Derek Walcott, Who Wrote Of Caribbean Beauty And Bondage, Dies At 87

Mar 17, 2017
Originally published on March 17, 2017 4:31 pm

Derek Walcott's work explored the beauty of his Caribbean homeland and its brutal colonial history. The prolific, Nobel Prize-winning poet and playwright died Friday at his home in St. Lucia. He was 87.

Walcott wrote dozens of books of poetry and plays, among them his epic poem Omeros and his Obie-winning drama, Dream on Monkey Mountain.

For most of his life, Walcott taught poetry at universities in the United States, England and Canada — but his work never strayed far from St. Lucia, the island in the West Indies where he was born.

In 1984, when he was teaching at Boston University, Walcott said that a book-length poem like Midsummer was a natural extension of the language all around him.

"You would get some fantastic syntactical phenomena," he said in an interview, "You would hear people talking in Barbados in the exact melody as a minor character in Shakespeare. Because here you have a thing that was not immured and preserved and mummified, but a voluble language, very active, very swift, very sharp. And that is going on still in all the languages of the Caribbean. So that you didn't make yourself a poet — you entered a situation in which there was poetry."

Walcott's father was a poet and a painter. He died when Derek was an infant. His mother was a school teacher who recited Shakespeare to him. He borrowed $200 to publish his first book of poetry when he was 19 and sold it on street corners. Then he attended the University College of the West Indies on a scholarship.

"When I went to college — when I read Shakespeare, or Dickens, or Scott I just felt that as a citizen of England, a British citizen, this was as much my heritage as any schoolboy's," he said. "That is one of the things the Empire taught, that apart from citizenship, the synonymous inheritance of the citizenship was the literature."

David Biespiel, a literary critic and author of a book on poetry called A Long High Whistle, says Walcott represented "an elegant West Indies murmur against history's violent colonial narrative of bondage."

"His poems expose the discrepancy between blooming flowers and sparkling waters with these island economies built on the history of sugar plantations and slavery and forced labor," Biespiel says. "It's kind of grandeur mixed in with imprisonment."

In all of his work, Walcott fused his classical education with the language and history of the Caribbean. The result, Biespiel says, was poetry of the highest order. "I think people will be reading Derek Walcott as long as we've been reading John Milton."

Walcott said his energy to write came from being part of a generation of Caribbean writers who were the first to describe the world beyond their doorsteps.

"I go back to St. Lucia and the exhilaration I feel is not simply the exhilaration of homecoming and of nostalgia," he said. "It is almost an irritation of feeling: Well, you never got it right. Now you have another chance. Maybe you can try and look harder."

Many would say Derek Walcott did get it right.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Poet and playwright Derek Walcott has died. Walcott wrote some two dozen books of poetry and an equal number of plays, among them his epic poem "Omeros" and his Obie-winning drama "Dream On Monkey Mountain." Walcott won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1992 for work that explores the beauty of his Caribbean homeland and its brutal colonial history. Derek Walcott died this morning at his home in Cap Estate, St. Lucia. He was 87 years old. Tom Vitale has this appreciation.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: For most of his life, Derek Walcott taught poetry at universities in the United States, England and Canada. But his work never strayed far from the island where he was born, St. Lucia in the West Indies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEREK WALCOTT: Islands hissing in the rain. Light rain and governments falling. Follow through cloud again the bittern's lonely calling. Can this be the right place? These islands of the blest, cheap package tours replaced by politics, rain, unrest? The edge-erasing...

VITALE: In 1984, when he was teaching at Boston University, Derek Walcott told me that a book-length poem like "Midsummer" was a natural extension of the language all around him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

WALCOTT: You would get some fantastic syntactical phenomena. I mean, you would hear people talking in Barbados in the exact melody of a minor character in Shakespeare because here you had a thing that was not immured and preserved and mummified, but a voluble language - very active, very swift, very sharp. And that is going on still in all the languages in the Caribbean so that you didn't make yourself a poet. You entered a situation in which there was poetry.

VITALE: Derek Walcott's father was a poet and painter. He died when Derek was an infant. His mother was a school teacher who recited Shakespeare to him. He borrowed $200 to publish his first book of poetry when he was 19, and he sold it on street corners. Then he attended the University of the College of West Indies on a scholarship.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WALCOTT: When I went to college - when I read, you know, Shakespeare or Dickens or Scott, I just felt that as a citizen of England - a British citizen, this was as much my heritage as any schoolboy's. You know, I mean, that was one of the things the empire taught that apart from citizenship, the synonymous inheritance of the citizenship was the literature.

DAVID BIESPIEL: He sort of represents an elegant West Indies murmur against history's violent colonial narrative of bondage.

VITALE: David Biespiel is a literary critic and author of a book on poetry called "A Long High Whistle."

BIESPIEL: His poems expose the discrepancy between, you know, blooming flowers and sparkling waters with these island economies built on a violent history of sugar plantations and slavery and forced labor. It's kind of grandeur mixed in with imprisonment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WALCOTT: The world had no time to change to a doorman's braid from the loincloths of Africa. So when the stores draw their blinds, like an empire's ending, and the banks fade like the peaks of the Hindu Kush, a cloaked wind bent like a scavenger rakes the trash in the gutters.

VITALE: In all of his work, Walcott fused his classical education with the language and history of the Caribbean. Critic David Biespiel says the result was poetry of the highest order.

BIESPIEL: I think people will be reading Derek Walcott as long as we've been reading John Milton.

VITALE: The energy to write, said Derek Walcott, came from being part of a generation of Caribbean writers who were the first to describe the world outside their doorsteps.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WALCOTT: I go back to St. Lucia, and the exhilaration I feel is not simply an exhilaration of homecoming and of nostalgia, it is almost an irritation feeling - well, you never got it right. I mean, now you have another chance. Maybe you can try and look harder.

VITALE: Many would say Derek Walcott did get it right.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WALCOTT: My palms have been sliced by the twine of the craft I have pulled out for more than 40 years. My Ionia is the smell of burnt grass, the scorched handle of a cistern in August squeaking to rusty islands. The lines I love have all their knots left in.

VITALE: For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSHUA HYSLOP SONG, "INSTRUMENTAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.