Remembering Derek Walcott

Determining the boundaries of poetry, what it is and isn’t, what counts as ‘poetry’ and what doesn’t, is a thorny endeavor even – perhaps especially – for experienced poets. W.B. Yeats offered this standard: “Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.” Poet, painter, and playwright Derek Walcott exemplified the process of bringing those quarrels, those questions and wonders, to fruition. He passed away on March 17, 2017, leaving behind a body of work as staggering in scope, skill, and ambition as it is finely crystallized at the level of the line, the syllable, the individual brush-stroke.

From a profile of Walcott in Esquire Magazine. Note that Yeats is included in Walcott’s semi-serious theory that “the best poets come from islands.” His poem in the background, “Love after Love”, was also used as an epigraph to Audrey Niffenegger’s award-winning novel The Time-Traveler’s Wife.

 

Walcott was born in 1930 on the island of Saint Lucia, a former British colony in the West Indies, to a teacher and a painter. His ancestry was English, Dutch, and African, and his family were Methodists living in a largely Catholic community (due to French colonial rule). This confluence of heritage and history, belonging and power, identity given and claimed, would inform his creative work for the rest of his life. As a young man, he trained as a painter, but soon developed a love for writing, publishing his first poem in the local newspaper at age fourteen. At nineteen he borrowed the money needed to print his first book of poems, which he distributed on street corners and to friends. After graduating from the University College of the West Indies, he moved to Trinidad, beginning a long career in poetry, theater, painting, criticism, journalism, and teaching, combined with a seemingly insatiable appetite for life. In 1992, Walcott was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the second Caribbean writer to receive the award (after Saint-John Perse in 1960).

Walcott’s painting “Another Life” and his poem of the same name, printed on an invitation to an exhibition of his visual art

Walcott divided most of his adult life between Saint Lucia, Boston, and New York, but he was strongly connected to another ‘Saint’ at the confluence of cultures and histories, Saint Louis. Through Washington University’s  International Writers Center (IWC), Walcott developed a friendship with writer and IWC director William Gass.

Derek Walcott and William Gass at the IWC’s “inaugural bash”

 

A letter from Gass to Walcott inviting him to the opening of the IWC. Special Collections is proud to hold much of the correspondence between Gass and Walcott, which is as delightfully full of the two men’s personalities as this one letter.

Walcott read in Saint Louis many times and contributed to the local community in numerous other ways: for one example, a performance of one of his plays, “Pantomime”, was put on at a local prison in 1991. He remained a vital part of the IWC, and was also a regular contributor to the River Styx reading series organized by the local literary magazine of the same name.

Above: a promotional flyer for a Walcott reading on campus, during Walcott’s visit referred to in Gass’s letter. Below: an audio clip of Walcott at the reading.

Walcott is survived by his partner Sigrid Nama and by his three children. Special Collections is proud to hold many of his works, correspondence, and other materials, and to offer them for perusal and research. To explore the materials available, search ‘Walcott’ here or visit the International Writer’s Center Archives, which is where the above items reside.

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