Saint Lucia is a tiny island in the Caribbean with a history and culture that are much larger than its mere geographic area. For Derek Walcott, a poet and proud Saint Lucian, the history and the culture of his home–his island–were at the core of all his works. He became an interpreter of the Caribbean experience, probing the dark legacies of colonialism and slavery in language as forceful and colorful as the tropical seas and skies that surrounded him. Walcott, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992, died on March 17. He was 87.
Walcott was born on Saint Lucia on January 23, 1930, and before he was 20 years old, he had published two collections of poetry; his first poem appeared in a local newspaper when he was just 14. While still a young man living in the Caribbean, Walcott drew international attention for his 1962 collection In a Green Night: Poems 1948-1960 and his 1970 play Dream on Monkey Mountain.
He published what is perhaps his magnum opus, the epic poem Omeros, in 1990. The poem draws on Homer’s The Iliad for its inspiration but repositions the classic tale as a discussion of colonialism, slavery, and Caribbean life.
Walcott’s writing is notable for its metaphors, for its boldness and its embrace of such profound themes, but one of Walcott’s most distinctive literary traits was his use of English. Residents of his native Saint Lucia speak both English and a form of Creole French in addition to the myriad languages spoken across the Caribbean, so Walcott’s use of English–and, it should go without saying, his mastery of it–was itself significant, the reclamation of a language that was thrust on his home and his people as the result of colonial machinations. “I was taught English literature as my natural inheritance,” he once wrote.
For Walcott, his natural inheritance of English speaks to one of his most powerful themes: the ability to build new identities by taking the best of what the past has to offer, scars and all. He referred to this vision in his Nobel lecture, explaining, “History a forgotten, insomniac night; History and elemental awe are always our early beginning, because the fate of poetry is to fall in love with the world, in spite of History.” And so he did. Walcott’s poetry took history as its starting point, but it used history as a vehicle to describe the beauty of his island home and the resilience of his people. Walcott’s poetry found a way to fall in love with the world in spite of its history, and it helped his readers–both in the Caribbean and around the world–to do the same.