Derek Walcott’s Nobel Works

In a special tribute to the 1992 Nobel laureate for literature, Jeremy Taylor, Raoul Pantin and Skye Hernandez look back at Derek Walcott's career

A quiet moment from the Statford production of Walcott’s Odyssey. Photograph by Royal Shakespeare CompanyArtist Dunstan St Omer- Gregorians in Walcott’s Another Life- with one of his paintings for St Lucia’s Project Helen. Photograph by Chris HuxleyAt daughter Lizzy’s wedding in Trinidad, a few days before the Nobel announcement. Photograph by Noel NortonDerek Walcott. Photograph by Bruce PaddingtonDerek Walcott. Photograph by the Swedish TelevisionLa Pastora Road (Santa Cruz, Trinidad, 1992): Walcott started out as a painter & poet, producing delicate water-colours. Courtesy Derek WalcottPoets incorporated: Walcott in Boston with Joseph Brodsky (left, with Walcott’s daughter Anna) and Seamus Heaney. Photograph courtesy Derek WalcottStickfight: Albert La Veau in The Joker of Seville. Photograph courtesy the Trinidad Theatre WorkshopThe view from the Walcott house in Castries, painted in the early 1960s by Noel Vaucrosson. Courtesy M. WalcottWalcott admires Dunstan St Omer’s design for a mural in his and Sir Arthur Lewis’ honour. Courtesy Derek WalcottWalcott and his son Peter on the set of the 1967 Trinidad Theatre Workshop production of Errol John’s Moon on a Rainbow Shawl. Courtesy Derek WalcottWalcott faces reporters at his publisher’s office in New York. With him is 1987 Nobel prizewinner Joseph Brodsky. Photograph by the Associated PressWalcott in his beloved St Lucia. Photograph by Bruce PaddingtonWalcott produces detailed designs for productions of his plays. Photograph by Bruce PaddingtonWalcott, second from left back row, on the staff at his old school in St. Lucia. Photograph courtesy Derek WalcottWalcott’s daughters Anns and Elizabeth. Photograph by Chris HuxleyWalcott’s father WarwickWalcott’s mother Alix. Photograph by Bruce Paddington

for what else is there
but books, books and the sea,
verandahs and the pages of the sea,
to write of the wind and the memory of wind-whipped hair
in the sun, the colour of fire!

Derek Walcott had long been tipped for the Nobel Prize. He had laughed it off as “Swedish roulette”.

But his great friend Joseph Brodsky, who had left his native Russia to publish in the west and had won the Prize for his poetry in 1987, had called Walcott “the best poet the English language has today”. The Irish poet Seamus Heaney, another close friend, was reported to be a regular Nobel contender, as was the Trinidad novelist V. S. Naipaul.

And Walcott’s standing in the literary world was even higher than the Caribbean suspected: Robert Graves‘s famous endorsement of Walcott’s first major collection, In a Green Night (“Walcott handles English with a closer understanding of its inner magic than most of his English-born contemporaries”) had been echoed many times over the years, notably by Salman Rushdie (“The greatest living English language poet: erudite, incantatory, precise … blending Caribbean, classical and American rhythms into a music all his own”).

When the call came from Stockholm at six o’clock one morning last October, just after Walcott had returned to his Boston apartment from his daughter Lizzie’s wedding in Trinidad, Walcott was already up and working. An inveterate early riser, he is usually up before dawn, mixing his coffee (without that, it’s “total disaster”, says his daughter Anna), enjoying the still sunrise and preparing to write. He had expected the 1992 prize to go to Heaney or Naipaul. But there on the phone was a voice from Sweden, telling him he had won and not to leak the news to anyone before one o’clock in Stockholm. Within five minutes he was on the phone to his second wife Margaret in Trinidad, who told him to stop making jokes.

“In him, West Indian culture has found its great poet,” said the magisterial citation from the Swedish Academy of Letters.

It praised his “historical vision, the outcome of a multicultural commitment”, his “melodious and sensitive style”.

In the Caribbean, as the news leaked out that day, there was a powerful emotional reaction, as if the whole region had been, not just honoured, but endorsed. The Antiguan novelist Jamaica Kincaid put it in typically blunt terms from her home in Vermont: “I thought we were just part of the riffraff of the British Empire until I read this man and thought: Oh yes, that is me. That is us. It’s a great day to be a West Indian.”

Across the Atlantic, in England, Walcott’s latest play, The Odyssey, was playing in Shakespeare’s home town, Stratford; the audience stood and cheered (but, ironically, then lapsed into awe, too reverent to laugh much at the jokes with which the new Nobel laureate had filled his reworking of Homer).

