A report by Richard Johnson for Jamaica’s Observer.
Early in his life, Nobel Laureate for literature the late Derek Walcott toyed with whether to become a painter or a writer. His friend and colleague, retired university lecturer Professor Edward Baugh is happy he chose the latter.
The St Lucia-born Walcott died at his home on the sister Caribbean island early Friday morning, at the age of 87, after what has been described as a protracted illness.
“I was not really surprised when I heard he passed,” Baugh told the Sunday Observer. “I knew he was on the down and was told anything was to be expected. I saw him last June when I was in St Lucia, he was having health problems which did not seem to be improving.”
For Baugh, Walcott is the greatest, or certainly among the top two poets from the Caribbean. Recognised globally for his contribution to literature, Walcott taught creative writing for many years at Boston University in the United States and was the founder of the Boston Playwright Theatre. He was also the recipient of the Musgrave Gold Medal as well as an Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Jamaica. Walcott also founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop when he lived in that country.
“My first meeting was not face to face. I was a sixth former at Titchfield High School in Portland in 1954 and read a review in the paper of a play he had written. The play, Henri Christophe, about the Haitian revolutionary, which was performed by the dramatic society at the University of the West Indies, had earned a favourable review from the noted theatre critic. That made me look forward to going to the UWI even more.”
However, by the time Baugh got to the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies, Walcott had graduated. But all was not lost, as the St Lucian remained in Jamaica for some time and their paths would eventually cross.
“I can remember him standing in the back of the room at the Old Dramatic Theatre on campus looking on at plays. We even once invited him to give a talk at the Students’ Literary Society and he spoke about the work of the American playwrights Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill,” he reflected.
In a career dedicated to the teaching of literature, Baugh stated that Walcott is the author he has written and read the most about. His 1978 book, Derrick Walcott: Memory as Vision, Another Life, was influenced by one of Walcott’s early works, a long autobiographical, book-length poem, titled Another Life.
“He is a great poet… to put it short. I have always loved the way he is able to express ideas about the world, self, society, the Caribbean through the use of metaphors. Just the way he described through images was amazing. He incorporated ideas and gave them emotion. He also had a substantial sense of rhythm that made his line remain with you and echoed in your head so much so that you are able to repeat them years after first reading.”
“He was also able to capture the tension in West Indian society due to the the cultural differences brought about by the Europeans and colonisation and what was indigenous and African — that tension was expressed very well in his work. Walcott’s plays also did a great service to give a voice to the common folk. The fisherman and the people from the hills and bush were recognised and appreciated… He made us see them as men and women. The Creole — especially in St Lucian society with that French Creole — was also given a voice,” Baugh explained.
Walcott is said to have echoed the cry of many lovers of the arts in the Caribbean.
“He always complained that the arts and theatre were never sufficiently supported by the powers that be, noting the limited theatre space available throughout the region,” Baugh remembered.