Poet a voice for Caribbean literature

Derek Walcott.

Fans of Nobel laureate Derek Walcott love the musicality of his verse as well as its profound sense of place

NEW YORK • Derek Walcott, whose intricately metaphorical poetry captured the physical beauty of the Caribbean, the harsh legacy of colonialism and the complexities of living and writing in two cultural worlds, bringing him a Nobel Prize in literature, died last Friday at his home near Gros Islet in St Lucia. He was 87.

His death was confirmed by his publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. No cause was given, but he had been in poor health for some time.

The writer's expansive universe revolved around a tiny sun, the island of St Lucia. Its opulent vegetation, blinding white beaches and tangled multicultural heritage inspired, in its most famous literary son, an ambitious body of work that seemingly embraced every poetic form, from the short lyric to the epic.

With the publication of the collection In A Green Night in 1962, critics and poets - Robert Lowell among them - leapt to recognise a powerful new voice in Caribbean literature and to praise the sheer musicality of Walcott's verse, the immediacy of its visual images, its profound sense of place.

He had first attracted attention on St Lucia with a book of poems that he published himself as a teenager.

The Nobel Prize committee cited Derek Walcott for "a poetic oeuvre of great luminosity, sustained by a historical vision, the outcome of a multicultural commitment".

Early on, he showed a remarkable ear for the music of English - heard in the poets whose work he absorbed in his Anglo-centric education and on the lips of his fellow St Lucians - and a painter's eye for the particulars of the local landscape: its beaches and clouds; its turtles, crabs and tropical fish; the sparkling expanse of the Caribbean.

Walcott's art developed and expanded in works such as The Castaway (1969), The Gulf (1970) and Another Life, a 4,000-line inquiry into his life and surroundings, published in 1973. He quickly won recognition as one of the finest poets writing in English and as an enormously ambitious artist - ambitious for himself, his art and his people.

He had a sense of the Caribbean's grandeur that inspired him to write Omeros, a transposed Homeric epic of more than 300 pages, published in 1990, with humble fishermen and a taxi driver standing in for the heroes of ancient Greece.

Two years later, he was awarded the Nobel Prize. The prize committee cited him for "a poetic oeuvre of great luminosity, sustained by a historical vision, the outcome of a multicultural commitment".

It continued: "In his literary works Walcott has laid a course for his own cultural environment, but through them he speaks to each and every one of us. In him, West Indian culture has found its great poet."

As a poet, Walcott plumbed the paradoxes of identity intrinsic to his situation. He was a mixed-race poet living on a British-ruled island whose people spoke French-based Creole or English.

He published his first poem at 14, in a local newspaper. At the University of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica, where he majored in French, Latin and Spanish, he began writing plays.

After earning his bachelor's degree in 1953, he taught school in St Lucia, Grenada and Jamaica while continuing to write and stage plays. He studied directing with Jose Quintero in New York for a year and, on returning to the West Indies, founded a repertory company, the Little Carib Theatre Workshop, which in the late 1960s became the Trinidad Theatre Workshop.

His best-known play was Dream On Monkey Mountain, which received an off-Broadway production in 1971.

He later wrote the book and collaborated with singer-songwriter Paul Simon on the lyrics for The Capeman, a musical about a Puerto Rican gang member who killed three people in Manhattan in 1959. The show opened at the Marquis Theatre in 1998 and closed after 68 performances, becoming one of the most expensive flops in Broadway history.

With the publication of In A Green Night, he captured the attention of British and American critics. Lowell was enthusiastic and served as a point of entry to the American literary world. With each succeeding collection - including Selected Poems (1964) and Sea Grapes (1976) - he established himself as something more than an interesting local poet.

The wanderings in Omeros were rivalled by Walcott's own zigzag itinerary as a teacher and lecturer at universities around the world.

He taught at Boston University from 1981 until retiring in 2007, dividing his time among Boston, New York and St Lucia, but constantly en route.

In 2009, he was proposed for the honorary post of professor of poetry at Oxford University.

His candidacy was derailed when academics at Oxford received an anonymous package containing photocopied pages of a book describing allegations of sexual harassment brought by a Harvard student decades earlier. Walcott withdrew his name.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 20, 2017, with the headline 'Poet a voice for Caribbean literature'. Print Edition | Subscribe