Derek Walcott, a West Indian poet whose ancestors were slaves, won the 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday, marking the first time the award has gone to a Caribbean writer.
Called a modern-day Homer by some critics, the 62-year-old poet was honored for an extensive body of work that offers a rich, evocative blend of African, West Indian and European cultural traditions.
“In him, West Indian culture has found its great poet,” said the Swedish Academy of Letters in awarding the $1.2-million prize. The academy went on to praise Walcott for his “melodious and sensitive” style that shows “singular luster and great force.”
Although his work is not widely known in the mass marketplace, Walcott’s reputation in international poetry circles has been golden for several decades. Joseph Brodsky, the 1987 Nobel literature laureate, recently called him “the best poet the English language has today.”
Walcott’s most recent book is “Omeros,” a 64-chapter Caribbean epic that blends elements of the Odysseus legend and the turbulent West Indian world. Although the poet said he was greatly honored by the prize, he suggested that his people and their culture are the real winners.
“For so long, the world has viewed West Indian culture as semiliterate and backward, which it is not,” said Walcott, who has also gained recognition as a playwright and painter. “In my work, I have tried to give that world an exposure, so the world can better understand it.”
Saying that he was “a little stunned” by the news of his prize, Walcott, a wry, soft-spoken man, noted that Trinidadian-born author V. S. Naipaul was also on the “short list” of this year’s literary finalists.
“It would have been just as much of an honor if Naipaul had won, or any other of a number of West Indian writers as well,” Walcott said in the living room of his apartment near Boston. “The important thing is to put this in perspective and not let it go to your head.”
The 1992 award reflects what some believe is a move by the academy to honor a more global cross section of writers. In recent years, the prize has gone to Nadine Gordimer of South Africa, Naguib Mahfouz of Egypt and Wole Soyinka of Nigeria. But overall, 59 of the previous 88 winners were Europeans. Thursday’s award came just days before the quincentennial of Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the Caribbean.
In Brookline, as he received congratulations from well-wishers, Walcott winced at a phone that rang nonstop and wearily waved it off. Dressed in blue jeans, tweed sport coat and tennis shoes, he looked more like a rumpled academic than a man who had just won one of the world’s richest and most prestigious literary awards. The irony was not lost on him.
“I guess I don’t have to live in this dump anymore, do I?” he said with a laugh, gesturing at his small living room. “I think I have a few more options now, wouldn’t you say?”
In the last decade, Walcott has divided his time between the West Indies and the United States, where he teaches poetry and creative writing at Boston University. School officials were effusive in their praise of Walcott, who they said is one of the most sought-after instructors on campus.
“Derek is not just a magnificent poet, he is also a superb teacher who shows great patience and understanding with his students,” said Dr. Leslie Epstein, who chairs the writing program. “He’s a traditionalist in the sense that he requires students not only to write a great deal, but to read a lot as well . . . so they have a rich background in poetry.”
In honoring Walcott, the Swedish Academy singled out a poet who began writing at an early age. He was born in St. Lucia, a tiny, former British colony in the Lesser Antilles that has had one previous Nobel laureate, Sir Arthur Lewis, who won the 1979 economics prize.
Walcott’s father died when he was very young, and his mother, a teacher who encouraged her children to read widely, raised the family.
The budding poet was exposed to European colonial traditions in his youth but also developed a pride in his West Indian roots. These multicultural tensions began appearing in his earliest works, which touch on themes of slavery, independence and bitter poverty in the Caribbean world.
Walcott’s first book, “25 Poems,” was published when he was 18. From the beginning, the tangled strands of land, history and culture caused him to ponder the riddle of his identity: “How choose/Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?” he wrote in the poem “A Far Cry From Africa.”
Both his grandmothers were said to have been descendants of slaves, and slavery’s anguished legacy is a theme of some of his poems. In his 1979 work about Jamaica, “The Star-Apple Kingdom,” he wrote of the “groom, the cattle boy, the housemaid . . . the good Negroes down in the village, their mouths in the locked jaw of a silent scream.”
In other works, Walcott voiced concern for the fragile West Indian environment: “One morning the Caribbean was cut up/by seven prime ministers who bought the sea in bolts/til everyone owned a little piece of the sea, from which some made saris, some made bandannas/the rest was offered on trays to white cruise ships taller than the post office.”
