Derek Walcott OBE OCC is a Saint Lucian poet, playwright, writer and visual artist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992 and the T. S. Eliot Prize in 2011 for White Egrets. His works include the Homeric epic Omeros. Robert Graves wrote that Walcott "handles English with a closer understanding of its inner magic than most, if not any, of his contemporaries”.
Walcott was born and raised in Castries, Saint Lucia, in the West Indies with a twin brother, the future playwright Roderick Walcott, and a sister. His mother, a teacher, had a love of the arts who would often recite poetry. His father, who painted and wrote poetry, died at 31 from mastoiditis. The family came from a minority Methodist community, which felt overshadowed by the dominant Catholic culture of the island. As a young man he trained as a painter, mentored by Harold Simmons whose life as a professional artist provided an inspiring example for Walcott. Walcott greatly admired Cézanne and Giorgione and sought to learn from them.
Walcott then studied as a writer, becoming “an elated, exuberant poet madly in love with English” and strongly influenced by modernist poets such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Walcott had an early sense of a vocation as a writer. In the Poem "Midsummer" (1984), he wrote
Forty years gone, in my island childhood, I felt that
the gift of poetry had made me one of the chosen,
that all experience was kindling to the fire of the Muse.
At 14, Walcott published his first poem in The Voice of St Lucia, a Miltonic, religious poem. In the newspaper, an English Catholic priest condemned the Methodist-inspired poem as blasphemous. By 19, Walcott had self-published his two first collections, 25 Poems (1948) and Epitaph for the Young: XII Cantos (1949), which he distributed himself. He commented "I went to my mother and said, 'I’d like to publish a book of poems, and I think it’s going to cost me two hundred dollars.' She was just a seamstress and a schoolteacher, and I remember her being very upset because she wanted to do it. Somehow she got it—a lot of money for a woman to have found on her salary. She gave it to me, and I sent off to Trinidad and had the book printed. When the books came back I would sell them to friends. I made the money back." Influential Barbadian poet Frank Collymore critically supported Walcott's early work.
With a scholarship he studied at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica then moved to Trinidad in 1953, becoming a critic, teacher and journalist. Walcott founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop in 1959 and remains active with its Board of Directors. Exploring the Caribbean and its history in a colonialist and post-colonialist context, his collection In a Green Night: Poems 1948-1960 (1962) saw him gain an international public profile. He founded the Boston Playwrights' Theatre at Boston University in 1981. Walcott taught literature and writing at Boston University, retiring in 2007. His later collections include Tiepolo’s Hound (2000),The Prodigal (2004) and White Egrets (2010), which was the recipient of the T.S. Eliot Prize.
Walcott was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992, the first Caribbean writer to receive the honor. The Nobel committee described his work as “a poetic oeuvre of great luminosity, sustained by a historical vision, the outcome of a multicultural commitment.” In 2009, he began a three-year distinguished scholar-in-residence position at the University of Alberta. In 2010, he became Professor of Poetry at the University of Essex.
In 1981 Walcott was accused of sexual harassment of a freshman student at Harvard University, and reached a settlement in 1996 over a sexual harassment allegation at Boston University. In 2009, Walcott was a leading candidate for the position of Oxford Professor of Poetry but withdrew his candidacy when earlier sexual harassment allegations were revived and the Sunday Times revealed that pages from a book describing the harassment cases had been sent anonymously to a number of Oxford academics. No new information about the well-publicised 1996 case came to light at this time. Some at the University had advised against his candidacy, on grounds of these past allegations but others argued that the cases were immaterial since the post does not require student contact.
The other main candidate Ruth Padel criticized the sending of these pages and said she wished he had not withdrawn, but a number of articles appeared in the British press alleging her involvement. She was elected as Chair, however a journalist revealed an email in which she mentioned that some students were angry that the harassment issue had been ignored, and she resigned on the grounds that this could be misinterpreted as activity against Walcott.
Padel was the first woman elected to the post and some commentators attributed press treatment of her to misogyny and a gender war. A letter of support for Walcott published in the Times Literary Supplement from a number of respected poets, including Seamus Heaney and Al Alvarez, criticized the press for raking up Walcott's past, and Padel for her perceived comportment. Others pointed out that both poets were casualties of media interest in a university affair.