Walcott has been a prolific writer. At 62, he has published ten major collections of verse, including two book-length poems (Another Life and Omeros), plus three early volumes, two selections and a Collected Poems 1948-1984. There are well over 20 plays (there is no agreement on the exact number: so many are reworkings of earlier scripts, and previously unknown plays are turning up in the Walcott archives at the University of the West Indies).

In 1990-92 alone, The Last Carnival was produced in London, Birmingham and Stockholm, The Odyssey by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, Remembrance in London, and Steel and Viva Detroit were premiered in the United States, the latter touring Britain too. It may have been Omeros (written out of “duty to the Caribbean light . . . an act of gratitude”) that clinched the Nobel Prize, but behind that stood a solid body of work which would do credit to any writer of any time.

Almost alone among his contemporaries, Walcott had stayed to live and work in the Caribbean instead of making a career in Britain or North America. Three times married, with three children, he moved to the United States only in 1981, when he was already over 50, largely to help his daughters Elizabeth and Anna through a university education. He taught at Columbia, Harvard and Yale before accepting a professorship at the University of Boston.

Walcott lives in a condominium in Brookline, teaching two days a week and writing hard the rest of the time. He directs a small theatre, the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, attached to the University, relaxes at the movies, sees close friends like Brodksy and Heaney, poet Mark Strand or composer Paul Simon. Simon acknowledged his debt to Walcott in his album The Rhythm of the Saints, and dedicated one of the songs (The Coast) to Walcott and his daughters – they danced to it at Lizzie’s wedding. “He’s an extraordinary poet whose Caribbean settings seemed to fit what was going on,” Simon explained. “I would start out by using his words, then gradually wean myself from them and put in my own.

Walcott, Brodksy and Heaney, a formidable literary trio, have been known to cause quite a stir when in merry mood at Chef Chang’s Chinese restaurant in Boston; a hopeless cook, Walcott eats out a lot at nearby restaurants (he doesn’t drive), sharing lunch with his students over shish kebab at the Kangaroo Café, breakfasting at Dunkin Donuts, insisting on lentil soup at the Busy Bee or sandwiches at the Greek-owned snack bar he calls “The Greeks”. The one consolation of winter in Boston seems to be that Walcott gets to wear the Russian fur hat that Brodsky gave him.

Walcott’s classes in poetry and playwriting at the university, by many accounts, are popular but often demanding. Walcott has always fiercely expected writers to learn and practise their craft and to know the tradition they are operating in. He served a long apprenticeship himself (Oh Christ, my craft, and the long time it is taking! he cried in Midsummer), and has no patience with writers who want to take short cuts to glory and spontaneous self-expression.

One graduate of Walcott’s sessions told the British press that Walcott began his first class by attacking the would-be poets in front of him, demanding to know why they thought anyone would ever want to read their work. Then he asked each student to write down from memory a poem, any poem, that he knew: not one could. Walcott’s scorn hurt, but was unanswerable.

Some of the post-Nobel profiles assumed that Walcott had become an American poet. But he hasn’t. He kept his St Lucian citizenship; he tells interviewers “I am primarily, absolutely, a Caribbean poet” he insists “I’ve never felt I belong anywhere else but in St Lucia”. Nobody reading his poems could doubt where his heart lies, whether he’s joking about it or not:

I’m just a red nigger who love the sea
I had a sound colonial education
I have Dutch, nigger and English in me,
and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.

The midsummer sea, the hot pitch, this grass, these shacks that made me
jungle and razor grass shimmering by the roadside , the edge of art;
wood lice are humming in the sacred wood,
nothing can burn them out, they are in the blood.

He described his own apprenticeship partly in terms of learning to see and love the island where he was born: to capture “the feel of the island, bow, gunwales and stern as jealously as the fisherman knew his boat . . . That apprenticeship would mean nothing unless life were made so real that it stank . . .

Soon after the Nobel announcement, Walcott returned to St Lucia, to a welcome that made him weep. On the way in from the airport, the convoy slowed near Choc cemetery, where his mother is buried: he leaned from the car window and shouted, “Mama, it’s me, your son is here”. At Columbus Square, the schoolchildren were waiting, the police band, local dignitaries, old friends; an old lady stepped up to the car and said in patois, “Koté manmay jòdi-a pou wè ish li? ” Where is his mother today, to see her child? “Look out,” a friend warned, “we know how the Walcotts like to cry.

