Prof. Derek Alton WalcottProf. Derek Alton Walcott, who was born on January 23, 1930, died last Friday, March 17, 2017. He was a Saint Lucian poet and playwright. He received the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature. He was Professor of Poetry at the University of Essex from 2010 to 2013. His works include the Homeric epic poem, Omeros (1990), which many critics view ‘as Walcott’s major achievement.’ In addition to winning the Nobel Prize, Walcott received many literary awards over the course of his career, including an Obie Award in 1971 for his play Dream on Monkey Mountain, a MacArthur Foundation ‘genius’ award, a Royal Society of Literature Award, the Queen’s Medal for Poetry, the inaugural OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, the 2011 T. S. Eliot Prize for his book of poetry White Egrets and the Griffin Trust For Excellence In Poetry Lifetime Recognition Award in 2015.
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, Pamela Walcott. His family is of African and European descent, reflecting the complex colonial history of the island, which he explores in his poetry. His mother, a teacher, loved the arts and often recited poetry around the house. His father, who painted and wrote poetry, died at the age of 31 from mastoiditis while his wife was pregnant with the twins Derek and Roderick, who were born after his death. Walcott’s family was part of a minority Methodist community, who felt overshadowed by the dominant Catholic culture of the island established during French colonial rule.
As a young man, Walcott trained as a painter, mentored by Harold Simmons, whose life as a professional artist, provided an inspiring example for him. Walcott greatly admired Cézanne and Giorgione and sought to learn from them. Walcott’s painting was later exhibited at the Anita Shapolsky Gallery in New York City, along with the art of other writers, in a 2007 exhibition named “The Writer’s Brush: Paintings and Drawing by Writers”.
He 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, a Miltonic, religious poem, in the newspaper The Voice of St Lucia. An English Catholic priest condemned the Methodist-inspired poem as blasphemous in a response printed in the newspaper. By 19, Walcott had self-published his two first collections with the aid of his mother, who paid for the printing: 25 Poems (1948) and Epitaph for the Young: XII Cantos (1949). He sold copies to his friends and covered the costs. He later 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.”
The influential Bajan poet Frank Collymore critically supported Walcott’s early work. With a scholarship, he studied at the University College of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica.
After graduation, Walcott moved to Trinidad in 1953, where he became a critic, teacher and journalist. Walcott founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop in 1959 and remained 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) attracted international attention. His play Dream on Monkey Mountain (1970) was produced on NBC-TV in the United States the year it was published. In 1971 it was produced by the Negro Ensemble Company off-Broadway in New York City; it won an Obie Award that year for “Best Foreign Play”. The following year, Walcott won an Officer of the British Empire (OBE) from the British government for his work.
He was hired as a teacher by Boston University in the United States, where he founded the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre in 1981. That year he also received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in the United States. Walcott taught literature and writing at Boston University for more than two decades, publishing new books of poetry and plays on a regular basis and retiring in 2007. He became friends with other poets, including the Russian Joseph Brodsky, who lived and worked in the U.S. after being exiled in the 1970s, and the Irish Seamus Heaney, who also taught in Boston.
His epic poem, Omeros (1990), which loosely echoes and refers to characters from the Iliad, has been critically praised “as Walcott’s major achievement.” The book received praise from publications such as The Washington Post and The New York Times Book Review, which chose the book as one of its “Best Books of 1990”.
Walcott was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992, the second Caribbean writer to receive the honour after Saint-John Perse, who was born in Guadeloupe, received the award in 1960. The Nobel committee described Walcott’s work as “a poetic oeuvre of great luminosity, sustained by a historical vision, the outcome of a multicultural commitment.” He won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2004.
His later poetry collections include Tiepolo’s Hound (2000), illustrated with copies of his watercolors, The Prodigal (2004), and White Egrets (2010), which received the T.S. Eliot Prize.
In 2009, Walcott 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. As a part of St Lucia’s Independence Day celebrations, in February 2016, he became one of the first knights of the Order of Saint Lucia, granting him the title of ‘Sir’.