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Derek Walcott: St Lucia's Nobel laureate poet dies

March 20th, 2017 | Tags:
Derek Walcott was one of the Caribbean's best known writers. Photo: Getty Images
BBC NEWS

Nobel laureate poet Derek Walcott has died aged 87 at his home on the Caribbean island of St Lucia after a long illness, local media reports say.

He was regarded by critics as one of the greatest Caribbean poets.

The writer's collections include In A Green Night: Poems 1948 - 1960 and his epic work, Omeros, which draws on Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.

He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992 and the TS Eliot Prize for Poetry in 2011.

His winning collection for the TS Eliot Prize, White Egrets, was called "a moving, risk-taking and technically flawless book by a great poet" by the judges.

The Nobel Committee, announcing his prize, said: "His poetry acquires at one and the same time singular lustre and great force... Walcott's style is melodious and sensitive."

A unique poetic voice: analysis by Will Gompertz, BBC arts editor

Derek Walcott found that he was often defined as a black writer. That is not how he saw himself. He was, he said, first and foremost, a Caribbean writer.

Dante, Shakespeare, Chaucer and Yeats were all addressed and reassessed through his Caribbean-focussed literary lens. As was Homer - in 1990 - when he wrote his epic poem Omeros - in which Achilles finds himself relocated to the West Indies.

His great skill, and gift to literature, was the way in which he used his unique poetic voice to explore and explain the world from a largely unseen perspective.

He was never parochial or nationalistic, quite the opposite in fact. Derek Walcott was a master at using the specific to identify common ground and universal themes, illuminating both the individual and the collective.

The poet won many other prizes, including a MacArthur Foundation award - the so-called "genius grant".

Walcott said at the time: "It's nice to get it, because it gives you four or five years of a great deal of security - the tough thing is when it's finished!

"It has a very bad connotation, this idea of a 'genius' - I'm not denying the fact that I'm prodigious, I'm not denying the fact that I wrote well... to me it's a gift. I feel blessed that I was gifted."

Appearing on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs in 1992, he said he had written as far back as he could remember and recalled his mother, a schoolteacher, reciting Shakespeare at home.

His father, who died while he was still an infant, had also written poetry, he said.

"I heard that kind of sound at home from when I was very young," he said. "I always knew that was what I wanted to do - to write, particularly poetry."

Born in 1930, he studied at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, before moving to Trinidad in 1953, where he worked as a theatre and art critic.

He published his first collection, 25 Poems, at the age of 18. He was also an accomplished painter and playwright.

The Cultural Development Foundation of St Lucia paid tribute to Walcott, saying in a statement: "The world has lost one of its noted literary icons.

"Our sympathies extend to St Lucia as a nation, who without doubt are proud and honoured to call him a true son of St Lucia.

"He was very vocal about the island's culture and heritage, and its preservation, and his love for St Lucia and the Caribbean was evident in his numerous mentions of 'home' in his work."

Speaking about the shock of returning home to St Lucia, Walcott said: "You had to balance off the beauty of the place with some of the poverty around you."

The Poetry Society described his death as "terrible news" and encouraged others to read his poetry in memoriam.

Walcott was also embroiled in controversy over his candidacy for the post of Oxford Professor of Poetry in 2009.

He pulled out of the race after academics at the university received dozens of anonymous letters linking him to an allegation of sexual harassment in 1982.

The eventual winner - the first woman to hold the prestigious position - was then forced to resign after just days in office, when it emerged she had briefed journalists on the allegations.

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