Derek Walcott: An Introduction

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The most important West Indian poet and dramatist writing in English today. Walcott has lived most of his life in Trinidad. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1992. In his works Walcott had 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. Walcott himself is of mixed black, Dutch, and English descent. His poems are characterized by allusions to the English poetic tradition and a symbolic imagination that is at once personal and Caribbean.

"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)

Walcott was born at Castries, St Lucia, an isolated Caribbean island in the West Indies. His father, a Bohemian artist, died when he was very young. His mother, a teacher, encouraged him to read poetry. Walcott, was educate at St Mary's College, Castries. He received a scholarship to the University College of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica. His first play, Henri Christopher, was performed in 1950. In 1953 Walcott moved to Trinidad and in 1958-59 Walcott studied theater in New York.

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.

"I sang our wide country, the Caribbean Sea
who hated shoes, whose soles were as cracked as a stone,
who was gentle with ropes, who had one suit alone,

whom no man dared insult and who insulted no one,
whose grin was a white breaker cresting, but whose frown
was a growing thunderhead..."
(from Omeros)

As a poet, Walcott made his debut at the age of eighteen with Twenty-Five Poems, which were privately printed. His 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. Among the subjects Walcott, of both African and European ancestry, has continually returned, is the story of Robinson Crusoe, and the multicultural mixture of identities.

"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)

Walcott's has called himself "a mulatto of style." His most ambitious work to date is the epic poem Omeros (1990), which takes its title from the Greek word for 'Homer', and recalls the dramas of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey in a Caribbean setting. It consist of sixty-four chapters divided into seven books. The central characters are two fishermen, Achilles and Philocrete. Among its subjects are sufferings of exile and the contemporary Caribbean life. The task of the bard is sing of lost lives and a new hope. 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). He has written a large number of plays for stage and radio. Of these Dream on Monkey Mountain was commissioned originally by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the late 1960s but produced finally in the USA. The works is considered to be his most impressive play. Walcott has also collaborated on several musicals with Galt McDermott, best-known from the hippie musical Hair.

Walcott has written both in standard English and in West Indian dialect. 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. His autobiographical works include the poem Another Life (1973), inspired James Joyce's self-examination in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The semi-autobiographical spiritual biography 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' success has inspired many aspiring Caribbean writers. His twin brother Roderick is also a playwright.

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) - Other writers born from Caribbean: George Lamming, Paule Marshall, E.K. Braithwaite, Austin Clark, Jamaica Kincaid, G.C. Thomas, Caryl Phillips, Edouard Glissant, Jean Rhys, Phyllis Shand Allfrey, Aimè Fernand Cèsaire, 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, Earl Lovelace, Shiva Naipaul

Selected works:

  • poetry: 25 Poems (1948); Epitaph for the Young (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 (1981); The Fortunate Traveller (1982); Midsummer (1984); Collected Poems 1948-84 (1986); The Arkansas Testament (1987); Omeros (1990); Poems 1965-1980 (1993), Bounty (1997); Tiepolo's Hound (2000)
  • plays: Cry for a Leader (1950); Henri Christophe (1950); Robin and Andrea (1950); Senza Alcun Sospetto (1950); The Price of Mercy (1951); Three Assassins (1951); Harry Oernier (1952); The Charlatan (1954); Crossroads (1954); The Sea at Dauphin (1954); The Golden Lions (1956); The Wine of the County (1956); Ti-Jean and His Brothers (1957); Drums and Colors (1958); Jourmard (1959); Malcochan (1959); Batai (1965); Dream on Monkey Mountain (1967); Franklin (1969); In a Fine Castle (1970); The Jokerr of Seville (1974, with G. McDermott); Remembrance (1977); The Snow Queen (1977); Pantomime (1978); Marie Leveau (1979, with G.McDermott); The Isle is Full of Noises (1982); Beef, No Chicken (1985); The Odyssey (1993)
  • non-fiction: What the Twilight Says, 1998