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Obituary by Raymond Ramcharitar
With the passing of Derek Walcott at the age of 87, the Caribbean has lost its great poet, whose work was born in and committed to locating the Caribbean in the intellectual and humanistic Western tradition established by Shakespeare, Dante and Milton.
Born in St Lucia in 1930 to Alix and Warwick Walcott, his talent was recognised at an early age. Much of his early life and artistic evolution were recorded in his mid-career autobiographical poem, Another Life, where he describes his emergence: “The dream / of reason had produced its monster / a prodigy of the wrong age and colour.”
Art in all its forms was a part of his life from birth and Walcott was tutored in and produced works of visual art, mainly watercolours, all his life. His last book, Morning, Paramin, was a collaboration with the artist Peter Doig, and his last major play was O Starry, Starry Night, about a meeting between the painters Paul Gaugin and Vincent Van Gogh in the South of France.
The main themes of his early work could be summed in the phrase “Where nothing exists, everything is possible.” He saw the Caribbean as a tabula rasa, to be inscribed by Biblical Adams and exiled Crusoes. He was also a strong proponent of what came to be called Eurocentric culture, and fought many battles in the 1960s and 1970s with anti-colonial and Black Power apologists, who identified with the figure of Caliban in Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest. In later life, his work was more contemplative and nostalgic, as in the collections The Bounty and White Egrets, which won the TS Eliot prize in 2010.
Walcott wrote poetry from his early teens, self-publishing two volumes in his late teens. His first collection published internationally, which won him recognition that never waned, was In a Green Night in 1962. But his reputation in the region by the late 1950s had grown to such an extent that in 1958 he was commissioned to write an epic for the inauguration of the West Indian Federation – Drums and Colours – which was performed in Trinidad.
The trip brought him into contact with several Trinidadian actors and artists, and he was so enamoured of this island, he decided here was the place to plant the seeds of ambition, and create a theatre company. In July 1959, he invited several of those he considered to be the better actors in the country to dancer Beryl McBurnie’s Little Carib Theatre for a workshop in acting.
This was the start of the Theatre Workshop, which has outlived him, and is today managed and directed by one of its earliest members, Albert Laveau. The TTW was the nursery for some of the finest actors in the country and region, including Wilbert Holder, Errol Jones, and Nigel Scott. It was also this collaboration between Walcott and his actors which saw the creation of many classics of Caribbean drama including Dream on Monkey Mountain, The Joker of Seville, Ti Jean and his Brothers, and the stage version of The Odyssey, in addition to tens of lesser plays.
Walcott’s years in Trinidad were marked with artistic and personal loss and gain. His stature as a poet grew internationally. But his theatre company was permanently without a home. There were respites at the Bretton Hall and the Old Fire Station in the 1960s and 1980s, but the TTW remains without a home at the present. Walcott was divorced once when he came to Trinidad, and had fathered one son, Peter, with his first wife, Fay. While here he married Margaret Walcott (née Maillard) who produced his two daughters, Anna and Elizabeth. He divorced Margaret to marry actress Norline Metivier in 1982, which marriage did not last. His last decades were spent with his companion, Sigrid Nama.
He spent his time in Trinidad working as director of the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, and as a critic for the Trinidad Guardian. His erudite and acerbic style generated frissons with local artists, like his celebrated feud with Errol Hill in the 1960s, conducted in the pages of this newspaper. From the start, this intertwining of art and life was a visible theme in the way he lived and worked. His personal life and his politics were woven into his poems.
He was also at odds with Kamau Brathwaite and others whom he called “revolutionary poets” for using the emotional surges of anti-colonialism to produce artistically deficient poetry. He labelled the activists of the Black Power movement (in his poem, Another Life) “those who charge tickets / for another free ride on the Middle Passage.” He refused to reject colonial art (calling himself “the divided child”, between black and white antecedents) and what came to be known as the Western canon in favour of immediate emotional gratification.
But this did not mean romanticising squalor. His disaffection with Trinidad’s corruption and general chaos is reflected in his poetry of the period, most famously The Spoiler’s Return, which observes: “I see these islands and I feel to bawl / ‘Area of darkness’ with VS Nightfall”. This was one exchange in a lifelong sporadic conversation with VS Naipaul, the only other living Caribbean Nobel laureate, which was at turns admiring and angry, and which eventually turned corrosive.
With his growing international reputation, and the award of a coveted MacArthur Foundation’s “Genius grant” in 1981, Walcott was able to detach from Trinidad, and find a more welcoming space elsewhere, in the US. He took up an appointment at Boston University in 1981 where he taught creative writing till 2007. At BU he established the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, and formed friendships with Seamus Heaney and Joseph Brodsky, poets who would influence him. Brodsky won the Nobel in 1987 and Heaney in 1995.
Artistic successes aside, his career was dogged by accusations of sexual harassment. These began in 1982 from a female undergraduate at Harvard University and they recurred in 1996 at BU. The rumours resurfaced in 2009, when he was being considered for appointment as Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. His last academic post was Professor of Poetry at the University of Essex in the UK, in 2010.
Walcott’s poetic reputation was internationally well-established by the late 1980s, and his 1990 masterpiece, Omeros, a Caribbean version of Homer’s Odyssey, catapulted him into history. It was on this basis that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992.
This event marked a return to Trinidad, and a renewal of the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, which came out of hiatus and took the stage version of The Odyssey on tour through Europe.
Walcott’s later years were marked by the customary pattern of artistic success and personal contretemps. He became embroiled in his final years in an open feud with Naipaul, calling him a racist and immortalising him in a poem, the Mongoose, which he read at the Calabash Literary Festival in Jamaica in 2008.
He broke ties with the Trinidad Theatre Workshop around 2010, a split which persisted until his death. But post-Nobel he also produced four highly accomplished books of poetry, which showed no sign of a decline of his poetic power. These were The Bounty, The Prodigal, Tieopolo’s Hound, and White Egrets. His last work was Morning, Paramin.