R.I.P. Derek Walcott, Bard of the Caribbean

© Jorge Mejía
© Jorge Mejía
Photo of Michael Barron
Books And Digest Editor17 March 2017

The St. Lucian poet, playwright, and Nobel laureate has died. He was 87 years old.

Widely considered to be one of the greatest poets to emerge from the West Indies, Derek Walcott passed away at his home in St. Lucia on March 17. No cause of death has been announced.

Born on Castries, island nation’s capital city, Walcott was born into a family with mixed African and European heritage, one that reflected the complicated colonial history of the island. He published his first poem at fourteen in a St. Lucian newspaper, and self-published his first poetry collection, 25 Poems, four years later. “We had no publishing house in St. Lucia or in the Caribbean,” he told the Paris Review in an interview from 1986,”There was a Faber collection of books that had come out with poets like Eliot and Auden, and I liked the typeface and how the books looked. I thought, I want to have a book like that. So I selected a collection of twenty-five of them and thought, Well, these will look good because they’ll look like they came from abroad; they’ll look like a published book.”

Walcott first garnered widespread attention after the British publisher Jonathan Cape brought out In a Green Night: Poems 1948—60. In a profile that ran in the New Yorker in 2004, Walcott recounted that fellow poet Robert had been so impressed with the collection that he traveled down Trinidad, where Walcott was then living, to meet him. It was Lowell who was responsible for introducing Walcott to what would become his lifelong publisher, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

His poetry was filled with visions of the Caribbean, where the sea and sky come together in lushly described colors, as though painted on a canvas, an aesthetic exemplified by such poems as “Midsummer, Tobago”:

Broad sun-stoned beaches.

White heat.
A green river.

A bridge,
scorched yellow palms

from the summer-sleeping house
drowsing through August.

Days I have held,
days I have lost,

days that outgrow, like daughters,
my harbouring arms.

In 1992, Walcott’s career crested when he the recipient for literature’s highest honor, the Nobel Prize. In his acceptance speech, Walcott spoke of his humility at being given the award, stating: What is joy without fear? The fear of selfishness that the world paying attention to me…[yet I am filled with] as grateful a joy and a blessed fear as when a boy opened an exercise book and, within the discipline of its margins, framed stanzas that might contain the light of the hills on an island blest by obscurity, cherishing our insignificance.”

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