Derek Walcott Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Derek A. Walcott began writing poetry and poetic drama as a teenager. First on street corners in Castries, then in regional journals, and ultimately through major publishing houses in England and the United States, his poetry gathered a following, eventually earning him international recognition. His early affinity for the Metaphysical poets is abundantly clear in his collection, In a Green Night: Poems, 1948-1960 (1962). Since then, his travels and his interest in a variety of cultures have added considerable variety and depth to successive volumes: The Castaway and Other Poems (1965), The Gulf and Other Poems (1969), the semi-autobiographical Another Life (1973), Sea Grapes (1976), The Star-Apple Kingdom (1979), The Fortunate Traveller (1981), and Midsummer (1984). In addition to his duties as founding director of and chief writer for the Trinidad Theatre Workshop from 1959 to 1977, Walcott contributed steadily as a columnist on the arts to the Trinidad Guardian. Selections of his journalistic prose are collected in his What the Twilight Says: Essays (1998). A recording of Walcott reading selections from his own work may be found on Caedmon’s Derek Wolcott Reads (1994); Semp Studios Ltd. (Port of Spain) has recorded the sound track for Walcott’s play The Joker of Seville (score by Galt MacDermot in 1975). The poetry selected for Collected Poems, 1948-84 (1986) and his verse narrative Omeros (1990), based on canonical Western epics from Homer to James Joyce, were instrumental in his winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992. His narrative poem Tiepolo’s Hound (2000), loosely drawn from the life of Camille Pissarro, is illustrated with twenty-six of Walcott’s own watercolor and oil paintings.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Recognition of Derek Walcott’s promise as a playwright came early, in 1958, when he received a Rockefeller Foundation grant to work with theater in New York. What was to have been an extended period of study was cut short, however, when the scarcity of serious plays with major parts for black actors drove him to return to the West Indies, where he established the Trinidad Theatre Workshop in 1959. In the short time that he had been away, he had been selected to write a play (Drums and Colours) to commemorate the opening of the first Federal Parliament of the West Indies on April 23, 1958. The Negro Ensemble Company performance of his Dream on Monkey Mountain garnered an Obie Award in 1971. The Royal Shakespeare Company commissioned Walcott to write two adaptations: first, of Tirso de Molina’s El burlador de Sevilla (wr. 1625?, pb. 1630; The Trickster of Seville, 1923), which became The Joker of Seville; then of Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614), which became The Odyssey.

Walcott’s poetry has also been well received, winning a number of awards: the Guinness Award for Poetry in 1961, the Royal Society of Literature Award for The Castaway and Other Poems in 1965, the Cholmondeley Award for The Gulf and Other Poems in 1969, the Jock Campbell New Statesman Award for his autobiographical Another Life in 1973, the Welsh Arts Council’s International Writer’s Prize in 1980, and a John D. and Catherine MacArthur Award in 1981. He won the Queen Elizabeth II Gold Medal for Poetry in 1988 and the Nobel Prize in 1992.

Other literary forms

(World Poets and Poetry)

Derek Walcott has written many plays, published in Dream on Monkey Mountain, and Other Plays (1970), The Joker of Seville and O Babylon! Two Plays (1978), Remembrance and Pantomime: Two Plays (1980), and Three Plays (1986), as well as The Odyssey (1993); The Capeman, a musical with music by Paul Simon (1998); and The Haitian Trilogy (2001). His nonfiction includes his Nobel Prize lecture, The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory (1993); a collaboration with Joseph Brodsky and Seamus Heaney, Homage to Robert Frost (1996); and a collection of essays, What the Twilight Says (1998).


(World Poets and Poetry)

Derek Walcott’s work is infused with both a sacred sense of the writer’s vocation and a passionate devotion to his island of birth, St. Lucia, and the entire Caribbean archipelago. A cultural dichotomy supplies the major tensions in his writing: He combines native French Creole and West Indian dialects with the formal, high structures of English poetry. His mystic sense of place and eruptive imagination are poised against a highly controlled metrical form. As a lyrical and epic poet he has managed to encompass history, culture, and autobiography with an intensely aesthetic and steadily ironic vision. Walcott is arguably a major poet in his ability to dramatize the myths of his social and personal life, to balance his urgent moral concerns with the ideal of a highly polished, powerfully dense art, and to cope with the cultural isolation to which his mixed race sadly condemns him.

The Dream of Monkey Mountain, Walcott’s most highly lauded play, won the 1971 Obie Award. His book Another Life received the Jock Campbell/New Statesman Prize in 1974. He received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for poetry in 1986 for Collected Poems. In 1972, he received not only an honorary doctorate of letters from the University of the West Indies but also an O.B.E. (Officer, Order of British Empire), and he was named an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1979. Other awards and fellowships include a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1977, the American Poetry Review Award in 1979, the International Writer’s Prize of the Welsh Arts Council in 1980, a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 1981, the Queen Elizabeth II Gold Medal for Poetry in 1988, and the St. Lucia Cross in 1993. Walcott received the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature. In 2010, he became Professor of Poetry at the University of Essex, where he was awarded an honorary degree in 2008.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Derek Walcott often uses the image of a fruit, cut in half, and seamed by its own juices to describe the experience of identity undergone by a Caribbean islander. What elements of this metaphor are so fitting to Caribbean identity? What other metaphors does he employ to a similar effect?

In what ways does Walcott’s poetry seem to be a kind of prayer, as he himself described it?

What specific images employed by Walcott seem to you to be influenced by his talent as a painter? Which ones seem affected by his playwriting?

Although Walcott has traveled extensively and lived for long periods of time outside of the Caribbean, he still considers himself a Caribbean poet capable of commenting on the plight of poor Caribbean islanders. Using evidence from his own poetry, decide whether you agree with or oppose his position.

In what ways do place and identity overlap for specific characters in Omeros? In what ways does identity transcend place?

The fisherman is a common character in Walcott’s verse. In what ways is the writing of poetry like the act of fishing? How are they different?


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Baer, William. Conversations with Derek Walcott. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996. Collection of previously published interviews, spanning 1966-1993.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Derek Walcott. New York: Chelsea House, 2003. A collection of essays intended to provide an overview of the critical reception of Walcott’s work.

Bobb, June D. Beating a Restless Drum: The Poetics of Kamau Brathwaite and Derek Walcott. Trenton, N.J.: African World Press, 1998. Examines the influence of colonization and slavery on the Caribbean’s most important anglophone poets, linking them to a specifically Caribbean tradition rooted in African mythologies and other influences. Bibliography, index.

Brown, Stewart, ed. The Art of Derek Walcott. Mid-Glamorgan: Wales: Dufour, 1991.

Burnett, Paula. Derek Walcott: Politics and Poetics. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001. Sees the drama and poetry together designed to create a legacy for modern Caribbean society, incorporating myth, identity, and aesthetics. Notes, bibliography, index.

Davis, Gregson, ed. The Poetics of Derek Walcott. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997. A collection of critical essays on the poetry. The cornerstone essay is one in which Walcott reflects on poetics,...

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