Teacher Alix“, Walcott’s mother, died at the age of 95, two years before her son won the world’s biggest literary honour. She too loved words, and could quote Marlowe and Shakespeare at her children. She had come with her mother from St Maarten, where her father had been a Dutch administrator: she had brought up her children single-handed after her husband Warwick Walcott died, in 1931 after an operation, on the day he was to start acting as St Lucia’s deputy Registrar. Derek and his twin brother Roderick (now a theatre director and playwright in Toronto) were born on January 23, 1930, 15 months before their father’s death. Neither they nor their sister Pamela, two years older (now married and settled in Barbados), have any first-hand recollection of him.

Alix was humorous, firm and loving, charismatic, with a fiery temper. Warwick had been quiet, sensitive, studious. He formed the first literary club in St Lucia, put on plays and poetry readings and painted watercolour landscapes. He was born in St Lucia, the son of an Englishman who had come to the island from Barbados. Young Derek thus had Dutch and English grandfathers, African-descended grandmothers.

The family house on Chausée Road in Castries, the St Lucian capital, once framed by red bougainvillea and yellow allamanda, is now a printery, though the government plans to restore it as a museum. The Walcott children went to Castries Methodist Infant School where their mother was head teacher. It was a close and sociable community; there were always visitors at home.

Derek absorbed the classics when he was very young, enjoying the music even when the meaning was beyond him. “I was lucky, in a sense, that I came from a poor country,” he told an interviewer. “Poor countries cannot afford trash or mediocrity. Either they have the classics in the library, or they have the comic books. So where I grew up, the access was directly to great writers. At a very early age I read Dickens and Shakespeare, and because I was taught well, I read them with a lot of delight, not as exercises and not as punishment.

Like his father, Walcott has always been a painter of sensitive watercolours; he routinely paints costume and set designs for his productions. As a boy, painting was his first love and his first avenue to expression. At St Mary’s College in Castries, which he entered on a scholarship in 1941, he and a fellow student, Dunstan St Omer, came heavily under the influence of Harold Simmons, a senior civil servant who was also an artist and champion of the arts: a painter, historian, archaeologist, folklorist. He in turn had been influenced by Derek’s father, and remained a close family friend. Simmons shifted the gaze of his protegés, away from Europe and upward social mobility, towards the people, the land, of St Lucia.

Walcott and St Omer produced comic books which were carefully illustrated in watercolour. They published a newspaper (Walcott, the more studious one, was the editor, St Omer the illustrator). But above all they painted, tramping the island until they were “limp from sunstroke”, recording “every neglected and self-pitying inlet”. They were learning to see.

All this is celebrated in the long autobiographical Another Life: Simmons (who committed suicide in 1966); St Omer, who appears as Gregorias (I drink my rum, I praise my God, I mind my business! . . . Your poetry too full of spiders, / bones, worms, ants, things eating up each other, / I can’t read it); Andreuille Alcée, Anna in the poem, a schoolgirl who touched young Walcott’s heart before leaving St Lucia to study nursing in England. The poem sings Walcott’s feeling for the island and the sea, and the epiphany in which he felt his direction in an almost religious way.

About the August of my fourteenth year
I lost myself somewhere above a valley
owned by a spinster-farmer, my dead father’s friend.
At the hill’s edge there was a scarp
with bushes and boulders stuck in its side.
Afternoon light ripened the valley,
rifling smoke climbed from small labourers’ houses,
and I dissolved into a trance.
I was seized by a pity more profound
than my young body could bear, I climbed
with the labouring smoke,
I drowned in labouring breakers of bright cloud,
then uncontrollably I began to weep,
inwardly , without tears, with a serene extinction
of all sense; I felt compelled to kneel,
I wept for nothing and for everything,
I wept for the earth of the hill under my knees,
for the grass, the pebbles, for the cooking smoke
above the labourers’ houses like a cry,
for unheard avalanches of white cloud

Walcott and St Omer exhibited their paintings in 1950. Simmons, the only artist to have staged an exhibition in St Lucia before, reviewed the work for the magazine Bim, and made the prophetic observation that St Omer was the painter and Walcott the writer.

At 18, Walcott published his first collection, 25 Poems, with $200 borrowed from his mother, a very substantial sum for anyone on a teacher’s salary in those days. He missed getting to Oxford or Cambridge – weak maths – but won a scholarship to the University of the West Indies, and in September 1950 left St Lucia for Jamaica. Britain’s loss was the Caribbean’s gain.

But the sea, the mountains and the mists, the people of St Lucia, and the tug between Africa and Europe in the blood, would follow Walcott forever, echoing through his poetry and his plays.

