Top Honors: The Poetry + Art of St. Lucia’s Derek Walcott

Words by Natalie Weiner–derek-walcott-documentary

As St. Lucia celebrates its 35th anniversary of independence this year, its culture is about to get a big New York closeup. If you’ve ever wondered about the island’s literature, music, or art, this is definitely the moment to check it out. Upcoming festivities around New York commemorating the 35th anniversary of St. Lucia’s independence on Feb. 22 include concerts, lectures, an art exhibit at the St. Lucian embassy, and a black-tie gala.

The anniversary celebrations coincide with a revival of interest in one of the island’s most notable cultural figures, Derek Walcott. One of the most important creative voices to come out of the Caribbean in the 20th century, the 1992 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature has explored island life and post-colonial culture through plays, poetry, essays, and paintings. Walcott’s work is inspired by the natural and cultural beauty around him. In his words, “from the time I was a child I knew it was beautiful. If you go to a peak anywhere in St. Lucia, you feel a simultaneous newness and sense of timelessness at the same time—the presence of where you are. It’s a primal thing and it has always been that way.”

Educated under imperial British rule, Walcott struggled to bring the literary beauty of Western classics together with the realities of Western colonial oppression. Yet he succeeded, writing poetry drawing on classical forms and lyricism to describe West Indian life. His Nobel-winning work Omeros, for example, re-imagined the Trojan War (subject of Homer’s Iliad, cornerstone of the Western canon) as a battle between island fishermen.

Premiering in New York this weekend as part of the Lucian independence festivities, Poetry Is An Island: Derek Walcott is a new documentary that uses Walcott’s poetry as a way to explore his life and work. Shot in St. Lucia, Trinidad (where Walcott lived for much of his life, and founded the Trinidad Theater Workshop), and Amsterdam, the film focuses on one of Walcott’s most well-known poems, “Love After Love,” as a way to understand his artistic process. Watch the trailer below:

Walcott is also the subject of a new collection of poetry, with pieces spanning almost all of his 65-year career. Featured in the New Yorker and on NPR, this anthology is the most complete collection of his work to date, and a great way to get to know his writing. Walcott will be visiting New York in April to promote the collection with appearances at Queens College and the 92nd St Y — in the meantime, watch these videos of him reading his work, and sample some of his artwork below.

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