Caribbean ‘A’Lister: Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott

| July 1, 2012

 

Photo Courtesy en.wikipedia.org

Derek Alton Walcott, OBE OCC (born 23 January 1930) is a Saint Lucian poet and playwright. He received the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature. His works include the Homeric epic poem, Omeros (1990). Robert Graves wrote that Walcott “handles English with a closer understanding of its inner magic than most, if not any, of his contemporaries”.   In 2011, Walcott received the T. S. Eliot Prize for his book of poetry, White Egrets.Biography 

Early life

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 family was of mixed race and ethnicity; he had two white grandfathers and two black grandmothers. 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 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. He 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 Barbadian poet Frank Collymore critically supported Walcott’s early work.

Career   With a scholarship, he studied at the University 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 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 book-length work, Omeros (1990), was modelled on the epics of Homer and sang the history of St. Lucia. 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.”

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.

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, its interest was further aroused in the university decisions.   Ruth Padel, also a chief candidate, was elected to the post. Within days, The 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 rumor.

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.

Themes

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 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.”

Photo courtesy theworldonapage.wordpress.com

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 work weaves together a variety of forms, including the folk tale, morality play, allegory, fable and ritual featuring emblematic and mythological characters.

His epic book-length poem Omeros (1990), 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 explores 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 among them.   The poet Joseph Brodsky, a friend of Walcott, 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.”

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.”

Awards and honours  

1969 Cholmondeley Award

1971 Obie Award for Best Foreign Play (for Dream on Monkey Mountain)

1972 OBE  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

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)

List of works

Poetry collections

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, includes Walcott’s watercolors

2004 The Prodigal

2007 Selected Poems (Edited, selected, and with an introduction by Edward Baugh)

2010 White Egrets

Plays

(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  (1966) Malcochon: or, Six in the Rain

(1967) Dream on Monkey Mountain

(1970) In a Fine Castle

(1974) The Joker of Seville

(1974) The Charlatan

(1976) O Babylon!

(1977) Remembrance

(1978) Pantomime (Walcott play)

(1980) The Joker of Seville and O Babylon!: Two Plays

(1982) The Isle Is Full of Noises

(1986) Three Plays The Last Carnival, Beef, No Chicken, and A Branch of the Blue Nile)

(1991) Steel

(1993) Odyssey: A Stage Version

(1997) The Capeman (lyrics, in collaboration with Paul Simon)

(2002) Walker and The Ghost Dance  (2011) Moon-Child  Other books

(1950) Henri Christophe: A Chronicle in Seven Scenes, Barbados Advocate (Barbados)

(1990) The Poet in the Theatre, Poetry Book Society (London)

(1993) The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory Farrar, Straus (New York)

(1996) Conversations with Derek Walcott, University of Mississippi (Jackson, MS)

(1996) (With Joseph Brodsky and Seamus Heaney) Homage to Robert Frost, Farrar, Straus (New York)

(1998) What the Twilight Says (essays), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY)

(2002) Walker and Ghost Dance, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY)

(2004) Another Life: Fully Annotated, Lynne Rienner Publishers (Boulder, CO)

Article courtesy wikipedia.org

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