Sir Derek Alton Walcott, KCSL OBE OCC (born 23 January 1930) is a Saint Lucian–Trinidadian poet and playwright. He received the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature. He is currently Professor of Poetry at the University of Essex. His works include the Homeric epic poem Omeros (1990), which many critics view “as Walcott’s major achievement.” In addition to having won the Nobel, Walcott has won 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.
Early life and education
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 age 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:
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.
Derek Walcott married Fay Moston, a secretary, but the marriage lasted only a few years and ended in divorce. Walcott married a second time to Margaret Maillard, who worked as an almoner in a hospital, but that also ended in divorce. In 1976, Walcott then married Norline Metivier, but this marriage also did not last. He has children named Elizabeth, Peter and Anna.
Walcott is also known for his passion for traveling to different countries around the world. He splits his time between New York, Boston, and St. Lucia, where he incorporates the influences of different areas into his pieces of work.
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 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) 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 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 US 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 honor 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’.
Oxford Professor of Poetry candidacy
In 2009, Walcott was a leading candidate for the position of Oxford Professor of Poetry. He withdrew his candidacy after reports of documented accusations against him of sexual harassment from 1981 and 1996. (The latter case was settled by Boston University out of court.) When the media learned that pages from an American book on the topic were sent anonymously to a number of Oxford academics, this aroused their interest in the university decisions.
Ruth Padel, also a leading candidate, was elected to the post. Within days, The Daily Telegraph reported that she had alerted journalists to the harassment cases. Under severe media and academic pressure, Padel resigned. Padel was the first woman to be elected to the Oxford post, and journalists including Libby Purves, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, the American Macy Halford and the Canadian Suzanne Gardner attributed the criticism of her to misogyny and a gender war at Oxford. They said that a male poet would not have been so criticized, as she had reported published information, not rumour.
Numerous respected poets, including Seamus Heaney and Al Alvarez, published a letter of support for Walcott in The Times Literary Supplement, and criticized the press furore. Other commentators suggested that both poets were casualties of the media interest in an internal university affair, because the story “had everything, from sex claims to allegations of character assassination”. Simon Armitage and other poets expressed regret at Padel’s resignation.
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.” Describing his writing process, he wrote, "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 also notes, “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 said his writing was influenced by the work of the American poets, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, who were also friends.
He 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 address, either directly or indirectly, the liminal status of the West Indies in the post-colonial period. Through poetry he also explores 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. He discusses the problems for an artist of 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". The epistemological effects of colonization inform plays such as Ti-Jean and his Brothers. 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; he is unable to synthesize it or apply it to his life as a colonised person.
Walcott notes of growing up in West Indian culture:
“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 Caribbean 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 uses the metaphors of shipwreck and Crusoe to describe the culture and what is required of artists after colonialism and slavery: both the freedom and the challenge to begin again, salvage the best of other cultures and make something new. These images recur in later work as well. 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 epic book-length poem Omeros was published in 1990 to critical acclaim. The poem very loosely echoes and references Homer and some of his major characters from The Iliad. Some of the poem’s major characters include the island fishermen Achille and Hector, the retired English officer Major Plunkett and his wife Maud, the housemaid Helen, the blind man Seven Seas (who symbolically represents Homer), and the author himself.
Although the main narrative of the poem takes place on the island of St. Lucia, where Walcott was born and raised, Walcott also includes scenes from Brookline, Massachusetts (where Walcott was living and teaching at the time of the poem’s composition), and the character Achille imagines a voyage from Africa onto a slave ship that is headed for the Americas; also, in Book Five of the poem, Walcott narrates some of his travel experiences in a variety of cities around the world, including Lisbon, London, Dublin, Rome, and Toronto.
Composed in a variation on terza rima, the work explores the themes that run throughout Walcott’s oeuvre: the beauty of the islands, the colonial burden, the fragmentation of Caribbean identity, and the role of the poet in a post-colonial world.
Criticism and praise
Walcott’s work has received praise from major poets including Robert Graves, who wrote that Walcott “handles English with a closer understanding of its inner magic than most, if not any, of his contemporaries”, and Joseph Brodsky, who praised Walcott’s work, writing: “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.” Walcott noted that he, Brodsky, and the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who all taught in the United States, were a band of poets “outside the American experience”.
The poetry critic William Logan critiqued Walcott’s work in a New York Times book review of Walcott’s Selected Poems. While he praised Walcott’s writing in Sea Grapes and The Arkansas Testament, he had mostly negative things to say about Walcott’s poetry, calling Omeros “clumsy” and Another Life “pretentious.”. Finally, he concluded with the faint praise that “No living poet has written verse more delicately rendered or distinguished than Walcott, though few individual poems seem destined to be remembered.”
