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Bereavement Announcement: On the Passing of Sir Derek A. Walcott


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Bereavement Announcement
On the Passing of Sir Derek A. Walcott

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On Friday, March 17, 2017, at Gros Islet, St. Lucia, Nobel Laureate Sir Derek Alton Walcott passed away at his home. With his passage, the world of arts and letters has lost a poet, dramatist, and essayist who shaped prevailing definitions of twentieth and twenty-first century figurative language in poetry, drama, and prose.  

Born January 23, 1930, a twin to his brother Roderick in Castries, St. Lucia, Derek A. Walcott's commitment to forging the English language into an instrument of revelation is of the fiercest variety, equal only to his commitment to the Caribbean as a site and source of artistic and cultural wealth brought forth in the word; if language is the metal at hand, Walcott is our modern-day Hephaestus. His life's work, the monumental and monumentalizing consideration of history in poetry and drama, is captured in each of the following collections of poetry and plays: In a Green Night: Poems 1948-1960; The Castaway and Other Poems; The Gulf and Other Poems; Another Life;  Sea Grapes; The Star-Apple Kingdom; The Fortunate Traveller; Midsummer; Collected Poems: 1948-1984; The Arkansas Testament; Omeros; the Bounty; Tiepolo's Hound; The Prodigal: A Poem; Selected Poems; White Egrets; Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays; The Joker of Seville and O Babylon!; Remembrance and Pantomime; The Odyssey; The Haitian Trilogy;and Walker and the Ghost Dance. His collection of essays titled What the Twilight Says: An Overture remains one of the richest and most intriguing ruminations on Caribbean artistic creation's inheritance of colonialism and its hybrid cultures; Walcott theorizes the Caribbean artist as both "Adamic," a "first man," and Caliban, colonial slave. 

Walcott remains the lyrical and elegiac beating heart of the Caribbean, and it is toward the specificity of Caribbean linguistic and cultural hybridity that his work turns in each formal declaration: throughout lyric, elegy, epic, and drama, Walcott confirms the truths of the universal through the particular rhythms of Caribbean language and culture. In that regard, Walcott also confirms throughout his work the messages of the particular in the universal; as such, he is also our modern-day Hermes, messenger to the gods. To quote Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, who was a dear friend of Walcott's: "He gives us more than himself or 'a world'; he gives us a sense of infinity in the language." That "sense of infinity" is foregrounded in Walcott's profound respect for the English language, and his calling to the craft of poetry and drama. It is perhaps fitting that Walcott made his departure on St. Patrick's Day, as his other great friend in life and poetry was Seamus Heaney.  

Yet the material of his work is always already revolutionary, in that Walcott envisions an infinity in which all of the narrative requirements of heroism are imagined from the position of the black Caribbean world, and remain at the fingertips of the black Caribbean subject, most apparent in his epic Omeros, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992. This fidelity throughout his work to fashion his Caribbean through the eyes and ears of its rhythms will continue to enthrall audiences throughout the world, and across time. 

Walcott's commitment to poetry extended to all of the arts, most notably to his passion for theater and painting. He is an accomplished playwright who founded the Trinidadian Theater Workshop with his brother, Roderick, in 1950, and he also painted for most of his life. Tiepolo's Hound boasts twenty-six reproductions of Walcott's own paintings throughout its interweaving narrative that reimagines St. Thomatian nineteenth-century impressionist-painter Camille Pissarro's journeys to Europe with Walcott's own. He was also a terrifically conscientious reader, critic, mentor, and friend to younger poets and writers who sent him their work; generous with his time, Walcott was also a sharp critic carefully maintaining his integrity and his honesty in responding to people's work. His sense of humor was robust, and sometimes silly; he observed the everyday world and people in it with a voracious curiosity. In social settings, he would speak to strangers-from child to ancient, and in any context-who he found interesting. His delight in the world was complete-as could be his impatience with that same world, and the people in it. 

Walcott taught at several institutions over the years including Boston University, Columbia, Yale, and Rutgers. Among numerous awards and commendations, Walcott was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II as KCSL (Knight Commander of the Order of St. Lucia) in 2016. In addition, he won an Obie Award for his play Dream on Monkey Mountain (1971) and a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship in 1981.The T.S. Eliot Prize was awarded to him for his last collection of poetry White Egrets (2010), which includes a series of poems on President Barack Hussein Obama. 

The Center for Black Literature and the English Department were fortunate to have honored Sir Derek Walcott with the W. E. B. Du Bois Award at Medgar Evers College (CUNY) during the 2014 National Black Writers Conference. This last trip, he and his wife, Sigrid, made included visits throughout the Americas, from Canada to Mexico; after this visit, Walcott remained in St. Lucia with Sigrid, writing, painting, entertaining friends, and enjoying the view from his aerie on Rodney Bay.

 

Victoria A. Chevalier, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Englis
Medgar Evers College (CUNY)
 

 The Center for Black Literature at
Medgar Evers College, CUN
Phone: 718-804-8883

E-mail: writers@mec.cuny.edu

www.CENTERFORBLACKLITERATURE.org 

 

 

 

 
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