Sir Derek Walcott 1930-2017

Sir Derek Walcott was born and grew up in Castries, St Lucia, one of twin boys. His mother was an elementary school teacher and his father, who died a year after the twins’ birth, a civil servant and talented painter. The boys attended Methodist schools in a predominantly Roman Catholic community. He was educated at St Mary’s College in Castries and at the University College of West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica.

In 1953 he moved to Trinidad where he worked as a journalist, critic and teacher and co-founded with his brother the Trinidad Theatre Workshop in 1959. He had already had two collections of poems self-published in 1948 and 1949, but his breakthrough as a poet came in 1962 with Green Night Poems - 1948-1960, many of which described the natural beauty of the Caribbean landscape. He went on to publish several more volumes of poetry over the next ten years and in 1972 was awarded the OBE for his work.

In 1981 he went to Boston University to teach literature, remaining there for twenty years and becoming friends with the Russian expatriate poet Joseph Brodsky and the poet Seamus Heaney who also taught there. During this period he founded the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre and wrote the epic poem Omeros, a Caribbean version of Homer’s Odyssey combining the beauty of the islands with the deeper issues of the scars of colonialism. For this he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992.

In 2008 Walcott began a three-year scholar-in-residence position at the University of Alberta and in 2010 became Professor of Poetry at the University of Essex. He was knighted in 2016 and in addition to having received numerous awards, has had a memorial square and a public park named after him. In addition to poetry, he wrote a biography of the painter, Camille Pisarro, as well as over twenty plays and many essays. He was also a talented painter himself, including some of his watercolours in his poetry collection Tiepolo’s Hound (2000) and exhibiting in New York City in 2007.

He was influenced by poets such as Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop as well as his Methodist background. His deep love of the Caribbean is reflected in his poetry which explores its complex history and displays an optimistic approach to post colonialism. Although fundamentally a Caribbean writer, his work is not overly nationalistic and is a fine blend of his ear for the English language and his sense of his own people. He was thrice married and had three children. He died in St Lucia, aged 87 and was honoured with a State funeral.

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