World Literature

Derek Walcott

 

BORN: 1930, Castries, Saint Lucia

NATIONALITY: West Indian

GENRE: Poems, plays

MAJOR WORKS:

Drums and Colours (1958)

In a Green Night (1962)

Another Life (1973)

The Star-Apple Kingdom (1979)

Omeros (1989)

 

 

Derek Walcott. Walcott, Derek, photograph. © Jerry Bauer. Reproduced by permission.

 

Overview

For some forty years, Derek Walcott has been the leading poet and playwright of the West Indies. Winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature, Walcott is highly regarded for poetry and plays that focus on the mixed African and European influences of his Caribbean heritage. His poetic language reflects this cultural division, employing both the formal, structured language of Elizabethan verse and the colorful dialect of his native island, St. Lucia. His plays have ranged in subject matter from adaptations of classical Greek drama to topical explorations of everyday problems. While embracing the literary tradition of England, Walcott has frequently denounced the exploitation and suppression of Caribbean culture that resulted from British colonial rule.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Divided Loyalties. Derek Alton Walcott was born on January 23, 1930, on St. Lucia, a small island in the West indies. His mother was a schoolteacher who encouraged his early education and love for reading. She was also involved in a community cultural group and got her son involved in local theater. His father, a civil servant, poet, and visual artist, died when Derek and his twin brother, Roderick, were only one year old. Walcott drew inspiration from the poems and watercolor paintings his father left behind and soon came to regard his own single-minded commitment to the artistic life as being a matter of completing what his father had begun.

Walcott has characterized his childhood as ‘‘schizophrenic,’’ referring to the divided loyalties associated with his African and English ancestry as well as the fact that he grew up in a middle-class Methodist family in a society that was predominantly Roman Catholic and poor. This sense of divided identity would become one of the main themes of Walcott’s writing.

The colonial education Walcott received exposed him to the heritage of English literature, for which he displayed an affinity. He began writing poetry at an early age, often imitating such writers as W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Dylan Thomas. When he was eighteen, he financed the publication of Twenty-Five Poems (1948), his first poetry collection. While studying literature at St. Mary’s College in St. Lucia and at the University of West Indies in Jamaica, he completed two more volumes of poetry and wrote Henri Christophe, a historical play written in verse. The play was staged in 1950 by the St. Lucia Arts Guild, which he had helped to found earlier in the same year. He earned his bachelor of arts degree in 1953 in English, French, and Latin.

Creating a West Indian Theater. During his years in Jamaica in the 1950s, he became more locally popular, especially through the many productions of his plays, most of which he directed himself. In 1958, Walcott was commissioned to write a play for the opening of the first Federal Parliament of the West Indies. The result was Drums and Colours, a pageant that chronicles the history of the Caribbean in four episodes. Each episode centers on the story of a great historical figure: Christopher Columbus, Sir Walter Raleigh, Toussaint L’Overture, and the Jamaican nationalist George William Gordon, in chronological order.

Drums and Colors brought Walcott both critical recognition and a Rockefeller Fellowship to study theater in the United States. He stayed less than a year, and upon his return to the Caribbean, became intensely involved in Trinidad’s artistic community, writing reviews and organizing the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, where several of his plays were produced during the 1950s and 1960s.

Career Reaches New Heights. Dream on Monkey Mountain (1967) is often considered Walcott’s most successful play. The 1960s and the 1970s were also the period when Walcott gained international stature as a poet. In a Green Night (1962) included such soon-to-be-famous pieces as ‘‘A Sea Chantey,’’ a litany of his love for the islands; ‘‘A City’s Death by Fire’’; ‘‘Ruins of a Great House,’’ which wrestled with the understandable Caribbean rage at a history centered on slavery; and ‘‘A Far Cry from Africa,’’ in which the poet captured the West Indian’s dilemma with the lines, ‘‘The gorilla wrestles with the superman. / I who am poisoned with the blood of both, / Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?’’ The scope of Walcott’s visibility widened when the New York publisher Farrar, Straus published his Selected Poems in 1964.

Revolution and Politics. In The Castaway, and Other Poems (1965), Walcott used the iconic figure of Robinson Crusoe to explore themes of alienation and isolation. The early 1970s were a time of political turmoil in the West Indies, as the socialist and ‘‘Black Power’’ movements confronted established governments. Walcott rejected radical platforms for social revolution, but was outspoken in his concern for the poor and his insights into the lasting legacies of colonial rule. From this period on, Walcott’s political commitments became increasingly visible in his writing. He maintained a high literary output. Among his works of the 1970s are his autobiography in verse, Another Life (1973), two further volumes of poetry, Sea Grapes (1976) and The Star-Apple Kingdom (1979), and the musical play O Babylon! (1976), which concerns the Rastafarians of Jamaica. Rastafarianism is a fairly new religion that emerged in Jamaica in the 1930s; its combines Biblical teachings with the belief that Haile Selassie, the former emperor of Ethiopia, was God incarnate.

The Fortunate Traveler in the United States. Derek Walcott received the lucrative and prestigious John D. and Catherine MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1981. Early in 1982, he accepted a position as visiting professor of English at Boston University. He has been teaching in American universities ever since. Although he relocated to the United States, he has continued to return to the Caribbean frequently to have plays produced there.

