DEREK ALTON   WALCOTT
NOBEL  LAUREATE  IN  LITERATURE
1992

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 Derek Alton Walcott was born in Castries, St. Lucia on 23 January, 1930, son of Warwick and Alix Walcott, and twin brother of Roderick Aldon Walcott.

The topography of St. Lucia  - rugged, mountainous, thickly-foliaged has contributed much to Walcott's feeling for the place and  artistic development.  He got to know the  countryside early, partly through visits to his grandfather's property near Choiseul, and partly because a close family friend, Grace Augustin used to invite the Walcott boys to spend vacations on her D'Aubaignan and  Patience estates on the eastern coast of the island between Micoud and Dennery.  It was  here that Walcott experienced the epiphany, which confirmed his destiny as a poet and sealed the bond of his love for St. Lucia.

Once in a generation a spirit emerges which captures the essence and the sensibility of an entire nation and an entire people.  Shakespeare in his mastery had caught the robust vitality of the Elizabethan age and James Joyce breathed the air and sounds of the Irish people.

This generation of St. Lucians is fortunate to have lived in an era when the genius of Derek Alton Walcott has infused St. Lucia with the heroic dimensions of Homer's Greece. He has italicized the glory that is St. Lucia. He has isolated and described in his work the psyche of the St. Lucian people.  He has focused on the elemental dignity and pride of Afa the fisherman and Makak the Charcoal-burner whose persona is fused into his physical  environment achieving a peculiar unity of time, place and person.

It is this peculiar unity which gives the universality to the best verse of this St. Lucian Laureate.  Perhaps as laymen we could find some methodology, some focus  for our educational prowess in the odyssey of Walcott's writings. He has embraced the aphorism of G. K. Chesterton that "Only the local is real!"  He embarked on his poetic Odyssey by observing and absorbing the sense- data around him, the flora and fauna, the hills and the omnipresent sea. He found his subject matter in the tales that stalked this land, and assigned himself the Adam's task of naming things.  He explored the exuberance and the romanticism of poets like Dylan Thomas, Gerard Manley Hopkins and other such Romantics.  Then he moved almost in concentric circles from the local, to the regional and the international.  In the course of this search for excellence and true-pitch, he imbibed the formalism of more classical poets like T. S. Eliott, Auden and Yeates.  He leapt across continents to feed on the sensibility of Robert Lowell, Joseph Brodsky and Seamus Heany.  But there was no question of pastiche.  He ransacked the store of world literature, searching for an authentic voice, a sculptured line and a rhythm that would capture his essential style and his elegiac celebration of life.  Walcott puts it in his own inimitable prose.  He said:

    "The strength of the West Indian psyche is a fusion of formalism with exuberance, a delight in both the precision and the power of language.  We love rhetoric, and this has created a style, panache about life that is particularly ours."

In Walcott's search for poetic truth he has established the Caribbean as a cradle for literary and cultural tradition which is primeval in its freshness and authenticity, yet with a linguistic subtlety which equals and sometimes  surpasses the classical models in English and American literature.  His friend and colleague Joseph Brodsky puts a finer point on it when in 1983 he wrote:

       "For the most forty years that Walcott has been at, at this loving sea, critics on both sides have dubbed him "A West Indian Poet" or a "Black Poet from the Caribbean".  These definitions are as myopic and misleading as it would be to call the Savior a Gallilean...The mental as well as spiritual cowardice, obvious in the attempts to render this man a regional writer, can be further explained by the unwillingness of the critical profession to admit that the great Poet of the English  language is a black man."

But Walcott's odyssey did not end in the sterility of racial hegemony.  On the contrary he has moved Caribbean literature away from the sterility of an endless exploration of racial identity, away from a monotonous one-dimensional elegy of history and culture, and broadened the cultural canvas to embrace Indian, African, European and American culture - forging a veritable unity out of diversity.

Derek Walcott, in his Nobel Lecture expressed this multiculturalism, this forging unity out of diversity with remarkable eloquence:

   "Break a vase, and the love that re-assembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole.  The glue that fits the pieces is the sailing of its original shape.  It is such a love that re-assembles our African and Asiatic fragments the cracked heirloom whose restoration sows its white scars.  This gathering of broken pieces is the care and pain of the Antilles, and if the pieces are disparate, ill-fitting, they contain more pain than their original sculpture those icons and sacred vessels taken for granted in their ancestral pieces.  Antillean art is this restoration of our shattered histories, our shards of vocabulary, our archipelago becoming a synonym for pieces broken off from the original continent."

In this limpid perception of destiny of the St. Lucian people, the poet is charting the course and pointing the way for the Caribbean and its people, he has thrown down a gauntlet for leaders, politicians and the people of the Caribbean as a whole.  The challenge is to remake the past with a view to understanding the present.  Observe and study the present the immediate environment, absorb the sense data around you and plan the future in accordance with the historical and cultural experience of the past and the immediate understanding of the present.  In global terms, one must observe, understand and appreciate this native island, reach out for a broader understanding of the region and then find a place in the international chain of being.  The concentric circles must merge to form a unity out of a diversity.  Professor Rex Nettleford says of Walcott:

    "In a sense we are kindred spirits trying to create a unity out of disparity, he through the medium of poetry and drams, and I through the media of movement.  Some people have found our work too brown, others have found it too black.  But it is the turbulence and ambivalence and chaos of the Region that give our work its dynamism."

The Government and People of St. Lucia have bestowed their highest honor on this poetic symbol of the Caribbean's new Renaissance, "St. Lucia's man for all seasons", who has scaled the heights of world  literature by applying a right discipline and a sense of commitment to his burning desire to depict his virginal island and "praise love-song the living and the brown dead".

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Citation on Receipt of the Saint Lucia Cross

 


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