There followed four years at university in Jamaica, where Walcott was at the centre of a theatre revival; teaching stints in St Lucia and Grenada; first marriage, a son; publication in regional and international magazines, readings on the BBC. By the late fifties Walcott’s reputation was already formidable enough to secure a commission to write a play for the inauguration of the West Indies Federation in Trinidad in 1958.

Drums and Colours was the result; it led to a Rockefeller grant to study theatre in the United States, return to Trinidad in 1959, a second marriage, two daughters, and a lasting rootedness in Trinidad. For in New York Walcott, plunging into the theatre world, had understood how to create a uniquely West Indian theatre company, a group which could combine the classic discipline of language with a Caribbean vitality of movement. That vision was to consume him for 20 years.

The Little Carib Theatre Workshop, which soon became the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, was founded in 1959 as a group which met on Friday evenings to do improvisations and scenes from plays. Walcott gathered around him a core group of kindred spirits. The workshop sessions grew into production, both of Walcott’s first major plays, most of which were already in an early form by 1959, and of other writers: Caribbean playwrights like Errol John and Errol Hill, international figures like Beckett, Ionesco, Genet, Albee, Soyinka. “We did a lot of experimental work,” actor Errol Jones says; “Derek would bring a couple of pages of script and some characters and we would improvise, and some of it would come out in finished plays.”

Walcott wrote parts in his plays for Workshop actors like Errol Jones, Albert La Veau, Nigel Scott and Wilbert Holder. Errol Jones remembers: “I was really bowled over by how Walcott was using our language and how beautifully poetic it was. You could hear the people talking and when you listened you could hear the beauty of our language.” Actress Helen Camps, who founded and directed the Trinidad Tent Theatre after Walcott left Trinidad, later said simply: “Derek is a genius. Everything I know about theatre I learned from him.”

So while Walcott spent much of the sixties and seventies writing the poems which would seal his international reputation, he was also moulding a whole series of major plays, directing and producing, and writing hundreds of columns and reviews for the Trinidad Guardian. These were the years which produced a string of Caribbean classics: Ti-Jean and his Brothers, Dream on Monkey Mountain, Remembrance, Pantomime. Perhaps the most popular of all was The Joker of Seville, Walcott’s verse adaptation of the Tirso de Molina play, commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company with music by Galt MacDermot, who had written the music for Hair. As a director, he was dominating, confident, full of determination and vision; he was also a stickler for hard work. The only excuse for not showing up at rehearsal, he yelled at a latecomer, “is if your mother dead”.

The Workshop, revolving around Walcott’s powerful personality and vision, generated fierce loyalties and powerful storms. But it was a vanguard of Caribbean theatre, in close touch with leading Caribbean writers and artists, deadly serious in its commitment, working through ideas that were critical to Caribbean development. Walcott, always the champion of cultural cross-fertilisation, arranged for Caribbean actors to work in American productions and, more controversially, brought American actors to work in Trinidad.

In 1967, he led the group on a hair-raising 12-stop air journey to Caribana in Toronto. By the 10th stop, in Puerto Rico, everyone was starved, and Walcott ordered 20 hot dogs and 20 juices for his players, only to be enraged by a chorus of special requirements. “Derek, no ketchup for me – Derek, I don’t use mustard – Derek, I don’t want onions.” “All right, all right,” Walcott yelled, “call me Mama! ”

The 1992 Nobel Prize carried with it almost $1 million (taxable), much of which Walcott has been arranging to give away. He lost no time in putting his Nobel authority behind the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, whose home in Port of Spain is once again under threat, and with whom he hinted that he would like to work again. He wants to turn its temporary home into an arts training school.

He wants plenty of other things too. An exchange programme between his Boston Playwright’s Theatre and the Trinidad group. A summer school in St Lucia where poets and fiction writers can work and study, and where writers of renown will be invited to teach. And he wants to build his dream house and studio in St Lucia, spend less time teaching and more time in the Caribbean. The Caribbean, at long last waking up to the quality of the man it has produced, has showered him with requests for theatre guidance.

The signs are that Walcott will be heading homewards. “Here is a man who is able to write the first draft of an opera in two months and an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey in three,” says his daughter Anna, “and still demand a roti and a red Solo as his first meal when he returns to Trinidad.”

Dunstan St Omer (now married with nine children and a crusader for the arts in St Lucia’s Ministry of Education) puts it this way: “We have a lot of wonderful paintings to do, and he’s not getting any younger.” St Omer presented Walcott with a sketch for a mural to be called The Children of the Light, in honour of him and St Lucia’s other Nobel laureate, the economist Sir Arthur Lewis.

