Derek Wal­cott, Poet and No­bel Lau­re­ate of the Caribbean, Dies at 87

The Star (St. Lucia) - - LOCAL - By Wil­liam Grimes (The New York Times)

D erek Wal­cott, whose in­tri­cately metaphor­i­cal po­etry cap­tured the phys­i­cal beauty of the Caribbean, the harsh legacy of colo­nial­ism and the com­plex­i­ties of liv­ing and writ­ing in two cul­tural worlds, bring­ing him a No­bel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture, died early Fri­day morn­ing at his home near Gros Islet in St. Lu­cia. He was 87.

His death was con­firmed by his pub­lisher, Far­rar, Straus and Giroux. No cause was given, but he had been in poor health for some time, the pub­lisher said.

Mr. Wal­cott’s ex­pan­sive uni­verse re­volved around a tiny sun, the is­land of St. Lu­cia. Its op­u­lent veg­e­ta­tion, blind­ing white beaches and tan­gled mul­ti­cul­tural her­itage in­spired, in its most fa­mous lit­er­ary son, an am­bi­tious body of work that seem­ingly em­braced ev­ery po­etic form, from the short lyric to the epic.

With the pub­li­ca­tion of the col­lec­tion “In a Green Night” in 1962, crit­ics and po­ets, Robert Low­ell among them, leapt to rec­og­nize a pow­er­ful new voice in Caribbean lit­er­a­ture and to praise the sheer mu­si­cal­ity of Mr. Wal­cott’s verse, the im­me­di­acy of its vis­ual im­ages, its pro­found sense of place.

He had first at­tracted at­ten­tion on St. Lu­cia with a book of poems that he pub­lished him­self as a teenager. Early on, he showed a re­mark­able ear for the mu­sic of English — heard in the po­ets whose work he ab­sorbed in his An­glo­cen­tric ed­u­ca­tion and on the lips of his fel­low St. Lu­cians — and a painter’s eye for the par­tic­u­lars of the lo­cal land­scape: its beaches and clouds; its tur­tles, crabs and trop­i­cal fish; the sparkling ex­panse of the Caribbean.

He told The Economist in 1990: “The sea is al­ways present. It’s al­ways vis­i­ble. All the roads lead to it. I con­sider the sound of the sea to be part of my body. And if you say in pa­tois, ‘The boats are com­ing back,’ the beat of that line, its met­ri­cal space, has to do with the sound and rhythm of the sea it­self.”

There was noth­ing shy about Mr. Wal­cott’s po­etic voice. It de­manded to be heard, in all its sen­su­ous im­me­di­acy and his­tor­i­cal com­plex­ity.

“I come from a place that likes grandeur; it likes large ges­tures; it is not in­hib­ited by flour­ish; it is a rhetor­i­cal so­ci­ety; it is a so­ci­ety of phys­i­cal per­for­mance; it is a so­ci­ety of style,” he told The Paris Re­view in 1985. “I grew up in a place in which if you learned po­etry, you shouted it out. Boys would scream it out and per­form it and do it and flour­ish it. If you wanted to ap­prox­i­mate that thun­der or that power of speech, it couldn’t be done by a lit­tle mod­est voice in which you mut­tered some­thing to some­one else.”

Mr. Wal­cott’s art de­vel­oped and ex­panded in works like “The Cast­away,” “The Gulf” and “An­other Life,” a 4,000line in­quiry into his life and sur­round­ings, pub­lished in 1973. The Caribbean poet Ge­orge Lam­ming called it “the his­tory of an imag­i­na­tion.”

Mr. Wal­cott quickly won recog­ni­tion as one of the finest po­ets writ­ing in English and as an enor­mously am­bi­tious artist — am­bi­tious for him­self, his art and his peo­ple.

He had a sense of the Caribbean’s grandeur that in­spired him to write “Omeros,” a trans­posed Homeric epic of more than 300 pages, pub­lished in 1990, with hum­ble fish­er­men and a taxi driver stand­ing in for the heroes of an­cient Greece.

Two years later, he was awarded the No­bel Prize. The prize com­mit­tee cited him for “a po­etic oeu­vre of great lu­mi­nos­ity, sus­tained by a his­tor­i­cal vi­sion, the out­come of a mul­ti­cul­tural com­mit­ment.”

