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Book Review

The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948-2013

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Publisher: Faber & Faber, hardback

1 of 1 Derek Walcott - new collection of his exuberant, erudite poems
Derek Walcott - new collection of his exuberant, erudite poems

Derek Walcott was born in St Lucia, in the West Indies in 1930. A successful playwright as well as poet, he co-founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop in 1950 with his brother. He was Professor of Creative Writing at Boston University, where he first befriended Seamus Heaney. Like his close friend, he also won the Nobel Prize for literature (in 1992.) In recent times, he has been Professor of Poetry at the University of Essex.

Walcott's epic poem, Omeros, appeared in 1990 to widespread praise, and depicted a fishing war in the Caribbean, with a colourful cast of characters based on The Iliad and The Odyssey.(It is, however, not included here, due to length.)

Throughout his work, the poet draws instinctively and with striking erudition on the contrasting cultures of his mixed Caribbean and European background. He collaborated with Paul Simon on Simon’s ill-fated 1998 musical, The Capeman, which dealt with Puerto Rican culture in New York, where Walcott has lived.

Classically educated and raised in a Methodist family, his strictly-ordered poems make frequent reference to the literature of Greece and Rome. Many of the poems are steeped in European painting. The zestful and vivid long poem, Tiepolo’s Hound (2000) references the Venetian Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770) arguably the European painter of the eighteenth century. Walcott is a painter himself, mostly in water colours. His father was also a painter and poet who died at the cruelly early age of 31, following an ear infection.  

Much of Walcott 's verse explores colonial and post-colonial themes, and his language frequently employs Caribbean patois. He published his first poem in a local newspaper at 14 years of age and five years later, he borrowed 200 dollars from his mother to produce his debut collection, 25 Poems, some of whose poems are included here. He sold that collection on street corners in Sant Lucia. His mother, Alix, was a teacher, of Dutch descent, who recited poetry around the house. She was extremely supportive of her son in his early painting and literary careers. She earned some fine poems in her honour following her passing.

Tiepolo's Hound can be quiet and reflective, but much of Walcott's poetry is exuberantly romantic, thriving on rich, luxuriant images of the sea and nature, his natural Caribbean milieu. The poet's recent White Egrets collection, published in 2010, confronts mortality and loss with wistful, elegaic grace. In the book, the elderly Walcott wanders through Italy, including Sicily, as correspondences and recognitions waft into view. This 600-page selection has been chosen by fellow poet and friend, Glyn Maxwell.

So much rain, so much life like the swollen sky
of this black August. My sister, the sun,
broods in her yellow room and won't come out.


Everything goes to hell; the mountains fume
like a kettle, rivers overrun; still,
she will not rise and turn off the rain
. (Dark August)

Paddy Kehoe

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