Most reviews of Walcott’s work are more positive. For instance, in The New Yorker review of The Poetry of Derek Walcott, Adam Kirsch had high praise for Walcott’s oeuvre, describing his style in the following manner:
By combining the grammar of vision with the freedom of metaphor, Walcott produces a beautiful style that is also a philosophical style. People perceive the world on dual channels, Walcott’s verse suggests, through the senses and through the mind, and each is constantly seeping into the other. The result is a state of perpetual magical thinking, a kind of Alice in Wonderland world where concepts have bodies and landscapes are always liable to get up and start talking.
He calls Another Life Walcott’s “first major peak” and analyzes the painterly qualities of Walcott’s imagery from his earliest work through to later books like Tiepolo’s Hound. He also explores the post-colonial politics in Walcott’s work, calling him “the postcolonial writer par excellence.” He calls the early poem “A Far Cry from Africa” a turning point in Walcott’s development as a poet. Like Logan, Kirsch is critical of Omeros which he believes Walcott fails to successfully sustain over its entirety. Although Omeros is the volume of Walcott’s that usual receives the most critical praise, Kirsch, instead believes that Midsummer is his best book.
Awards and honours
1969 Cholmondeley Award
1971 Obie Award for Best Foreign Play (for Dream on Monkey Mountain)
1972 Officer of the Order of the British Empire
1981 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship ("genius award")
1988 Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry
1990 Arts Council of Wales International Writers Prize
1990 W. H. Smith Literary Award (for poetry Omeros)
1992 Nobel Prize in Literature
2004 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Lifetime Achievement
2008 Honorary doctorate from the University of Essex
2011 T. S. Eliot Prize (for poetry collection White Egrets)
2011 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature (for White Egrets)
2015 Griffin Trust For Excellence In Poetry Lifetime Recognition Award
2016 Knight Commander of the Order of Saint Lucia
List of works
Works about Derek Walcott in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
Works by Derek Walcott at Open Library
Baer, William, ed. Conversations with Derek Walcott. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996.
Baugh, Edward, Derek Walcott: Memory as Vision: Another Life. London: Longman, 1978.
Baugh, Edward, Derek Walcott. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Breslin, Paul, Nobody’s Nation: Reading Derek Walcott. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. ISBN 0-226-07426-9
Brown, Stewart, ed., The Art of Derek Walcott. Chester Springs, PA.: Dufour, 1991; Bridgend: Seren Books, 1992.
Burnett, Paula, Derek Walcott: Politics and Poetics. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001.
Fumagalli, Maria Cristina, The Flight of the Vernacular: Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott and the Impress of Dante. Amsterdam-New York: Rodopi, 2001.
Fumagalli, Maria Cristina, Agenda 39:1–3 (2002–03), Special Issue on Derek Walcott. Includes Derek Walcott’s Epitaph for the Young (1949) republished here in its entirety.
Fumagalli, Maria Cristina and Patrick, Peter, “Two Healing Narratives: Suffering, Reintegration, and the Struggle of Language”, Small Axe 20 10:2 (2006), pp. 61–79.
Fumagalli, Maria Cristina, “Brushing History Against the Grain: Derek Walcott’s Tiepolo’s Hound”, in Caribbean Perspectives on Modernity: Returning Medusa’s Gaze. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009.
Gazzoni, Andrea, Epica dell’arcipelago. Il racconto della tribù, Derek Walcott, “Omeros”. Firenze: Le Lettere, 2009. ISBN 88-6087-288-X
Hamner, Robert D., ed. Critical Perspectives on Derek Walcott. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents, 1993. ISBN 0-89410-142-0
Hamner, Robert D., Derek Walcott. Updated Edition. Twayne’s World Authors Series. TWAS 600. New York: Twayne, 1993.
Heaney, Seamus, “The Murmur of Malvern”, in The Government of the Tongue: The 1986 T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures and Other Critical Writings. London: Faber and Faber, 1988, pp. 23–29.
King, Bruce, Derek Walcott and West Indian Drama: “Not Only a Playwright But a Company”: The Trinidad Theatre Workshop 1959–1993. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.
King, Bruce, Derek Walcott, A Caribbean Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Lennard, John, “Derek Walcott”, in Jay Parini, ed., World Writers in English. 2 vols, New York & London: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004, II.721–46.
Morris, Mervyn, “Derek Walcott”, in Bruce King, ed., West Indian Literature, Macmillan, 1979, pp. 144–60.
Parker, Michael and Roger Starkey, eds. New Casebooks: Postcolonial Literatures: Achebe, Ngugi, Desai, Walcott. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan, 1995. ISBN 0-333-60801-1
Sinnewe, Dirk, Divided to the Vein? Derek Walcott’s Drama and the Formation of Cultural Identities. Saarbrücken: Königshausen und Neumann, 2001 [Reihe Saarbrücker Beiträge 17]. ISBN 3-8260-2073-1
Terada, Rei, Derek Walcott’s Poetry: American Mimicry. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992.
Thieme, John, Derek Walcott. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1999.
Walcott, Derek, Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays. New York: Farrar, 1970. ISBN 0-374-50860-7