Methodism and spirituality have played a significant role from the beginning in Walcott's work. He commented, "I have never separated the writing of poetry from prayer. I have grown up believing it is a vocation, a religious vocation." Describing his writing process, he wrote, "the body feels it is melting into what it has seen… the 'I' not being important. That is the ecstasy...Ultimately, it’s what Yeats says: 'Such a sweetness flows into the breast that we laugh at everything and everything we look upon is blessed.' That’s always there. It’s a benediction, a transference. It’s gratitude, really. The more of that a poet keeps, the more genuine his nature." He also notes, "if one thinks a poem is coming on...you do make a retreat, a withdrawal into some kind of silence that cuts out everything around you. What you’re taking on is really not a renewal of your identity but actually a renewal of your anonymity."
Walcott has said his writing was influenced by the work of the American poets, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, who were also friends.
He has published more than twenty plays, the majority of which have been produced by the Trinidad Theatre Workshop and have also been widely staged elsewhere. Many of them address, either directly or indirectly, the liminal status of the West Indies in the post-colonial period. Through poetry he also explores the paradoxes and complexities of this legacy.
In his 1970 essay "What the Twilight Says: An Overture", discussing art and theatre in his native region (from Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays), Walcott reflects on the West Indies as colonized space. He discusses the problems for an artist of a region with little in the way of truly indigenous forms, and with little national or nationalist identity. He states: “We are all strangers here... Our bodies think in one language and move in another". The epistemological effects of colonization inform plays such as Ti-Jean and his Brothers. Mi-Jean, one of the eponymous brothers, is shown to have much information, but to truly know nothing. Every line Mi-Jean recites is rote knowledge gained from the coloniser; he is unable to synthesize it or apply it to his life as a colonised person.
Walcott notes of growing up in West Indian culture:
"What we were deprived of was also our privilege. There was a great joy in making a world that so far, up to then, had been undefined... My generation of West Indian writers has felt such a powerful elation at having the privilege of writing about places and people for the first time and, simultaneously, having behind them the tradition of knowing how well it can be done—by a Defoe, a Dickens, a Richardson."
Walcott identifies as "absolutely a Caribbean writer", a pioneer, helping to make sense of the legacy of deep colonial damage. In such poems as "The Castaway" (1965) and in the play Pantomime (1978), he uses the metaphors of shipwreck and Crusoe to describe the culture and what is required of artists after colonialism and slavery: both the freedom and the challenge to begin again, salvage the best of other cultures and make something new. These images recur in later work as well. He writes, "If we continue to sulk and say, Look at what the slave-owner did, and so forth, we will never mature. While we sit moping or writing morose poems and novels that glorify a non-existent past, then time passes us by."
Walcott's epic book-length poem Omeros was published in 1990 to critical acclaim. The poem very loosely echoes and references Homer and some of his major characters from The Iliad. Some of the poem's major characters include the island fishermen Achille and Hector, the retired English officer Major Plunkett and his wife Maud, the housemaid Helen, the blind man Seven Seas (who symbolically represents Homer), and the author himself.
Although the main narrative of the poem takes place on the island of St. Lucia, where Walcott was born and raised, Walcott also includes scenes from Brookline, Massachusetts (where Walcott was living and teaching at the time of the poem's composition), and the character Achille imagines a voyage from Africa onto a slave ship that is headed for the Americas; also, in Book Five of the poem, Walcott narrates some of his travel experiences in a variety of cities around the world, including Lisbon, London, Dublin, Rome, and Toronto.
Composed in a variation on terza rima, the work explores the themes that run throughout Walcott's oeuvre: the beauty of the islands, the colonial burden, the fragmentation of Caribbean identity, and the role of the poet in a post-colonial world.
Criticism and praise
Walcott's work has received praise from major poets including Robert Graves, who wrote that Walcott "handles English with a closer understanding of its inner magic than most, if not any, of his contemporaries", and Joseph Brodsky, who praised Walcott's work, writing: "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 noted that he, Brodsky, and the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who all taught in the United States, were a band of poets "outside the American experience".
The poetry critic William Logan critiqued Walcott's work in a New York Times book review of Walcott's Selected Poems. While he praised Walcott's writing in Sea Grapes and The Arkansas Testament, he had mostly negative things to say about Walcott's poetry, calling Omeros "clumsy" and Another Life "pretentious.". Finally, he concluded with the faint praise that "No living poet has written verse more delicately rendered or distinguished than Walcott, though few individual poems seem destined to be remembered."
Most reviews of Walcott's work are more positive. For instance, in The New Yorker review of The Poetry of Derek Walcott, Adam Kirsch had high praise for Walcott's oeuvre, describing his style in the following manner:
By combining the grammar of vision with the freedom of metaphor, Walcott produces a beautiful style that is also a philosophical style. People perceive the world on dual channels, Walcott’s verse suggests, through the senses and through the mind, and each is constantly seeping into the other. The result is a state of perpetual magical thinking, a kind of Alice in Wonderland world where concepts have bodies and landscapes are always liable to get up and start talking.
He calls Another Life Walcott's "first major peak" and analyzes the painterly qualities of Walcott's imagery from his earliest work through to later books like Tiepolo's Hound. He also explores the post-colonial politics in Walcott's work, calling him "the postcolonial writer par excellence." He calls the early poem "A Far Cry from Africa" a turning point in Walcott's development as a poet. Like Logan, Kirsch is critical of Omeros which he believes Walcott fails to successfully sustain over its entirety. Although Omeros is the volume of Walcott's that usual receives the most critical praise, Kirsch, instead believes that Midsummer is his best book.