"Yet do I marvel at this curious thing," the American poet Countee Cullen wrote in the 1920s, "to make a poet black and bid him sing!" For West Indian poet Derek Walcott, there was cause to rejoice this month when the Swedish academy awarded him the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Mr. Walcott, who teaches writing and literature at Boston University, has been compared to the Greek poets of antiquity for his luminous language and majestic narratives. His poems both celebrate the rich cultural diversity of his native West Indies and evoke the darkness of colonialism, slavery and exile. Though the academy praised Mr. Walcott's work as a "Caribbean song," his poetry goes far beyond its regional roots.
In recent years, the academy has worked for more global representation among the nominees for the literature prize, and the choice of Mr. Walcott reflects that. Yet Mr. Walcott has long been recognized by his fellow poets as one of the finest contemporary practitioners of his art.
British writer Robert Graves said in 1984 that Mr. Walcott "handles English with a closer understanding of its inner magic than most -- if not any -- of his English-born contemporaries." Soviet exile poet Joseph Brodsky, who himself won the Nobel literature prize in 1987, once complained that critics relegated Mr. Walcott to regional status because of "an unwillingness . . . to admit that the great poet of the English language is a black man."
In a sense, Mr. Walcott's triumph has vindicated the genius of all America's poets of color, those whom James Weldon Johnson once invoked as the "black and unknown bards . . . black slave singers, gone, forgot, unfamed" who "stretched out upward, seeking the divine."
Vindicated, too, are more recent masters born before the literary world was willing to recognize their art: Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Sterling Brown, Margaret Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks, Arna Bontemps, Robert Hayden and Claude McKay.