), and a repertory of myths, themes, and motifs (e.g., of "words like migrating birds") for the titular exile, a repertory that recurs in later volumes.

In The Gulf and Other Poems (1969), reprinted with Castaway and Other Poems in a single volume titled The Gulf (1970) in the United States, he sounds an ever more personal note as he considers the Caribbean from the alienating perspective of the political turbulence of the late 1960s in the southern and Gulf states of the United States. In Another Life (1973), his book-length self-portrait (dealing with his life both as a young man and at age forty-one), he contemplates the suicide of his mentor and the attempted suicide of a close childhood companion with whom he discovered the promise, and the disappointment, of their lives dedicated to art. In Sea Grapes (1976), he identifies the Caribbean wanderer as caught up in the same ancient and unresolved dilemmas as the exiles Adam and Odysseus, whose pain the poems of a West Indian artist, like the language of the Old Testament and the Greek and Latin classics, can console but never cure.

At his most eloquent in The Star-Apple Kingdom (1979), Walcott fingers the rosary of the Antilles in the title poem in order to expose the inhumanity and corruption belied by the gilt-framed Caribbean pastoral of the colonialist's star-apple kingdom, so named for a native fruit tree found in the West Indies. In the volume's other verse narrative, "The Schooner Flight," he finds a powerful voice in the West Indian vernacular of the common man endowed with "no weapon but poetry and the lances of palms of the sea's shiny shields." In The Fortunate Traveler (1981) he sounds repeated and painful notes of exhaustion, isolation, and disappointment of the peripatetic poet in exile and at home, perhaps most sharply in the satirical mode of the kaiso (a Trinidadian term for calypso) vernacular of "The Spoiler Returns."

In Midsummer (1984), published in his fifty-fourth year, he probes the situation of the poet as prodigal, nel mezzo del camin (in the middle of the journey) of exile in fifty-four untitled stanzas of elegiac meter. In The Arkansas Testament (1987), divided into the sections "Here" and "Elsewhere" (recalling the divisions of "North" and "South" of The Fortunate Traveler ), he succumbs once again to pangs of art's estrangement. However, in Omeros (1990), his most ambitious verse narrative yet, he overlays his problematic but richly figured Caribbean environment with Homer's transformative Mediterranean domain, weaving together the myths, themes, motifs, and imaginary geography of a prolific career to attempt a consummation and reconciliation of the psychic divisions and the spiritual and moral wounds of history and exile.

In 1992 Walcott was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. In the following decade he published three books of poetry: The Bounty (1997), Tiepolo's Hound (2000), and The Prodigal (2004). He has explored, in different registers, the arc of a lifetime, and a heightened sense of mortalitybrought on by the deaths of his mother, Alix; his brother Roderick; and many friendsinflects his work as he addresses his personal sunset in the twilight of empire. "This is how people look at death / and write a literature of gliding transience / as the sun loses its sight, singing of islands" (The Prodigal, p. 54). Themes, phrases, and motifs established earlierthe mysteries of language, the writer's vocation, exile and homecoming, and the echoes of his beloved Caribbeanare evoked and reworked together (often "blent" together, to use a favored Walcott word) in a single verbal flourish. A singular image of the prodigal sitting like Oedipus on his plinth at Colonus awaiting transformation catches the spirit of Walcott's new mood in these works.

Although he has described himself as a citizen of "no nation but the imagination," and has lived as an international bard, directing plays, creating poetry, and teaching at a number of colleges and universities, he has remained faithful to the Caribbean as his normative landscape. His affirmation of identity and of the significance of myth over history for the poetic imagination is inseparable from a discussion of the historic drama played out over recent centuries across the islands of the Caribbean, and from which the Odyssean wayfarer ventures in a lifelong cycle of escape and return. This profound engagement with the Caribbean, explored in a series of early essays"What the Twilight Says: An Overture," "Meanings," and "The Muse of History"and restated in his Nobel lecture The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory, is summed up in a particularly poignant credo: "I accept this archipelago of the Americas. I say to the ancestor who sold me, and to the ancestor who bought me and also you, father in the filth-ridden gut of the slave ship to you inwardly forgiven grandfathers, I like the more honest of my race, give a strange thanks. I give the strange and bitter and yet ennobling thanks for the monumental groaning and soldering of two great worlds, like the halves of a fruit seamed by its own bitter juices, that exiled from your own Edens you have placed me in the wonder of another, that was my inheritance and your gift."

See also Caribbean/North American Writers (Contemporary); Literature of the English-Speaking Caribbean


Baugh, Edward. "Derek Walcott and the Centering of the Caribbean Subject." Research in African Literatures 34, no. 1 (2003): 151159.

Breslin, Paul. Nobody's Nation: Reading Derek Walcott. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Burnett, Paula. Derek Walcott: Politics and Poetics. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000.

Dabydeen, David. "Derek Walcott in Conversation with David Dabydeen." Wasaforo: The Transnational Journal of International Writing 42 (2004): 3741.

Hanner, Robert D. Epic of the Dispossessed: Derek Walcott's Omeros. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997.

Thieme, John. Derek Walcott. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1999.

Walcott, Derek. The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory: The Nobel Lecture. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1993.

Walcott, Derek. The Prodigal. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2004.

james de jongh (1996)
Updated by author 2005

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