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Derek Walcott: Biography & Poems

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Aside from Bob Marley, how many wordsmiths do you know from the Caribbean? Keep reading to meet one more when you learn about the life and work of Derek Walcott, a true poet of the Caribbean.

Poet of the Caribbean: A Brief Biography of Derek Walcott

For many of us, images of the Caribbean's sand and surf might conjure thoughts of pirates or Spring Break parties. However, to many, the hundreds of islands in the Caribbean Sea are a source of endless inspiration - that is, other than for pillaging and debauchery. Among them is Derek Walcott, a decorated and beloved poet of the Caribbean Islands, whose works have been capturing the culture and history of this maritime paradise for decades.

The island nation of St. Lucia (circled) lies in the Lesser Antilles of the Caribbean between Martinique and St. Vincent.
Map of islands in the Caribbean Sea

Early Life

Derek and his twin brother Roderick (later a playwright himself) were born on January 23, 1930 in Castries, St. Lucia. Growing up, both of Derek's parents - his mother a teacher and his father a painter and poet - were major supporters of the arts, and Derek was himself originally trained as a painter. He discovered his passion for writing at an early age, though, and decided to devote himself more to its pursuit.

At the age of only 14, Derek published his first poem ('1944') in the Voice of St. Lucia. By the time he was 19, his mother had helped him raise the money to self-publish two poetry collections: 25 Poems and Epitaphs for the Young: XII Cantos.

These early endeavors no doubt helped Derek secure the Colonial Development and Welfare scholarship, which allowed him to attend the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. After college, Derek moved to Trinidad, where he worked as a critic and educator and founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop.

Literary Breakthroughs

While working in Trinidad, Walcott continued to write, eventually compiling a collection of poems exploring the culture and history of the Caribbean, particularly in the context of colonialism - the theory and practice of seizing territory, typically for the purposes of national expansion and economic exploitation. This anthology (In a Green Night: Poems 1948-1960) was published in 1962 and was Walcott's major breakthrough into the literary world.

Since the 1960's, Walcott has taught at a variety of schools across the world, including Boston University, where he established the Boston Playwrights' Theatre in 1981 and from which he retired only in 2007. Through the years, he also maintained a steady stream of publications, both in poetry and drama.

Honors and Legacy

Walcott's impressive body of work and inexhaustible dedication to Caribbean culture have earned him a number of awards and honors. These include British royal honors (i.e. knighthood) as well as a MacArthur Foundation 'genius' award. Perhaps most importantly, though, Derek Walcott became the first Caribbean native to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992.

Even now at the age of 85, Walcott is still teaching, currently holding the post of Professor of Poetry at the University of Essex. He's still even publishing work, with his latest anthology (The Poetry of Derek Walcott: 1948-2013) coming out as recently as 2014! Keep reading to get a glimpse at just a few of these many works that have made Walcott the quintessential Caribbean poet.

Derek Walcott (1930-Present), Quintessential Caribbean poet, playwright, and Nobel Laureate
Photo of Derek Walcott

Poems by Walcott

Omeros

When many of us think of an epic - a lengthy narrative poem (typically more than 1,000 lines) of grand feats and heroic warriors - we might think of ancient mythical heroes like Achilles or Odysseus. Derek Walcott's famous epic Omeros was published in 1990, though it still holds connections to this ancient tradition.

Walcott uses allusions to the legendary Greek poet Homer ('Omeros') and particularly his epic Iliad to elevate the status of Caribbean culture to the same level as that of the Greeks, Romans, or any other great society in history with its own epic poetry.

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