In the deepest sense, Walcott never left the Caribbean, even though he agonized about having left it, for his concerns remained exclusively with the legacy of Caribbean history. His poetry continues to delve into themes of division, whether in the form of inequality between rich and poor, as in ‘‘North and South’’ from The Fortunate Traveller (1981), or his own situation as a displaced exile, as in ‘‘Here’’ and ‘‘Elsewhere’’ from The Arkansas Testament (1987). His representation of the North, whether Europe or the United States, is always from the point of view of the Caribbean person.

Homeric Echoes. Two highlights of Walcott’s later career brought to a culmination his imaginative use of the classics, and more particularly, of Homer. In 1990, Walcott published his monumental Omeros. Omeros imagines West Indian fishermen, prostitutes, and landlords in such classical roles as Achilles, Helen, and Hector. It interweaves their story with its echoes of Homer, with the story of a retired British officer living in his adopted colonial home. The poet and narrator each appears as a character in his own fiction.

This achievement in poetry was doubled in the area of drama by Walcott’s The Odyssey, which premiered in 1992. His epic, commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, represented a fulfillment of Walcott’s career. Like Odysseus himself, determined to return to his home of Ithaca and be reunited with his wife, Penelope, the playwright has consistently written of the wanderer, driven by the desire for home. He returned to the theme once again with The Prodigal (2004), a book-length poem that celebrates the happiness of homecoming and healing of the guilt of wandering. Walcott has said this will be his final book.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Walcott's famous contemporaries include:

Chinua Achebe (1930-): Nigerian author and poet famous for his novel Things Fall Apart (1958), which is seen as the archetypal modern African novel in English.

George Lamming (1927-): Novelist and essayist born in Barbados, who led a Caribbean renaissance in England.

Seamus Heaney (1939-): Irish poet and Nobel laureate.

Athol Fugard (1932-): South African playwright.

Michael Manley (1924-1997): Served eleven years as prime minister of Jamaica.

 

Works in Literary Context

Walcott was strongly influenced by his education within the British colonial system, which immersed him in classical and English literature. Some of his earliest works represent little more than imitations of modern poets such as Joyce and Eliot. He consciously absorbed and attempted to assimilate what he once referred to in the introduction to Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays (1970) as ‘‘The literature of Empires, Greek, Roman, British.’’ At the same time, staying true to his Caribbean roots and finding innovative ways to use language as a bridge between Afro-Caribbean and Western cultures have been the primary projects of his career.

Influence of Brecht. Walcott’s career in the theater illustrates this effort most vividly. His early efforts to forge a new type of West Indian theater led him to adapt traditional folk tales and incorporate such folklore elements as calypso music, carnival masks, and mime. In bringing these elements under artistic control, Walcott was aided by the influence of Bertolt Brecht, the German playwright and stage director. Brecht’s theory of the ‘‘epic theater’’ provided the foundation for Walcott’s assimilated techniques. Through Brecht, Walcott also discovered classic Asian theater and film. Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon (1950), with its shifting perspectives on the reality of one event, is clearly a basis for Walcott’s 1959 play Malcauchon.

Friends and Collaborators. Walcott met and befriended the American poet Robert Lowell in Trinidad in 1962, not long after the publication of In a Green Night. Lowell enthusiastically praised Walcott’s work, and Walcott has acknowledged Lowell’s influence on his poetry. Walcott’s commitment to the discipline of verse found encouragement in two literary friendships he developed on relocating to the United States: with Joseph Brodsky and Seamus Heaney, two of the most considerable poets of his time. All three were to become Nobel laureates (Brodsky in 1987, Heaney in 1995), and all three were published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Additionally, the three men were all outsiders in the United States: Brodsky was an exiled Russian, and Heaney an Irish expatriate. The three poets collaborated on a book, published in 1996, celebrating the work of American poet Robert Frost.

Regional and Worldwide Influence. Derek Walcott’s artistic influence in the Caribbean is towering. He is a revered figure on his native islands. No writer has done more to fuse the Caribbean and European cultural traditions, while exploring the many tensions between them. His literary success has encouraged many younger Caribbean artists, many of whom have also spent time in the United States or the United Kingdom. The success of his Trinidad Theatre Workshop has inspired new companies throughout the West Indies.

More broadly, Walcott has become a prominent voice in what has come to be called postcolonial literature, linking his work thematically with that of African and Asian authors. His international acclaim affirms the importance of small places, showing that writers from the outposts of world power who focus on the concerns of their place and people need not be dismissed as too regional or parochial.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Derek Walcott's poetry and plays are often categorized as postcolonial in their focus on the legacies of slavery and imperialism and the complications of clashing cultural inheritance. Here are some other important works in the postcolonial genre:

Midnight's Children (1980), a novel by Salman Rushdie. At the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, as India becomes an independent nation, two newborn infants—one from a wealthy Muslim family, one from a poor Hindu family—are switched.

In a Free State (1971), a novel by V. S. Naipaul. In these stories set in sub-Saharan Africa, the third world is a ''free state'' in which the characters can find nothing to belong to.