So Nobel success may well hasten Walcott’s return to the Caribbean. But there are no signs at all that it will distract him from his chosen path. One of the most striking things about Walcott is the absolute commitment to the work. Anna Walcott wrote: “Since I was a child I can remember waking to the sound of my father’s typewriter. He would wake at five every morning, make his morning coffee and begin to work. There are periods when we would sit down to breakfast and he would get that glazed look in his eye and begin to drum his fingers on the table to the metre of a poem being formed in his mind.”

Walcott above all knows that not even ten Nobel Prizes will make a man write better. “When you confront the construction of a poem,” he said, “nothing can help you.

 

THE TRINIDAD YEARS

Raoul Pantin recalls Derek Walcott’s pioneering work with the Trinidad Theatre Workshop

One person who would have been delirious with joy over Derek Walcott’s Nobel Prize for Literature was Wilbert Holder, the gifted Guyanese-born actor who for years before his untimely death in 1987 used to swear to me: “Europe has Shakespearian actors but I’m a Walcottian actor!”

Wilbert Holder could easily make such a claim. For 20 years or so from the early 1960s, he played minor and major roles in almost every play Derek Walcott was crafting and staging. Pantomime, published in 1980, is dedicated to him.

But Wilbert, I can better understand now, was also making a much larger and grander claim: from the word go, he was one of a handful of West Indian artists who were absolutely convinced that Derek Walcott was a good enough writer to command a world stage. Just like a William Shakespeare.

I’m a Walcottian actor. It was a faith I originally marvelled at but didn’t always share.

The Derek Walcott I first met was Art Critic for the Trinidad Guardian, which I had joined as a junior reporter in 1965. He was a vague and distant newsroom presence, an aloof man who wrote long esoteric articles. Another poet, the late Eric Roach, also worked there, as Agricultural Reporter. He was equally aloof. Two young poets chafing at the bit.

I was only vaguely aware then that eight years earlier, at 27, Walcott had been commissioned by the first Federal Parliament of the West Indies to write a play for the launching of the West Indies Federation: Drums and Colours, a musical drama centered around the dream of West Indian integration. In those short, swift eight years, the dream of a West Indies Federation was dead, churched and buried; and out of its ashes was rising a whole string of independent mini-states run like separate fiefdoms, the target of much of Walcott’s anger for years. The dream deferred.

Walcott crystallised that anger in What the Twilight Says, his introduction to Dream on Monkey Mountain: “… innocence has been corrupted and society has taken the old direction. In these new nations art is a luxury, and the theatre the most superfluous of all amenities.”

It would be a few years before I would encounter Walcott again, by which time I had read some of his poetry and had been, in a word, stunned. Vidia Naipaul had been my pride in prose. But in his poetry, Derek Walcott was giving voice to the language, the tone and the angst of an entire post-independence generation. Which young aspiring writer, or conscious West Indian, could fail to be stirred by the opening lines of Hic Jacet (1969):

They’ll keep on asking, why did you remain?
Not for the applauding rain
of hoarse and hungry thousands at whose centre
the politician opens like a poisonous flower . . .
nor for that new race of dung beetles, frock-coated, iridescent crawling over the people.
Before the people became popular
he loved them.

By the early 1970s it would take little encouragement from a Wilbert Holder for me to join the Trinidad Theatre Workshop as a sort of floating on-and-off member. And looking back on it now, it seems a completely different world. Which it was.

For over 20 years, under Walcott’s disciplined artistic direction, the Trinidad Theatre Workshop attracted and held some of the best acting, singing and dancing talent Trinidad had to offer the world. It had about it always an electric air, charged with creative energy. It was a world of its own, with its own understood rules and codes, its own loves and hates. And at the centre of this world, like some Delphic oracle, stood this green-eyed “red nigger” (as he often described himself) from St Lucia, writing and teaching the theatre arts like a man possessed.

All stage directors have their style. Walcott’s was a kind of profane terror, usually mixed with the most ribald humour, much devoted to punning, to using the West Indian turn of phrase to send up the English language. Walcott’s Trinidadian version of Gray’s Elegy began:

Under the spreading mango tree
the Despers’ pan man stands
in a dirty old jersey
and a bust-up khaki pants.

From early I’d heard it said that Walcott had been strongly influenced by T. S. Eliot. But the young poet I knew had more of the roaring style of a Dylan Thomas: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” A short-fused temper didn’t help. Walcott would sometimes fall out with some of his most ardent supporters, Wilbert Holder included, for months on end.

