Born: January 23 1930;
Died: March 17 2017
SIR Derek Walcott, who has died aged 87, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992 for, in the words of the Swedish Academy’s citation, “a poetic oeuvre of great luminosity, sustained by a historical vision, the outcome of a multicultural commitment”.
In North and South, Walcott wrote that “I accept my function / as a colonial upstart at the end of an empire / a single, circling, homeless satellite” and all his poetry was suffused with a strong sense of place. But he used the particulars of his experience as a Caribbean writer to tackle universal themes; in his role as a playwright and director of a theatre company he once stated that he wanted to create a forum where someone could produce Shakespeare and sing calypso with equal conviction.
In his best-known poem, Omeros (1990), Walcott fused themes, and names, from The Iliad and The Odyssey with West Indian life; the fisherman Achille and Hector, a taxi driver, vie for the attentions of the housemaid Helen in loose terza rima. The role of Helen, however, is also symbolically taken by Walcott’s home island of St Lucia (which had changed hands between French and British rule several times).
Almost all of Walcott’s work played with the pull between the formal, classical and European, and the landscapes, languages and colonial experience of the New World. The opening of his long autobiographical poem Another Life (1973) brought together three of his most frequent images: “Verandahs, where the pages of the sea / are a book left open by an absent master / in the middle of another life”.
He also likened the Caribbean writer’s position to that of a castaway, frequently alluding to Crusoe. “In a sense every race that has come to the Caribbean has been brought here under conditions of servitude or rejection, and that is the metaphor of the shipwreck, I think,” he told The Paris Review. “Then you look around you and you have to make your own tools… you are building in a situation that’s Adamic.” The legacy of slavery, he believed, was like a wound which had to be accepted and acknowledged – “but this doesn’t mean that you nurse it all your life”.
Derek Alton Walcott was born on January 23 1930 at Castries on St Lucia, the elder of twin brothers; he had an older sister, but his father Warwick, a civil servant and a keen painter and writer, had died before his birth. Pamela, Derek and Roderick were brought up by their mother Alix, a schoolmistress who also loved poetry, and often sang hymns around the house.
He received a traditional British-style education at St Mary’s College in Castries, but alongside classics and novelists like Walter Scott, Charles Dickens and Rudyard Kipling, he was conscious of a sense of difference, both because his classmates spoke French Creole in the playground and because his family were Methodists (most of the islanders were Roman Catholic).
Derek was a gifted painter and knew that he wanted to write from an early age; he and his brother constructed a toy theatre and wrote plays. At 14, Derek published a religious poem in the local newspaper that prompted a response (in couplets) from a priest who objected to its theology. Later in life, Walcott speculated about the relative quality of the verses: “I suspect mine was better.”
While still a teenager, he persuaded his mother to finance the publication of two collections, 25 Poems (1948) and Epitaph for the Young (1949), designed to look like Faber’s collections. After a stint teaching Latin and art at his old school, he took a degree at the University College of the West Indies at Kingston, Jamaica, graduating in 1953.
He married, in 1954, Fay Moston, with whom he had a son, Peter, but it lasted less than two years (they were finally divorced in 1959); at first Walcott taught Latin and English on Grenada, but he soon moved to Trinidad, which was his chief base until the 1980s. He wrote plays, notably Ione (1957), which got him a Rockefeller Grant to visit New York, where he began working on his best-known play Dream on Monkey Mountain; when it was produced in 1967 it fused classical themes with Caribbean dance and music. In 1959 he founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop and met the poet Alan Ross (who was writing about cricket).
Though Walcott had received encouragement and praise from writers such as Roy Fuller and VS Naipaul (with whom he was later to fall out), it was Ross who arranged the publication of In a Green Night (1962), which brought his work to wider attention. On its publication, Robert Graves praised Walcott’s understanding of the “inner magic” of English. Walcott was also much influenced by his friendship with Robert Lowell, who encouraged him to drop the capitals from the beginning of each line.
That year Walcott married again and had two daughters with Margaret Maillard, though they divorced in the mid-1970s. His third marriage, in 1976, to Norline Metivier, also ended in divorce. Walcott’s enthusiastic pursuit of women was to lead to a tangled private life; it had serious repercussions after he began teaching at American universities, and several cases of sexual harassment were alleged (and in at least one instance, settled out of court).
He took a post at Boston University in 1981, where he spent two decades and became close friends with Joseph Brodsky and Seamus Heaney, but also had stints at the universities of Harvard, Alberta and Essex. In 2009, he withdrew his candidacy for the Professorship of Poetry at Oxford after anonymous allegations about his sexual relationships with students were circulated. The post went instead to Ruth Padel, who then herself resigned after it emerged she had distributed the material.
But other honours and awards were forthcoming. He was appointed OBE in 1972 and won a MacArthur “Genius” Grant in 1981; in 1988 he received the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. After the Nobel (hot on the heels of Omeros), he received the TS Eliot Prize for his collection White Egrets (2010). His other major collections included The Arkansas Testament (1987) and Tiepolo’s Hound (2000), which also featured his paintings. A rare, and spectacular, failure was his collaboration in 1997 with Paul Simon on a musical called The Capeman, which cost $11 million, was critically panned and closed after 68 performances. Later work included the plays Moon Child (2012) and the following year’s O Starry Starry Night.
Walcott’s companion in later life was Sigrid Nama, an art dealer. He divided his time between Britain, America and St Lucia, though his health declined in recent years. In 2016, he became the first Knight Commander of the Order of St Lucia, after the Queen approved the addition of the grade to the Order, which was founded in 1980. He is survived by his partner, his son and his two daughters.
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