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Nobel laureate Derek Walcott dies at 87 in St Lucia

Winner of 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature dies at his house in Caribbean island of St Lucia after long illness.

Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott has died at his home in the eastern Caribbean island of St Lucia at the age of 87. A prolific and versatile poet, Walcott was widely respected as one of the greatest writers of the second half of the 20th century.

Derek Walcott. Foto © Bert Nienhuis/Werkgroep Caraïbische Letteren

“Derek Alton Walcott, poet, playwright, and painter died peacefully today, Friday 17th March, 2017, at his home in Cap Estate, Saint Lucia,” read a statement his family released later in the morning. It said the funeral would be held in St Lucia and details would be announced shortly.

Jeff Seroy, a spokesman for publisher Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, said the cause of death was not immediately known, but added that Walcott had been ill for some time and had recently returned home from a hospital stay.

His longtime companion, Sigrid Nama, was with him at the time of his death, Seroy said.

With passions ranging from watercolour painting to teaching to theatre, Walcott’s work was widely praised for its depth and bold use of metaphor, as well as its mix of sensuousness and technical prowess.

Walcott received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1992 after being shortlisted for the honour for many years. In selecting him, the Swedish academy cited “the great luminosity” of his writings, including the 1990 Omeros, a 64-chapter Caribbean epic it praised as “majestic”.

“In him, West Indian culture has found its great poet,” said the academy in awarding the $1.2m prize to Walcott.


A distinctly Caribbean poet

Walcott proudly celebrated his role as a Caribbean writer. “I am primarily, absolutely a Caribbean writer,” he once said during a 1985 interview published in The Paris Review. “The English language is nobody’s special property. It is the property of the imagination: it is the property of the language itself. I have never felt inhibited in trying to write as well as the greatest English poets.” Walcott said his writing reflected the “very rich and complicated experience” of life in the Caribbean. He compared his feeling for poetry to a religious avocation.

Walcott was born in St Lucia’s capital of Castries on January 23, 1930 to a Methodist schoolteacher mother and a civil servant father, an aspiring artist who died when the poet and his twin brother, Roderick, were babies. His mother, Alix, instilled the love of language in her children, often reciting the work of William Shakespeare and reading aloud other classics of English literature.

At the age of 14, he published his first work, a 44-line poem called “1944”, in a local newspaper. About four years later, while still in his teens, he self-published a collection of 25 poems. At 20, his play Henri Christophe was produced by an arts guild he co-founded.

He left St Lucia to immerse himself in literature at Jamaica’s University College of the West Indies. In the 1950s, he studied in New York and founded a theatre in Trinidad’s Port-of-Spain, a Caribbean capital he mentioned with great warmth during his Nobel lecture in 1992.

Walcott’s treatment of the Caribbean was always passionate but unsentimental. In his 1979 work about Jamaica, The Star-Apple Kingdom, he wrote of the “groom, the cattleboy, the housemaid … the good Negroes down in the village, their mouths in the locked jaw of a silent scream”.

For much of his life, Walcott, who taught at Boston University for many years, divided his time between the United States and the Caribbean, and the exile of millions of Caribbean citizens who have left the region in search of a better life is another frequent theme in his works.

Although he was best known for his poetry, Walcott was also a prolific playwright, penning some 40 plays, including Dream on Monkey Mountain and The Last Carnival, and founding theatres such as the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre.

British writer Robert Graves said in 1984 that Walcott handled “English with a closer understanding of its inner magic than most – if not any – of his English-born contemporaries”.

He retired from teaching at Boston University in 2007 and spent more of his time in St Lucia.

[after Al Jazeera, March 17, 2017]

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