Some of the frustration would creep into Walcott’s work. So in The Joker of Seville we read this:

The theatre has eaten my life.
I’ve no regrets, mind you. I’ve led
this company for fifteen years;
some of the best I’ve forfeited,
some reasonably turned traitors
for more cash: but the tears don’t come
again; for mockery or applause.

Most Workshop members held regular eight-to-four jobs and reported for rehearsals on the dot of seven in the evenings. Walcott was fierce about starting on time. These workshops, which is what they genuinely were, could easily slip into one or two next morning. During productions, these hours extended.

But the audience for theatre remained small, and sponsorship negligible, right up to the staging of The Joker of Seville in 1974, which was the first time I saw a line of patrons long enough to snake around a corner outside the Little Carib Theatre. In “this trade,” Walcott had written in The Joker, his most successful production in Trinidad, “every man so catching his arse/we soon resemble I’m afraid.” It was like a kind of motif of the Trinidad Theatre Workshop. Everybody made jokes about it, but over those long, struggling years the humour became increasingly bitter.

But whatever the personal irritations or animosities that occasionally flared between Workshop members and their volatile director, I always believed, and still do, that they were (still are) an extraordinarily talented group of West Indians with a common link: their love for Art (with a capital A), which is what Derek Walcott taught and teaches.

We lost touch after he started living and teaching in Boston. Once, on a brief trip home, he travelled with Wilbert and myself out to Las Cuevas, a beach on the Trinidad North Coast; over lunch, he enquired about another beach further up the coast. “How many blocks is it from here? he asked, and caught himself immediately. “You heard what I just asked? You see what living in America does to you?”

I don’t know that it’s done anything more than sustain a world-class West Indian poet who always had an uncanny faith in his talent, and in the Caribbean landscape and people who nurtured it.

 

WALCOTT’S CARIBBEAN ODYSSEY

by Pat Ismond

The award of the 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature to Derek Walcott, the St. Lucian-born poet and dramatist, was not only a personal triumph but a triumph for West Indian writing. It signalled some recognition of the Caribbean on the world scene, and fulfilled, in an important way, what Walcott himself predicted a long time ago: “The future of West Indian militancy lies in art.”

Walcott belongs to the pioneering generation of the 1950s, which includes such literary giant as V.S. Naipaul, George Lamming and Wilson Harris. But Walcott was the only one of this group who did not repair to England to develop his talent. He has lived in the United States since 1981, but the crucial part of his forty-year career was spent in the Caribbean.

He began writing at an early age in his native St. Lucia, where by the age of 18 he had published his first book, 25 Poems (1948); he staged his first play Henri Christophe in 1950. After his university education at The University College of the West Indies in Jamaica (1950-53), he settled down in Trinidad, and there, over the next 22 years, devoted himself to a career as a writer and as founder-director of The Trinidad Theatre Workshop – a company that played a major part in the development of West Indian drama.

Out of this period came the seminal works of his prolific output. The poetry includes The Castaway (1965); the long poem Another Life (1973), which like the later Omeros (1990) marks a culminating point in his achievement; and The Star-Apple Kingdom (1979). Among the major plays of the period are Dream on Monkey Mountain (first performed in 1967); The Joker of Seville (first performed in 1974); and Pantomime (first performed in 1978). Since moving to the United States, Walcott has produced four volumes of poetry, including The Arkansas Testament (1987), and the outstanding Omeros. His latest play, The Odyssey (soon to be published) recently enjoyed a highly successful production by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon.

The beginnings of Walcott’s creative struggle lie in the colonial crisis of dividedness: in “that wrestling contradiction of being white in mind and black in body”. The dilemma finds urgent expression in the poem A Far Cry from Africa:

I who am poisoned with the blood of both
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?

Accepting the legacy of the English language was to remain a focal commitment for Walcott: but it came with the conflicting problem of identity. How to fight free of the world of the coloniser which is preserved in that legacy? The problem penetrated to a deeper issue: the void of the region’s absurd past, its condition of historylessness. For Walcott, though, this historylessness carried with it a pressing imperative: invention and new creation. Quite early on, he settled upon the Crusoe-castaway figure as the classic metaphor for the Caribbean’s past and the necessity of creating anew. The figure Robinson Crusoe embodies the isolation and abandonment of the Caribbean’s uprooted peoples, and the corresponding imperatives of survival.

