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October 15, 1964Guggenhiem MuseumFrom the Academy Audio Archive

About this poet

The recipient of the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature, Derek Walcott was born in Castries, Saint Lucia, the West Indies, on January 23, 1930. His first published poem, "1944" appeared in The Voice of St. Lucia when he was fourteen years old, and consisted of 44 lines of blank verse. By the age of nineteen, Walcott had self published two volumes, 25 Poems (1948) and Epitaph for the Young: XII Cantos (1949), exhibiting a wide range of influences, including William Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound.

He later attended the University of the West Indies, having received a Colonial Development and Welfare scholarship, and in 1951 published the volume Poems.

In 1957, he was awarded a fellowship by the Rockefeller Foundation to study the American theater. Since then, he has published numerous collections of poetry, most recently The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948-2013 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014); White Egrets (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), Selected Poems (2007), The Prodigal: A Poem (2004), and Tiepolo's Hound (2000).

The founder of the Trinidad Theater Workshop, Walcott has also written several plays produced throughout the United States, The Odyssey: A Stage Version (1992); The Isle is Full of Noises (1982); Remembrance and Pantomime (1980); The Joker of Seville and O Babylon! (1978); Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays (1970); Three Plays: The Last Carnival; Beef, No Chicken; and A Branch of the Blue Nile (1969). His play Dream on Monkey Mountain won the Obie Award for distinguished foreign play of 1971. He founded Boston Playwrights' Theatre at Boston University in 1981.

His first collection of essays, What the Twilight Says (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), was published in 1998.

About his work, the poet Joseph Brodsky said, "For almost forty years his throbbing and relentless lines kept arriving in the English language like tidal waves, coagulating into an archipelago of poems without which the map of modern literature would effectively match wallpaper. He gives us more than himself or 'a world'; he gives us a sense of infinity embodied in the language."

Walcott's honors include a MacArthur Foundation "genius" award, a Royal Society of Literature Award, and, in 1988, the Queen's Medal for Poetry. He is an honorary member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

He currently divides his time between his home in St. Lucia and New York City.


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From the Image Archive

 

A Lesson for This Sunday

Derek Walcott, 1930
The growing idleness of summer grass
With its frail kites of furious butterflies
Requests the lemonade of simple praise
In scansion gentler than my hammock swings
And rituals no more upsetting than a
Black maid shaking linen as she sings
The plain notes of some Protestant hosanna—
Since I lie idling from the thought in things—

Or so they should, until I hear the cries
Of two small children hunting yellow wings,
Who break my Sabbath with the thought of sin.
Brother and sister, with a common pin,
Frowning like serious lepidopterists.
The little surgeon pierces the thin eyes.
Crouched on plump haunches, as a mantis prays
She shrieks to eviscerate its abdomen.
The lesson is the same. The maid removes
Both prodigies from their interest in science.
The girl, in lemon frock, begins to scream
As the maimed, teetering thing attempts its flight.
She is herself a thing of summery light,
Frail as a flower in this blue August air,
Not marked for some late grief that cannot speak.

The mind swings inward on itself in fear
Swayed towards nausea from each normal sign.
Heredity of cruelty everywhere,
And everywhere the frocks of summer torn,
The long look back to see where choice is born,
As summer grass sways to the scythe's design.

"A Lesson for This Sunday" from Collected Poems: 1948-1984 by Derek Walcott. Copyright © 1986 by Derek Walcott. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

"A Lesson for This Sunday" from Collected Poems: 1948-1984 by Derek Walcott. Copyright © 1986 by Derek Walcott. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

Derek Walcott

Derek Walcott

Born in 1930, in the West Indies, Derek Walcott received the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature

by this poet

poem
I

I came up out of the subway and there were
people standing on the steps as if they knew
something I didn't. This was in the Cold War,
and nuclear fallout. I looked and the whole avenue
was empty, I mean utterly, and I thought,
The birds have abandoned our cities and the plague
of silence multiplies
poem

 

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poem
The fist clenched round my heart
loosens a little, and I gasp
brightness; but it tightens
again. When have I ever not loved
the pain of love? But this has moved

past love to mania. This has the strong
clench of the madman, this is
gripping the ledge of unreason, before
plunging howling into the abyss.

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