With the death of St. Lucian poet and playwright, Prof. Derek Alton Walcott, on March 17, the literary world lost one of the most gifted poets and dramatists of this century. The passage of the iconic bard and winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature is eliciting eulogies of his artistic and literary achievements from all over the world.
Born January 23, 1930, in Saint Lucia, West Indies, Walcott was initially trained as a painter but later turned to writing. He published his first poem, a Miltonic, religious poem, in the local newspaper, The Voice of Saint Lucia, at the age of 14 and later borrowed $200 to publish and distribute on street corners his first collection, 25 Poems (1948).
Walcott studied at the University College of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica. After graduation, he moved to Trinidad in 1953 and became a critic, teacher and journalist. He founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop in 1959. Later, he moved to Boston University in the United States and founded the Boston Playwrights Theatre in 1981. He also taught literature and writing in Boston University for over two decades. While in Boston, he published books of poetry and plays on a regular basis before he retired in 2007. He also was a Professor of Poetry at the University of Essex from 2010 to 2013. His works include the Homeric epic poem, Omeros (1990), which many critics regard as his major literary achievement. Omeros is Walcott’s reimagination of the Trojan War as fishermen’s fight.
But his major breakthrough came with the publication of the collection, In a Green Night: Poems 1948-1960 (1962), which celebrates the Caribbean and its history, and investigates the scars of colonialism and post-colonialism. His other collections include Tiepolo’s Hound (2000), The Prodigal (2004), Selected Poems (2007), White Egrets (2010), and Morning, Paramin (2016).
His plays include Cry for a Leader (1950), Robin and Andrea (1950), Three Assassins (1951), The Price of Mercy (1951) and Dream on Monkey Mountain (1970). His major literary influences were modernist poets such as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Literary critics attest that his work resonates with Western canon and Island influences, sometimes even shifting between Caribbean patois and English, and often addressing his English and Western Indian ancestry.
Walcott won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992. 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 other honours included a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award, a Royal Society of Literature Award, and, in 1988, the Queen’s Medal for Poetry, and T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry in 2011. He was an honorary member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
No doubt, Walcott deployed the art of poetry to achieve his artistic vision and fame. He also devoted much energy to his drama. In both genres, he attained great literary heights. His work was both local and universal at the same time. Throughout his life, he remained a committed poet and mentored many budding writers across the world. His visit to Nigeria in 2008 for a business event, which later turned into a literary one, was one of such instances. He was a good ambassador of St. Lucia and the West Indies.
We urge our upcoming poets to emulate the shining example of Derek Walcott. They should take time to nurture their artistic talents and strive to achieve more on the global scene. We commiserate with his family, his country and the global literary community on his passage.