Dream on Monkey Mountain (1970) stands as Walcott’s main statement play. It starts from the same dilemma expressed in A Far Cry from Africa. Inspired by his dream of a lost Africa, the hero Makak sets out on a journey which climaxes in his rejection of the white goddess, the symbol of the white tradition and mirror-image of black self-contempt and self-rejection. Makak comes to himself, not in the recovery of Africa, but in the return to his “green beginnings”, his primal human inheritance.

Walcott remains committed to the possibility envisioned in these “green beginnings”. He sees the capacity for a human renewal as the special potential of his region and the basis of the New World faith for which he stands. This faith in renewal gained strength from a concern central to Walcott’s work: a critical questioning of Old World history, of the values which are responsible for its errors and failures surviving into our time. The epic/imperial ethos of Western civilization, its ideals of power and glory, its idea of history as tiered, “monumental” achievement, all come under critical scrutiny.

All this is condensed in The Sea is History (in The Star-Apple Kingdom). Walcott refutes the epic concept of history as “monuments, battles, martyrs”, a concept which denies the Caribbean an identity. He traces the stages of Judaeo-Christian history, and finds its Caribbean counterpart in a native odyssey that begins with the Middle Passage: an odyssey which involved inner testings of the spirit in resistance, a re-en gagement in the struggle for self-achievement:

and the furnace before the hurricanes:
Gomorrah. Bones ground by windmills
into marl and cornmeal,

and that was Lamentations—
that was just Lamentations,
it was not History

The achievement, as Walcott observes in the poem, is all “subtle and submarine”; and renewal takes place at primal levels where humanity is in touch again with both its powers and its limits.

Along with this access of renewal comes the sheer elation of discovery which, recalling his artistic awakening in St. Lucia, Walcott celebrates thus in Another Life:

Gregorias listen, lit
we were the light of the world!
We were blest with a virginal, unpainted world
With Adam’s task of giving things their names

This process of naming has very real meaning in terms of a Caribbean cultural identity as Walcott sees it. Dispersed from their original sources, the peoples and races who meet in the Caribbean have the advantage of being free from the fixed orthodoxies and closed systems of their parent traditions. In that very “openness” lies the capacity for a humanity that goes beyond race.

And Walcott stands, definitively, for a New World humanity that goes beyond race. He was very clear about it in an interview entitled Any Revolution Based on Race is Suicidal (in Caribbean Contact, August 1973), and in the important essay What the Twilight Says. But he is very much aware how far short of this ideal are the realities of Caribbean society: he is as keenly concerned with “the corruptions that came so quickly to the new”. Unsparing in his criticism of Caribbean society, he decries especially the corruption and greed prevailing in the politics of independent times.

“Why you don’t ask the government for a farm?”
“Well, I apply, but all dem big boys so, dem ministers,
dem have their side. Cockroach must step aside
to give fowl chance”. Ah, brave third world!

The wider society also comes under attack, as in The Spoiler’s Return, where he borrows the biting wit of the Mighty Spoiler (the Trinidadian calypsonian of the 50s) to make this comment on Trinidad:

the children of Tagore , in funeral shroud,
curry favour and chicken from the crowd;
as for the Creoles, check their house, and look,
you bust your brain before you find a book
when Spoiler see all this, ain’t he must bawl
“area of darkness,” with V. S. Nightfall?

The Walcott voice alternates, to cite his own words, between the “power of fury” and “the power of compassion”

For a good time now, Walcott has been a traveller, journeying through many parts of the developed world, especially America and Europe. Always inherent in his concern with renewal is a message directly aimed at the older and more powerful world. In Pantomime (1980), a play in which he reverses the Crusoe-Friday myth, it is the Tobago waiter Jackson who helps to turn his white expatriate boss into a “brand-new man”.

There are two main elements in this engagement with the outside world. First, Walcott decries the injustices and travesties of the centres of power, most of them survivals of the older dispensation. In London he recoils from a setting not yet free of the iniquities and hangovers of colonial empire: “the City that can buy and sell us/the packets of tea stirred with our crystals of sweat”. America, refusing the possibility of a conscience that might begin from acknowledging the original sin of its encounter with the Indians, persists therefore in a culture of racism.

The second element in these journeys is Walcott’s re-reading of history in the light of the primal alternatives to which he holds. He turns especially to Homer – in Greek, Omeros. Walcott invokes a very specific Homer, who “growls” this advice: “Forget the gods, and read the rest”. Bypassing the “epic” poet of the super-mortal and super-human, Walcott’s Homer is the poet of the sea and the islands; of a culture in which human forces and energies relate to and are in tune with elemental natural surroundings–sea, light, climate, earth.

