Caribbean poet and Nobel laureate Derek Walcott dies

Derek Walcott

Poet, playwright and Nobel laureate Derek Walcott died Friday after a long illness at his home on the Caribbean island of St Lucia, his publisher said. He was 87. 

“Derek Walcott passed away this morning,” said a statement e-mailed by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. “He had been battling an illness for some time.”

Born on St Lucia on January 23, 1930, Walcott started writing as a young child, encouraged by his teachers, and published his first collection of poems in his late teens.

After studying in Jamaica he moved to Trinidad, where he worked as an arts critic and in 1959 set up the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, which produced a number of his plays. He leapt to prominence in the literary world with the 1962 publication of In a Green Night, which brought together poems he wrote between 1948 and 1960.

He went on to become hugely prolific, publishing around 20 books of poetry and dozens of plays, with recurring themes including the Caribbean and its turbulent history, colonialism and postcolonialism.

His best known work is his epic poem Omeros, published in 1990 and freely inspired by Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Walcott won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992 “for a poetic oeuvre of great luminosity, sustained by a historical vision, the outcome of a multicultural commitment,” the committee said.

Even then he remained relatively little known, even if fellow writers had long recognised his talent. “He has a better command of the English language than any living English writer,” said British poet and novelist Robert Graves.

Walcott himself never published a novel during his career, which spanned nearly seven decades. “Towards my 20th year, I wrote the worst novel that could be written, and it was a blessing to lose the manuscript,” he told France’s Le Figaro newspaper, shortly after his Nobel win was announced.

Walcott’s father died when he was very young and in a BBC interview in 1992 he recalled showing his first poems to his mother, a schoolteacher, who liked to recite verse around the house. Walcott, a thrice-divorced father of three, enjoyed reciting his poems in his deep timbre.

In 2009, Walcott withdrew from the race to become Oxford University’s poetry professor after 200 academics were reportedly sent a dossier detailing a sexual harassment claim against him in 1982.

The poet told London’s Evening Standard newspaper he did not want to be part of the race “if it has degenerated into a low and degrading attempt at character assassination”.

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