The story "had everything, from sex claims to allegations of character assassination". It allowed the press "simultaneously to pursue allegations in Walcott's past and criticize Padel for having mentioned these allegations as a source of voters' disquiet". Letters to The Guardian and The Times criticized unjust denigration of Padel. Other poets including Simon Armitage expressed regret at Padel's resignation and The Observer attributed the media storm to the "toxicity of the metropolitan media."
Methodism and spirituality have played a significant role from the beginning, in Walcott's work. He commented "I have never separated the writing of poetry from prayer. I have grown up believing it is a vocation, a religious vocation". He describes the experience of the poet: "the body feels it is melting into what it has seen… the “I” not being important. That is the ecstasy...Ultimately, it’s what Yeats says: 'Such a sweetness flows into the breast that we laugh at everything and everything we look upon is blessed.' That’s always there. It’s a benediction, a transference. It’s gratitude, really. The more of that a poet keeps, the more genuine his nature". He notes that "if one thinks a poem is coming on...you do make a retreat, a withdrawal into some kind of silence that cuts out everything around you. What you’re taking on is really not a renewal of your identity but actually a renewal of your anonymity".
Walcott has published more than twenty plays, the majority of which have been produced by the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, and have also been widely staged elsewhere. Many of them deal, either directly or indirectly, with the liminal status of the West Indies in the postcolonial period. Much of his poetry also seeks to explore the paradoxes and complexities of this legacy. In his 1970 essay "What the Twilight Says: An Overture" discussing art and theatre in his native region (from Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays) Walcott reflects on the West Indies as colonized space, and the problems presented by a region with little in the way of truly indigenous forms, and with little national or nationalist identity. He states: “We are all strangers here... Our bodies think in one language and move in another". Discussions of epistemological effects of colonization inform plays such as Ti-Jean and his Brothers. In the play, Mi-Jean, one of the eponymous brothers is shown to have much information, but to truly know nothing. Every line Mi-Jean recites is rote knowledge gained from the coloniser, and as such is unable to be synthesized and thus is inapplicable to his existence as colonised person.
Yet Walcott notes of the Caribbean "what we were deprived of was also our privilege. There was a great joy in making a world that so far, up to then, had been undefined... My generation of West Indian writers has felt such a powerful elation at having the privilege of writing about places and people for the first time and, simultaneously, having behind them the tradition of knowing how well it can be done—by a Defoe, a Dickens, a Richardson." Walcott identifies as "absolutely a Carbibbean writer", a pioneer, helping to make sense of the legacy of deep colonial damage. In such poems as "The Castaway" (1965) and in the play Pantomime (1978), he works with the metaphors of shipwreck and Crusoe to describe the position of rebuilding after colonialism and slavery: the freedom to re-begin and the challenge of it. He writes "If we continue to sulk and say, Look at what the slave-owner did, and so forth, we will never mature. While we sit moping or writing morose poems and novels that glorify a non-existent past, then time passes us by."
Walcott's work weaves together a variety of forms including the folktale, morality play, allegory, fable and ritual featuring emblematic and mythological characters. His epic book length poem Omeros, is an allusive, loose reworking of Homeric story and tradition into a journey within the Caribbean and beyond to Africa, New England, the American West, Canada, and London, with frequent reference to the Greek Islands. His odysseys are not the realm of gods or warriors, but are peopled by everyday folk. Composed in terza rima and organized by rhyme and meter, the work echos the themes that run through Walcott's oeuvre, the beauty of the islands, the colonial burden, fragmentation of Caribbean identity, and the role of the poet in salving the rents.
Walcott's friend Joseph Brodsky commented: "For almost forty years his throbbing and relentless lines kept arriving in the English language like tidal waves, coagulating into an archipelago of poems without which the map of modern literature would effectively match wallpaper. He gives us more than himself or 'a world'; he gives us a sense of infinity embodied in the language." A close friend of the Russian Brodsky and the Irish Heaney, Walcott noted that the three of them were a band of poets "outside the American experience". Walcott's writing was also influenced by the work of friends Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop.
Awards and Honours
1969 Cholmondeley Award
1971 Obie Award for Dream on Monkey Mountain
1981 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship OBIE ("genius award")
1988 Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry
1990 Arts Council of Wales International Writers Prize
1990 WH Smith Literary Award for Omeros
1992 Nobel Prize for Literature
2008 Honorary doctorate from the University of Essex
2011 T.S. Eliot Prize for White Egrets
2011 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature for White Egrets