On March 17th my world was rocked by the death of one of my literary heroes, Sir Derek Walcott.
Sir Derek was born in Castries St Lucia in January 1930. St Lucia is one of the Windward Islands in the Lesser Antilles of the Caribbean.
His father, a Bohemian water colourist, died when Derek and his twin brother, Roderick, were only a few years old. His mother was the principal of the Methodist school in his home town.
After studying at St. Mary’s College in his native island and at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, he moved to Trinidad, where he has worked as a theatre and art critic.
Sir Derek was one of those fortunate people born knowing what they are meant to do. From an early age he painted and wrote.
At the age of 18, he made his debut by self publishing his first collection, 25 Poems, and distributing them on the streets of his home country.
Walcott never stopped painting and painted the art for many of his numerous works himself.
His breakthrough and great international acclaim came after the publication of the collection, In a Green Night (1962). Sir Derek was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992.
The St. Lucian poet, playwright, professor and Nobel Laureate was the bane of my existence in my early college years.
We studied his poems. His words very often, stumped, challenged and frustrated me as I attempted to wade through his dense, profoundly layered imagery and verse.
As I grew in my craft though, my loathing turned to grateful respect, appreciation and admiration of this giant of Caribbean literature.
Sir Derek’s experience of growing up on an isolated volcanic island, an ex-British colony, strongly influenced his life and work.
He was the true embodiment of that famous line from Rudyard Kipling’s, poem, ‘If’:
“If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch”…
Despite years of living a tri-coastal life, residing in Boston, New York and his beloved St. Lucia, Sir Derek always identified himself foremost as a Caribbean writer, a Caribbean man.
This did not in any way narrow his poetic vision or expression. His epic book length poem ‘Omeros’ is a testament to the broad scope of his knowledge and experience.
In it he drew on Homer’s ‘The Iliad’ and ‘Odessy’, casting Achilles as an island fisherman.
One of his most quoted poems is, ‘Love after Love’ an ode to love of the self, not selfish, not narcissistic but a timely reminder not to lose ourselves as we nurture others.
If you are unfamiliar with his work, his collections, ‘Selected Poems’ edited by Sir Edward Baugh (2007) and ‘In a Green Night: poems 1948-1960’ (1962) are great introductions to his powerful narrative voice.
Derek Walcott is dead. I hope he is still writing in the great beyond. Rest well Sir Derek.