About Dereck Alton Walcott, Nobel Prize for Literature 1992
Derek Alton Walcott, OBE OCC (born 23 January 1930) 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.
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 became a leading candidate for the position of Oxford Professor of Poetry but withdrew his candidacy after a whispering campaign raised the profile of earlier sexual harassment allegations. No new information about the well-publicised 1996 case came to light at this time. The position was awarded to Ruth Padel, but she resigned after only nine days when her involvement in the smear campaign against Walcott was revealed. Padel's comportment in the affair was roundly criticized by a number of respected poets in a letter of support addressed to Walcott and published in the Times Literary Supplement.
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 * 1972 OBE * 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
* 1948 25 Poems * 1949 Epitaph for the Young: Xll Cantos * 1951 Poems * 1962 In a Green Night: Poems 1948—60 * 1964 Selected Poems * 1965 The Castaway and Other Poems * 1969 The Gulf and Other Poems * 1973 Another Life * 1976 Sea Grapes * 1979 The Star-Apple Kingdom * 1981 Selected Poetry * 1981 The Fortunate Traveller * 1983 The Caribbean Poetry of Derek Walcott and the Art of Romare Bearden * 1984 Midsummer * 1986 Collected Poems, 1948-1984 * 1987 The Arkansas Testament * 1990 Omeros * 1997 The Bounty * 2000 Tiepolo's Hound * 2004 The Prodigal * 2007 Selected Poems (Edited, selected, and with an introduction by Edward Baugh) * 2010 White Egrets
* (1950) Henri Christophe: A Chronicle in Seven Scenes * (1951) Harry Dernier: A Play for Radio Production * (1953) Wine of the Country * (1954) The Sea at Dauphin: A Play in One Act * (1957) Ione * (1958) Drums and Colours: An Epic Drama * (1958) Ti-Jean and His Brothers
Dereck Walcott, Nobel Prize for Literature 1992's Timeline
January 23, 1930
Castries, St Lucia