Walcott: Caribbean literary colossus
His work is to be found across the globe. He has used words to paint pictures of Caribbean people and their way of life that have left indelible impressions on millions of readers.
His name resonates with lovers of literature, and his accomplishments have filled people of these islands with immense pride. His success has inspired others as to the possibilities of their own achievements.
Derek Walcott is a literary colossus.
Walcott was born in 1930 and raised in Castries, St Lucia, with a twin brother, the future playwright Roderick Walcott, and a sister. His mother, a teacher, had a love for the arts and would often recite poetry. His father, who painted and wrote poetry, died at age 31.
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. 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 honour. 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-publicized 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 did not require student contact.
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 described 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 noted 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 20 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 post-colonial 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 colonizer, and as such is unable to be synthesized and thus is inapplicable to his existence as colonized 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 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 works with the metaphors of shipwreck and Crusoe to describe the position of rebuilding after colonialism and slavery: the freedom to rebegin 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 echoes 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 40 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.”