In the Skin of a Lion (1987), a novel by Michael Ondaatje. A fictional account of immigrants whose labor helped build the city of Toronto, several characters from this novel continue in the author's more widely known novel The English Patient.

Orientalism (1978), a nonfiction work by Edward Said. In this founding text of postcolonial studies, the author reveals the subtly demeaning codes Westerners use to discuss Arabs, Islam, and the Middle East.

The Shock of Arrival: Reflections on Postcolonial Experience (1996), a collection by Meena Alexander. This collection of poems and essays follows the author from her childhood in India and the Sudan to her present home in New York City.

 

Works in Critical Context

Even before receiving the Nobel Prize, Walcott enjoyed an international reputation placing him among the greatest of contemporary English writers. Although many of his plays are highly regarded, the strength of his reputation rests primarily on his lyric poetry. Throughout his career, though, he has had to contend with the charge that he is so deeply influenced by Western tradition that he has yet to achieve his own voice. Beginning in the 1960s with Walcott’s first books, there were reservations about the artificiality of a West Indian using such ‘‘eloquent English.’’ Some critics have charged that Walcott’s written expression is so refined and technically intricate that it can obscure or overshadow his meaning. Such criticism arises in part from his efforts, some more successful than others, to blend Afro-Caribbean folk styles and classical European poetics. Over time, these critical voices have diminished somewhat, as his accomplishments are more widely recognized. Walcott offered a unique voice reflecting the cultural matrix of the New World.

Dream on Monkey Mountain (1967). The play Dream on Monkey Mountain was one of Walcott’s first to receive international recognition from established critics. W. I. Scobie, writing for the National Review, called it ‘‘a superb play,’’ as well as ‘‘a work of intense verbal and visual beauty, and visionary insight.’’ Edith Oliver, reviewing the play for The New Yorker, states, ‘‘Every line of it plays; there are no verbal decorations.’’

Another Life (1973). Walcott’s long autobiographical poem Another Life divided many critics. ‘‘Another Life should make it clear,’’ according to Roger Garfitt of London Magazine, ‘‘if it was ever in doubt, that Derek Walcott’s superlative descriptions are far more than description, that they are the only feasible expression of his situation.’’ Paul Smyth, in a review for Poetry, states, ‘‘It is a restless mixture of lyric and narrative, of the local and the European, of the evocative and the didactic; ultimately, its elements don’t cohere or reconcile...’’ However, Smyth does recommend the book: ‘‘I urge everyone who cares for the wonders of fresh metaphor in the service of deep thought and feeling to sift Another Life for its triumphs.’’ T. O’Hara offers a different opinion in Best Sellers, arguing that the poetry is too showy: ‘‘I was fascinated by his ingenuity but somewhat put off by the dazzling images and diction. The attention is violated in poetry like this rather than held as it should be.’’ O’Hara asserts that the book ‘‘suffers from a metaphor glut,’’ and though the critic ‘‘[does not] doubt for a moment Mr. Walcott’s abilities,’’ his conclusion is that the book ‘‘doesn’t work as a long poem.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Consider the use Walcott makes of classical references in Omeros. How is he asserting a connection between the heritage of ancient Greece and the present-day culture of the West Indies? Can you provide some specific examples from the text itself?

2. Do some research on the history of St. Lucia, the island nation where Derek Walcott was born. What light does this history shed on the multiple cultural traditions informing Walcott’s literature?

3. Familiarize yourself with Bertolt Brecht’s theory of dramaturgy, or stage direction. Which of his ideas do you think helped Derek Walcott integrate West Indian folklore with European traditions in the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, how were they used by Walcott and why were they successful?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Bloom, Harold, ed. Derek Walcott. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003.

Breslin, Paul. Nobody’s Nation: Reading Derek Walcott. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

‘‘Derek Walcott (1930-).’’ Contemporary Literary Criticism. Edited by Carolyn Riley. Vol. 4. Detroit: Gale Research, 1975, pp. 574-576.

‘‘Derek Walcott (1930-).’’ Contemporary Literary Criticism. Edited by Carolyn Riley and Barbara Harte. Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale Research, 1974, pp. 459-460.

Hamner, Robert D. Derek Walcott. Boston: Twayne, 1981.

________. Epic of the Dispossessed: Derek Walcott’s Omeros. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997.

King, Bruce. Derek Walcott and West Indian Drama. Oxford: Oxford University, 1995.

________. Derek Walcott: A Caribbean Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Olaniyan, Tejumola. Scars of Conquest/Masks of Resistance: The Invention of Cultural Identities in African, African-American, and Caribbean Drama. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Parker, Michael, and Roger Starkey. Postcolonial Literatures: Achebe, Ngugi, Desai, Walcott. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

Terada, Rei. Derek Walcott’s Poetry: American Mimicry. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992.

Thomas, Ned. Poet of the Islands. Cardiff, Wales: Welsh Arts Council, 1980.

Periodicals

Agenda (Winter 2002-2003): 39.

Callaloo 28 (Winter 2005).

Verse 11 (Summer 1994): 93-170.