Sunday, 26 March 2017

In memory of Derek Walcott, 1930-2017

Derek Walcott, poet and playwright of Saint Lucia, died on 17 March at the age of 87.

I think I recall my first Derek Walcott poem. It was 'The Season of Phantasmal Peace' and I encountered it in a literary criticism class at university. I would have been 18 or 19. I don't remember what we said about this poem, or which angle we approached it from, but I do remember how it looked in my mind and I have some recollection of the sensation. It was a vision of a murmuration of starlings - those strange, almost supernatural flock movements - and the poem came with a sensation of power and lift-off that I found unusual and exhilarating.

I've read Derek Walcott on and off since then. I was at the 2010 TS Eliot Prize readings when he won for White Egrets, but sadly he wasn't present to read (Seamus Heaney was there to read from his own nominated collection, though. How amazing would it have been to see them on the same stage...). I correctly picked him as the winner out of an especially strong field, though. Amongst 20th century poetry, his work just might be the most outstanding example of how to unite far-flung influences. Walcott was mixed-race and as with his background, his writing brought together Caribbean culture, classical literary influences, and the various legacies of colonialism. I think of his poems as being like Rembrandt's paintings, or a seemingly effortless and flawless work of architecture. The craftsmanship is almost too good to be grasped. You just experience something of exceptional depth, beauty and clarity - which also stands up to extremely close analysis, if you want to go there.

Walcott was every bit as good as TS Eliot or Elizabeth Bishop or Seamus Heaney; often better, I think. He is the poet who reminds us that constant attention to craft and openness to the world's variety are powerful things.

Here are a handful of poems to start with, or to go back to.


Photo: Derek Walcott, VIII Festival Internacional, 1992. By Jorge Mejia Peralta. Used under Creative Commons license


  1. I had not yet experienced this writer, there is something almost of a flavor of Cavafy in his classical references, but his voice is quite disciplined and unique.

    1. I have not read a lot of Cavafy but from what I have read, I agree that there is something similar in Walcott's approach to the classics. Possibly his most famous work is Omeros, which is an epic poem set in the Caribbean in modern times (and somewhat in other times) and somewhat based on Homer. I would say maybe start with his shorter poems, of which there are many, and work up...