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 Derek Walcott

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Brief Bio

Derek Alton Walcott was born in Casties, St. Lucia, British West Indies, on January 23, 1930 to Warwick and Alix Walcott who were of mixed African, Dutch, and English descent. His father, a civil servant and amateur watercolourist, died in 1931, leaving Pamela, his older sister, and Derek and his twin brother, Roderick Aldon in the sole care of his mother. His talented and gregarious mother was head teacher at the Methodist Infant School in Castries for 40 years and also worked as a seamstress to make ends meet. Walcott attended Methodist infant and primary schools and through a government scholarship, St. Mary's College, the only secondary school in St. Lucia at that time. Walcott was already becoming known as poet, many of his poems being published in the Voice of St. Lucia (1946-1948). His interest in art blossomed and was significantly influenced by Harold Simmons. After graduating St. Mary's in 1948, he continued on for two years as a junior master teaching Latin and Art and Poetry for Extra-Mural classes at St. Joseph's Convent. In the same year 25 Poems, dedicated to his mother, was published and well received.

1950 was a productive year for Walcott. He helped found and became the first president of the St. Lucia Arts Guild and led the literary section with Maurice Mason. He published the play Henri Christophe (in Barbados) and won a scholarship to attend the newly established University College of the West Indies in Jamaica (now known as the University of the West Indies, Mona) where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature, French and Latin (1950-1953). A Rockefeller fellowship brought him to the United States in 1957; he studied under the American stage director Jose Quintero and returned to the islands in 1959 to found the Trinidad Theatre Workshop. He taught in St. Lucia, Grenada, and Jamaica and at many American universities: Boston, Columbia, Harvard, Rutgers, and Yale.

Walcott was married to dancer Norline Metivier and had three children by previous marriages. Unlike fellow West Indian writer V. S. Naipaul, he kept a home in Trinidad and was a familiar and revered figure in his homeland, Walcott received a five-year "genius" grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 1981. Central to both Walcott's drama and his poetry is an exhilarating tension between two disparate cultural traditions, the Caribbean and the European. Sometimes the two idioms jostle uncomfortably; yet upon occasion they combine with stunning effect to form a brilliant synthesis.

Walcott observed: "My society loves rhetoric, performance, panache, melodrama, carnival, dressing up, playing roles. Thank God I was born in it...." In his dramatic works, this vivacious island culture, with its historical roots and its political subtexts, takes precedence. Henri Christophe: A Chronicle (1950), his first play, explores the popular story of a 19th-century slave who became king of Haiti. Another early play, The Sea at Dauphin (1953), experiments with French/English island patois, transforming it into a powerful poetic tool. Dream on Monkey Mountain (Obie Award winner, 1971) illustrates the way the dreams of a poor charcoal vendor, however flawed and quixotic, help preserve tribal memories within the sterile colonial world. O, Babylon (1974) employs interludes of dance, along with a contemporary score by Galt McDermott, to recount events in a small Rastafarian community during the 1966 visit of Haile Selassie.

While Walcott's plays are often commended for their colorful performances, they tended to meet resistance from more stringent critics. Pantomime (1978), which examines the ambiguous relationship between a Tobagan innkeeper and his servant, is one example. Though Walter Goodman found it "fresh and funny ... filled with thoughtful insights," Frank Rich downgraded the play for lacking the "esthetic rigor" of Walcott's poetry. This poetry is, indeed, extraordinary--complex, powerful, almost Elizabethan in its delight in form, its flamboyant eloquence and lush imagery. From the beginning--his first poem was published in a local newspaper when he was 14--Walcott sought inspiration among great poets of the English language; Shakespeare, Marvell, Auden, Eliot, Lowell. Nevertheless, Caribbean rhythms, themes, and idioms inevitably find their way into the verse--through vivid dialect personae like Shabine, the sailor in The Star-Apple Kingdom (1979), often regarded as the poet's alter-ego; in the perennially anguished voice of a "divided child," "schizophrenic, wrenched by two styles," that lurks beneath the cosmopolitan surface.

Walcott's range as a poet was remarkably varied and generous. Another Life (1973), a sweeping, open-hearted narrative, can be ranked among the best verse autobiographies in the language. The exuberant ten-poem sequence The Star-Apple Kingdom, which consolidated Walcott's stature as a major poet, features multiple narrative voices tracing the arc of the Caribbean archipelago through space and time, with near-epic scope. In The Fortunate Traveller (1981) the poet chronicled provocative journeys of self-discovery through New England and the American South to Dachau and other places that illuminate his sense of himself as artist and man. The 54 separate poems in Midsummer (1984), a diary in verse, offer a year's worth of meditations on approaching middle age, divided linguistic allegiances and the consolations of art. The Arkansas Testament (1987) contains a stunning love sequence, along with the powerful title work, a further exploration of the poet's role as racial and cultural exile. This poignant, accomplished volume shows the poet working at the height of his powers. Walcott's other popular poems include "A Far Cry from Africa" (1962), "Codicil" (1965), "Sainte Lucie" (1976), "The Schooner Flight" (1979), and "North and South" (1981). Collected Poems (1948-1984) (1986) provides an excellent selection of his work.

Walcott's epic-length Omeros,which echoed the Iliad and the Odyssey was chosen by The New York Times as one of the best books of 1990. Omeros took up the classic themes of abandonment and wandering, but it also revealed Walcott's love for his native Caribbean. During an interview, Walcott once described the fondness he had for his native homeland surrounded by the sea: "nobody wishes to escape the geography that forms you. In my case it is the sea, it is islands, I cannot stay too long away from the sea." In 1992, Walcott received the Nobel Prize in literature. His verse play The Odyssey was produced on stage in New York and London in 1993. His love of grand themes continued with the publication of a collection of poems titled The Bounty (June 1997), in which he used his poetic talents to eulogize the beauty of his native land.

In 1998, Walcott collaborated with musician Paul Simon on the Broadway musical The Capeman. Although the musical bombed on Broadway, it attempted to do what no other musical had done in the past: focus on the real fears of New York's poor. Also in 1998, Walcott returned his attention to his home land with a collection of essays about West Indian culture entitled What the Twilight Says. Walcott's contributions to West Indian drama and poetry are immense. He created a world-class theater ensemble in a post-colonial environment and used his poetic skills to describe the culture and beauty of his Caribbean.

Poems - 15 in all

Derek Walcott

Midsummer, Tobago
A Far Cry from Africa
A City's Death by Fire

The Fist
Sea Grapes
Love After Love
Map of the New World
A Lesson for This Sunday
Bleecker Street, Summer
The Season of Phantasmal Peace

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