Derek Walcott 1930-
(Full name Derek Alton Walcott) West Indian poet and playwright.
A Nobel laureate and prominent West Indian literary figure, Walcott is known for writing poetry and drama that transcends traditional boundaries of race, geography, and language while exploring themes of cross-cultural ethnicity, political chauvinism, and postcolonial Caribbean history.
Walcott was born on January 2, 1930, in Castries—the capital city of Saint Lucia, a small Caribbean island that was once a British colony in the Lesser Antilles. His father, who died during Walcott's early life, was British; his mother was West Indian. Both were teachers who valued education, cultural enrichment, and creative expression. Encouraged by their mother, Walcott and his twin brother Roderick were active with a local theater group as children and young adults. Walcott displayed an early talent for poetry, publishing his first work at fourteen and his first book, 25 Poems (1948), at eighteen. At twenty he wrote and staged Henri Christophe (1950) and cofounded the Santa Lucia Arts Guild with his brother, who also became a playwright.
In 1953 Walcott received a bachelor's degree in English, French, and Latin at the University College of the West Indies in Jamaica. Soon thereafter, he began to teach in West Indian schools, while continuing to write and produce plays. In 1958 he accepted a Rockefeller fellowship to study drama in New York City. The next year, he moved to Trinidad, where he established the Little Carib Theatre Workshop, which would later become the Trinidad Theatre Workshop.
Although he also continued to create and produce plays, during the next decade Walcott turned his attention once again to poetry. His 1962 volume, In a Green Night, garnered positive reviews in the English-speaking world and brought his name to the forefront of emerging nontraditional poets. In 1971 Walcott's play Dream on Monkey Mountain (1967) received an Obie award. This marked Walcott's first major notice as an internationally recognized playwright.
Walcott received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1977; in 1979 he was named an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. During the early 1980s, Walcott began teaching at several universities in the United States, including Columbia, Howard, and Boston University. He divided his time between residences in the Caribbean and in the United States. In 1992 Walcott became the first native Caribbean to receive the Nobel prize for literature.
The central theme of Walcott's poetry focuses on dichotomy of Caribbean and Western civilization as seen through the prisms of postcolonical race relations and cross-cultural identity issues. His first significant collection, In a Green Night (1962), established several of the themes that would appear in subsequent verse. His 1969 volume, The Gulf and Other Poems, is notable for stylistically diverse poems that are unified through a repeated thematic examination of separation and loss. Also among his early volumes of poetry is Another Life (1973), an autobiographical book-length work.
Walcott's primary poetic output is considered by some observers to be that which was published between 1976 and 1987, including Sea Grapes (1976), The Star-Apple Kingdom (1979), The Fortunate Traveller (1981), Midsummer (1984), and The Arkansas Testament (1987). In 1989, Walcott published his epic poem Omeros, which was based on the themes and portrayals of odyssey and identity found in Homer's classic The Iliad.
Later works of poetry include The Bounty, which was published in 1997, and Tiepolo's Hound (2000), a book-length poem illustrated with the author's own paintings.
Although his dramatic works are also highly regarded, Walcott's literary reputation is based most securely on his poetry. He has been widely lauded as an accomplished poet known for masterful explorations of racial, cultural, and historical consciousness that incorporate both classical and Afro-Caribbean themes and experience. Among Walcott's poetry, In a Green Night, Another Life, and Omeros have been particularly well-received by literary critics.
Despite—or perhaps because of—his prominence as an accomplished English language wordsmith, some critics have charged that Walcott's written expression is so refined and technically intricate that it can obscure or overshadow his meaning. Walcott's self-defined position as a cross-cultural artist and commentator has also invited criticism from both sides of an often contentious cultural divide: he has been called too Western by some Afrocentric critics and too Afro-Caribbean by some Eurocentric critics. This type of criticism has softened somewhat as his international literary status has grown. Walcott has earned a literary reputation that, by many accounts, places him among some of the greatest contemporary writers.