There reportedly were cheers and exultation in Walcott’s hometown after news reached there of his honor. The prime minister of St. Lucia, John Compton, sent Walcott a message saying, “Our cup overflows with pride and joy at your success.”
Some critics have called “Omeros” Walcott’s masterpiece; the Swedish Academy also praised the 1990 epic, noting that “its weft is a rich one, deriving from the poet’s wide-ranging contacts with literature, history and reality. We find Homer, Poe, Mayakovsky and Melville, allusions are made to Brodsky . . . and he quotes the Beatles’ ‘Yesterday.’ ”
Walcott moved to Trinidad in 1953. He has taught in St. Lucia, Grenada and Jamaica and lived in New York in the late 1950s, founding his own repertory company, the Trinidad Theatre Workshop.
Married three times but separated now, he has three children. He has been the recipient of prestigious grants from the Rockefeller and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur foundations. Walcott won the 1986 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for poetry for his “Collected Poems,” and the W. H. Smith Literary Award in Britain last year. In 1988, he became the first Commonwealth citizen to win the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry.
As a playwright, Walcott won plaudits for his 1970 work, “Dream on Monkey Mountain,” which received an Obie Award and was produced at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.
“Derek is a real dramatic poet, someone who encapsulates the power of the dramatic word on stage, which isn’t always equivalent to written poetry,” said Gordon Davidson, artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum. “ ‘Dream on Monkey Mountain’ is clearly his theatrical masterpiece, and I don’t use that word loosely. In that play, he tapped into a mythical source . . . about identity and going back to your roots that’s close in its own way to Shakespearean theater.”
Walcott has a play now being performed in Sweden and is working on a dramatic translation of the Odyssey for the Royal Shakespeare Company in London.
His career has not been entirely free of controversy. In 1982, he was admonished in writing by Harvard University after a freshman in his poetry workshop accused him of sexual harassment. The university, where Walcott was a visiting scholar, took the rare step of changing the woman’s grade from “C” to “Pass,” after investigating her charges. Walcott at the time said her charges were “unjust.”
Walcott will receive the Nobel Prize from Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf at a Dec. 10 ceremony in Stockholm. The date marks the anniversary of the death of Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, who funded the Nobel prizes from the royalties of his main invention, dynamite. Nobel prizes for medicine, physics and chemistry will be awarded next week, and the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize will be awarded Oct. 16 in Oslo.
Words From the Winner
Derek Walcott was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for writings that often address the bitter legacy of slavery and the lure of the West Indies. Some excerpts: From His Work
I remember the cities I have never seen exactly. Silver-veined Venice, Leningrad with its toffee-twisted minarets. Paris. Soon the Impressionists will be making sunshine out of shade.Oh! and the uncoiling cobra alleys of Hyderabad.
“The Arkansas Testament”
. . . Men still sing the song that Adam sang against the world he lost to vipers, the song to Eve against his own damnation; he sang it in the evening of the world with the lights coming on in the eyes of panthers in the peaceable kingdom and his death coming out of the trees, he sings it, frightened of the jealousy of God and at the price of his own death.
Source: Farrar, Straus & Giroux of New York
The Prize Poet
Here is some background on Derek Walcott, who won the Nobel Prize in literature: Age: 62. His writings: West Indian poet whose writings evoke the cultural mix of his Caribbean homeland. Background: Born in St. Lucia, a former British colony in the Lesser Antilles, he is the descendant of slaves. Walcott made his debut at the age of 18 with the book “25 Poems.” He became a teacher of literature and creative writing at Boston University and is a playwright, teacher, journalist, painter and poet. Best-known works: “Omeros,” a 64-chapter Caribbean epic that “weaves his many strands into a whole.” His breakthrough came with the collection of poems “In a Green Night” in 1962. Themes: In his poems, Walcott addresses the bitter legacy of slavery and the lure of the Caribbean.
Source: “Contemporary Authors”
(Southland Edition) Words From the Winner
‘This is how, one sunrise, we cut down them canoes.” Philoctete smiles for the tourists, who try taking his soul with their cameras. “Once wind bring the news to the laurier-cannelles, their leaves start shaking the minute the axe of sunlight hit the cedars, because they could see the axes in our own eyes.