Derek Walcott Biography

Derek Walcott gave the West Indies a voice. In his plays, poetry, and critical essays, Walcott has long sought to unearth independent identities for the people of the West Indies and to explore the aftereffects of colonization. To do so, Walcott employs a rich mixture of images and language, particularly in his most famous play, Dream on Monkey Mountain. As both poet and dramatist, his writing is a mélange—an appropriate approach given the mixture of cultures in the West Indies. He also uses language to explore his postcolonial concerns by mixing local tongues with English, highlighting the unique identities of West Indian people. In doing so, Walcott’s writing underscores the rich, unique, and complicated culture of the Caribbean.

Facts and Trivia

  • In 1959, Walcott founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, which seeks to promote works of West Indian theater.
  • Though his writing style developed apart from Latin American literature, Walcott’s work draws many parallels to the magical realism movement.
  • Walcott’s epic poem Omeros, a reimagining of the Odyssey, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992.
  • Walcott teaches at Boston University and cofounded in 1981 the Boston Playwright’s Theatre, which specializes in performing new plays.
  • One of Walcott’s less successful ventures was cowriting the Broadway musical The Capeman with musician Paul Simon. The costly production was plagued by troubles and poor reviews, closing quickly after its premiere.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 830

Derek Alton Walcott was born in Castries, the capital of St. Lucia, to a civil servant, Warwick, and to Alix, the head of a Methodist grammar school. St. Lucia is a volcanic island of 238 square miles in the Lesser Antilles, halfway between French Martinique to the north and English St. Vincent to the southeast. It was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1502, then contested for generations by the French and British, until the latter gained legal control in 1803, to yield their colonial hold only in 1959. Still, the Gallic influence remains, insofar as the population of about 100,000, largely of black African descent, speaks a Creole patois.

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Because Walcott is descended from a white grandfather and black grandmother on both sides of his family, he has found himself ineluctably suspended between loyalties, resentments, fears, and fantasies. He has referred in essays to a schizophrenic boyhood, split between two lives: the interior pull toward poetry and the exterior push toward the world of action, as well as the raw spontaneity of his native argot opposed to the syntactical sinews of formal English. Inescapably, he has been both victim and victor of his divided culture, a kind of Caribbean Orestes who shuttles between the legends and folklore of his upbringing and the formal traditions of the cosmopolitan West. In his work Walcott has made much of the bridging geography of the West Indies, since they link Columbus and Robinson Crusoe, Africa and America, slavery and colonialism, exploitation and emancipation. Curiously, he even compartmentalizes his writing, stressing oral tales and folk language in his plays while suffusing most of his poems with an Elizabethan richness and Miltonic dignity of diction.

In Another Life Walcott has rendered an autobiographical narrative of his childhood and early career. This long narrative poem unfolds the evolution of a poet who will always consider himself “the divided child.” At school he was taught European art, history, and literature, but his mother insisted on connecting him to the Africa-based culture of the black St. Lucian majority. A landscape painter and teacher, Harry Simmons, and a drawing and drinking friend, Dunstan St. Omer, sought to fashion him in their images. Walcott discovered, however, that “I lived in a different gift,/ its element metaphor” and abandoned the canvas for the printed page.

In part 3, “A Simple Flame,” he falls in love with Anna, but her golden body cannot long compete with his passion for poetry,

which hoped that their two bodies could be madeone body of immortal metaphor.The hand she held already had betrayedthem by its longing for describing her.

He mythicizes his Anna, dissolving her into all the literary Annas he has adored: Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and the great modern Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. He leaves for study abroad.

In part 4, “The Estranging Sea,” he returns home, “one life, one marriage later” (to Fay Moston, from 1954 to 1959). He encounters Dunstan, called “Gregorias,” and finds him alcoholic, unable to hold a job, painting poorly, failing even at suicide. He learns that Simmons has killed himself, with his body lying undiscovered for two days. Walcott then scathingly denounces ill-wishers who condemn their promising artists to an early grave. He finds comfort and hope in the sea, wishes a peaceful rest to his friends and loves, and dedicates himself to literature, his fury spent:

for what else is therebut books, books and the sea,verandahs and the pages of the sea,to write of the wind and the memory of wind-whipped hairin the sun, the colour of fire?

Walcott made his debut as a writer in 1948, with Twenty-Five Poems, privately printed in Barbados with a two-hundred-dollar loan from his mother and hawked by the author through the streets of Castries. In 1951, he published his second collection, Poems, while studying at the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies. During the 1950’s he taught at secondary schools and colleges in St. Lucia, Grenada, and Jamaica. In 1958, he moved to Trinidad and there founded, in 1959, the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, with which he remained associated as both playwright and director until 1976, seeking to blend Shakespearean drama and calypso music, Bertolt Brecht’s stage craft with West Indian folk legends. Crucial in his development as a dramatist were several months he spent in New York City in 1958, studying under José Quintero on a Rockefeller grant, learning how to incorporate songs and dances into a dramatic text.

For many years Walcott has divided his time between a home in Trinidad and teaching positions in the United States, including visiting professorships at Columbia and Harvard universities and lectureships at Yale and Rutgers. In 1985, he became a visiting professor at Boston University. His career has been both prolific and versatile, not only as poet and playwright but also as producer, set designer, painter, critic, and cultural commentator. He has been married three times, each marriage ending in divorce, and has one son from his first marriage and two daughters from his second.

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Critical Essays