Farewell Sir Derek Walcott, Caribbean poet to the world

Saturday, March 18, 2017

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The death on Friday morning of Sir Derek Walcott, poet, playwright and painter, at his home in St Lucia, has left a yawning gap that will be hard to fill.

Born in Castries, the St Lucia capital, in January 1930, his first poems — which were self-published — emerged in 1948. He studied at the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI), Jamaica, and after graduation in 1953 moved to Trinidad where he worked as a teacher and journalist. He lived in several places, but always kept a home in St Lucia.

Sir Derek achieved worldwide acclaim without forsaking his "Caribbeaness". Indeed, he revelled in his oeuvre and celebrated his Caribbean culture, flavoured by an encyclopedic knowledge and insight into the interconnectedness of world history, global cultures, and the universality of foibles, frailties and triumphs of humanity.

He first achieved notability/renown in literary circles in 1962 with In a Green Night: Poems 1948–1960 published in 1960. His play Dream on Monkey Mountain (1970) was hailed.

But even a successful writer of poems and plays in the Caribbean needs a secure financial base and hence he taught literature and writing at Boston University for more than 20 years. His other academic posts included scholar-in-residence at the University of Alberta and Professor of Poetry at the University of Essex.

In 1990 Sir Derek published the epic book-length poem Omeros that brought him worldwide acclaim, and two years later he was awarded the coveted Nobel Prize in Literature. Subsequently he moved into a prolific period, producing several books of poetry: The Bounty in 1997, Tiepolo’s Hound in 2000, The Prodigal in 2004, and White Egrets in 2010, which all achieved worldwide readership. There was notably a resurgence in popularity of some of his early works such as The Castaway (1965), Sea Grape (1976) and The Star-Apple Kingdom (1979).

Sir Derek’s literary success was accompanied by some disappointments. His personal life may have been a casualty of his constant international travels. Three marriages ended in divorce, but there were three children: a son, Peter; two daughters, Anna and Elizabeth — and grandchildren. His appointment as professor of poetry at Oxford University was ended by a smear campaign of character assassination by a rival candidate.

Sir Derek Walcott was a Caribbean poet for the world and he will forever be in the pantheon of the world’s great poets. His contribution to literature in English was monumental. His poetry was not just a masterly and majestic command of language, but deeply insightful revelations of the complexity of the historical and constantly evolving multiculturalism that is the contemporary world.

Coming from the Caribbean, a region which exhibits all this diversity, Sir Derek described his art in his acceptance speech at the Nobel award ceremony as the "restoration of our shattered histories, our shards of vocabulary, our archipelago becoming a synonym for pieces broken off from the original continent".

Our region will miss this complex giant of man.

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