One of the poems which most fully attests to the power of Walcott’s imagination and the qualities that earn him his truly classic stature is entitled The Season of Phantasmal Peace (in The Fortunate Traveller). In this poem, he imagines and conjures up a rare vision of peace descending over all the nations of the world; a moment of cessation from all fury and strife, making one of our divided globe. The poet, conjuring it, knows that the moment can only be “phantasmal”, given the state of our 20th-century world; so his gesture becomes an act of compassion and benediction.

The poem draws together some of the most fundamental qualities of Walcott’s art: his genius for original imagery; the deep music of his elegiac theme, movingly sustained in his handling of rhythm, assonance and internal rhyme–all the elementals of verse to which he has remained loyal from his earliest craft. But the poem speaks for itself.

Then all the nations of birds lifted together
the huge net of the shadows of this earth
in multitudinous dialects, twittering tongues,
stitching and crossing it. They lifted up
the shadows of long pines down trackless slopes,
the shadows of glass-faced towers down evening streets,
the shadow of a frail plant on a city sill –
the net rising soundless as night, the birds’ cries soundless, until
there was no longer dusk, or season, decline, or weather,
only this passage of phantasmal light
that not the narrowest shadow dared to sever.
. . .
it was the light
that you will see at evening on the side of a hill
in yellow October, and no one hearing knew
what change had brought into the raven’s cawing,
the killdeer’s screech, the ember-circling chough
such an immense, soundless, and high concern
for the fields and cities where the birds belong,
except it was their seasonal passing, Love,
made seasonless,
. . .
and higher they lifted the net with soundless voices
above all change , betrayals of falling suns,
and this season lasted one moment, like the pause
between dusk and darkness, between fury and peace,
but, for such as our earth is now, it lasted long.

 

DEREK WALCOTT: A TIMELINE

  • 1930 Born, Castries, St Lucia
  • 1941 St Mary’s College, St Lucia
  • 1948 First publication, 25 Poems
  • 1950 University of the West Indies, Jamaica (BA, Dip.Ed.)
  • 1954 Teaching in Jamaica, Grenada and St Lucia
  • 1955 Married Faye Moyston
  • 1956 Son Peter born
  • 1958 Drums and Colours produced for West Indies Federation; Rockefeller theatre fellowship
  • 1959 Settled in Trinidad
  • 1961 First major collection In a Green Night; Guinness Award for Poetry for The Sea Chantey
  • 1961 Married Margaret Maillard
  • 1964 Daughter Elizabeth born; Royal Society for Literature award 1965 Guggenheim fellowship
  • 1968 Daughter Anna born
  • 1970 Cholmondeley Poetry Award for The Gulf
  • 1971 Obie Award for Distinguished Foreign Play (Dream on Monkey Mountain)
  • 1973 OBE; Jock Campbell/New Statesman Award for Another Life; Honorary D.Litt. from University of the West Indies
  • 1979 Hon. Member of American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters
  • 1980 MacArthur Foundation award for “exceptionally talented individuals”
  • 1981 Married Norline Metivier
  • 1986 Special Gold Musgrave Medal, Jamaica
  • 1988 Queen’s Medal for Poetry
  • 1990 W. H. Smith Award for Omeros
  • 1992 Order of the Caribbean Community; Nobel Prize for Literature

 

DEREK WALCOTT: MAJOR WORKS

Poetry

  • 25 Poems (1948)
  • Epitaph for the Young (1949)
  • Poems (1951)
  • In a Green Night (1962)
  • Selected Poems (1964)
  • The Castaway (1965)
  • The Gulf (1969)
  • Another Life (1973)
  • Sea Grapes (1976)
  • The Star-Apple Kingdom (1979)
  • Selected Poetry (1981)
  • The Fortunate Traveller (1981)
  • Midsummer (1984)
  • Collected Poems 1948-1984 (1986)
  • The Arkansas Testament (1987)
  • Omeros (1990)

Published Plays

  • Dream on Monkey Mountain, Ti-Jean and his Brothers, The Sea at Dauphin, Malcochon (1970)
  • The Joker of Seville, O Babylon! (1978)
  • Remembrance, Pantomime (1980)
  • The Last Carnival, Beef, No Chicken, A Branch of the Blue Nile (1986)

Other Plays

  • Harry Dernier
  • Henri Christophe
  • Drums and Colours
  • In a Fine Castle
  • Franklin
  • Jourmard
  • The Charlatan
  • Marie La Veau
  • The Isle is Full of Noises
  • The Haitian Earth
  • The Rig
  • To Die for Grenada
  • Viva Detroit
  • Steel
  • The Odyssey