Walcott, Derek

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Walcott, Derek

Derek Walcott, 1930–2017, West Indian dramatist and poet, b. Castries, St. Lucia, grad. Univ. of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, 1953. His grandfathers were both white, one of English, the other of Dutch extraction; his grandmothers were both brown-skinned West Indians of African background. He spent most of his life in various parts of the West Indies, including St. Thomas, Barbados, Grenada, and for a long period Trinidad, where he was a journalist and founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, in addition to St. Lucia, his birthplace, his home, and the subject of many of his poems. Walcott's meticulously honed and richly metaphorical poems as well as his evocative dramas exalt the English language while also using a rich mix of Latin, French, and patois. Skillfully fusing folk culture and oral tradition with the classical and avant-garde, he wrote eloquently of the complex history, lush landscape, everyday life, and multiracial peoples of the islands. He also examined his own African and European heritage, addressing personal conflicts, many of which arose from his mixed-race background.

Often focusing on West Indian folk traditions, Walcott's plays include Dream on Monkey Mountain (1970), The Joker of Seville (1975), Remembrance: Pantomime (1980), A Branch of the Blue Nile (1986), The Odyssey (1992), and The Capeman (1997), a musical (and Broadway flop) written with Paul Simon. Walcott was a master of lyric, narrative, and epic poetry. His verse collections include the breakthrough In a Green Night (1962), which first brought him to international attention, The Castaway (1969), and the 4,000-line autobiographical poem Another Life (1973) as well as Sea Grapes (1976), Midsummer (1984), The Bounty (1997), and the intensely personal poems of old age in White Egrets (2010). Often considered his masterpiece, his epic poem Omeros (1990) echoes and reimagines Homer's Iliad and Odyssey in the Caribbean's colonial past and complex present. Tiepolo's Hound (2001), in which he interwove his own story with that of the St. Thomas–born painter Camille Pissarro, and The Prodigal (2004), a memoir of journey and return and an elegiac meditation on fame and death, are also book-length narrative poems. In all, he published about 20 volumes of poetry and a similar number of plays as well as wrote numerous essays, articles, and reviews as well. Walcott also was a realist painter; his cover art and illustrations sometimes accompanied his poetry. He taught at Boston Univ. from 1981–2007, dividing his time among Boston, New York, and St. Lucia. He received a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" in 1981 and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992.

See selected poetry (2007, ed. by E. Baugh; and 2014, ed. by G. Maxwell); selected prose in Derek Walcott, The Journeyman Years (2013, Vol. 1 ed. by G. Collier, Vol. 2 ed. by G. Collier and C. Balme); W. Baer, Conversations with Derek Walcott (1996); biography by B. A. King (2000); studies by N. Thomas (1980), R. Terada (1992), R. D. Hamner (1981, rev. ed. 1993; as ed., 1993), B. A. King (1995), and J. L. Espejo and J. M. P. Fernández, ed. (2001).

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