Obituary: Derek Walcott

Nobel Prize-winning St Lucia poet whose work captured beauty of Caribbean and harsh legacy of colonialism

Writer Derek Walcott: January 23rd, 1930-March 17th,  2017. Photograph:  Berenice Bautista/AP

Writer Derek Walcott: January 23rd, 1930-March 17th, 2017. Photograph: Berenice Bautista/AP

 

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, has died at his home near Gros Islet in St Lucia. He was 87.

Walcott’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 as a teenager. Early on, he showed a remarkable ear for the music of English – heard in the poets whose work he absorbed in his Anglocentric 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.

Grandeur

The CastawayThe GulfAnother Life

Walcott 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, 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.”

Identity

At the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, where he majored in French, Latin and Spanish, he began writing plays, entering into a lifelong but rocky love affair with the theatre. His first play was produced in St Lucia in 1950.

After earning his bachelor’s degree in 1953, Walcott taught in schools in St Lucia, Grenada and Jamaica while continuing to write and stage plays. His verse dramas Ione and Sea at Dauphin were produced in Trinidad in 1954. Ti-Jean and His Brothers, a retelling of a Trinidadian folk tale in which Lucifer tries to steal the souls of three brothers, was produced in Trinidad in 1958.

Walcott studied directing with José Quintero in New York for a year and, on returning to the West Indies, founded a repertory company, the Little Carib Theater Workshop, which in the late 1960s became the Trinidad Theater 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 Theater 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 in 1962, Walcott captured the attention of British and American critics. Robert Lowell in particular was enthusiastic, and served as a point of entry to the American literary world. With each succeeding collection – Selected Poems (1964), The Castaway (1969), The Gulf (1970) and Sea Grapes (1976) – Walcott 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.

Walcott’s three marriages ended in divorce. His survivors include his longtime companion, Sigrid Nama; a son, Peter; two daughters, Anna Walcott-Hardy and Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw; and several grandchildren. His twin brother, Roderick, died in 2000.