It con­tin­ued: “In his lit­er­ary works Wal­cott has laid a course for his own cul­tural en­vi­ron­ment, but through them he speaks to each and ev­ery one of us. In him, West In­dian cul­ture has found its great poet.”

As a poet, Mr. Wal­cott plumbed the para­doxes of iden­tity in­trin­sic to his sit­u­a­tion. He was a mixed-race poet liv­ing on a British-ruled is­land whose peo­ple spoke French-based Cre­ole or English.

Derek Al­ton Wal­cott was born on Jan. 23, 1930, in Castries, a port city on the is­land of St. Lu­cia. His father, War­wick, a school­teacher and wa­ter­col­orist, died when he was an in­fant, and he was raised by his school­teacher mother, the former Alix Maar­lin.

Both his par­ents, like many St. Lu­cians, were the prod­ucts of racially mixed mar­riages. Derek was raised as a Methodist, which made him an ex­cep­tion on St. Lu­cia, a largely Ro­man Catholic is­land, and at his Catholic sec­ondary school, St. Mary’s Col­lege.

His ed­u­ca­tion was An­glo­cen­tric and thor­oughly tra­di­tional. “I was taught English lit­er­a­ture as my nat­u­ral in­her­i­tance,” he wrote in the es­say “The Muse of His­tory.” “For­get the snow and daf­fodils. They were real, more real than the heat and ole­an­der, per­haps, be­cause they lived on the page, in imag­i­na­tion, and there­fore in mem­ory.”

He pub­lished his first poem at 14, in a lo­cal news­pa­per. With a loan from his mother, he be­gan pub­lish­ing his po­etry in pam­phlets while still at St. Mary’s. His early mod­els were Mar­lowe and Mil­ton.

At the Univer­sity of the West Indies in Mona, Ja­maica, where he ma­jored in French, Latin and Span­ish, he be­gan writ­ing plays, en­ter­ing into a life­long but rocky love af­fair with the theater. His first play, about the rev­o­lu­tion­ary Haitian leader Henri Christophe, was pro­duced in St. Lu­cia in 1950.

Af­ter earn­ing his bach­e­lor’s de­gree in 1953, Mr. Wal­cott taught school in St. Lu­cia, Gre­nada and Ja­maica while con­tin­u­ing to write and stage plays. His verse dra­mas “Ione” and “Sea at Dauphin” were pro­duced in Trinidad in 1954. “Ti-Jean and His Brothers,” a retelling of a Trinida­dian folk tale in which Lu­cifer tries to steal the souls of three brothers, was pro­duced in Trinidad in 1958.

Mr. Wal­cott stud­ied di­rect­ing with José Quin­tero in New York for a year and, on re­turn­ing to the West Indies, founded a reper­tory com­pany, the Lit­tle Carib Theater Work­shop, which in the late 1960s be­came the Trinidad Theater Work­shop. One of the group’s first pro­duc­tions was Mr. Wal­cott’s “Mal­co­chon.”

His best-known play was “Dream on Mon­key Moun­tain,” which re­ceived an Off Broad­way pro­duc­tion in 1971. He later wrote the book and col­lab­o­rated with the singer and song­writer Paul Si­mon on the lyrics for “The Cape­man,” a mu­si­cal about a Puerto Ri­can gang mem­ber who mur­dered three peo­ple in Man­hat­tan in 1959. The show opened at the Mar­quis Theater in 1998 and closed af­ter 68 per­for­mances, be­com­ing one of the most ex­pen­sive flops in Broad­way his­tory.

With the pub­li­ca­tion of “In a Green Night” in 1962, Mr. Wal­cott cap­tured the at­ten­tion of British and Amer­i­can crit­ics. Robert Low­ell in par­tic­u­lar was en­thu­si­as­tic, and served as a point of en­try to the Amer­i­can lit­er­ary world. With each suc­ceed­ing col­lec­tion — “Se­lected Poems” (1964), “The Cast­away” (1969), “The Gulf” (1970) and “Sea Grapes” (1976) — Mr. Wal­cott es­tab­lished him­self as some­thing more than an in­ter­est­ing lo­cal poet.

“Afi­ciona­dos of Caribbean writ­ing have been aware for some time that Derek Wal­cott is the first con­sid­er­able English­s­peak­ing poet to emerge from the bone-white Ar­ca­dia of the old slaveoc­ra­cies,” the poet and critic Selden Rod­man wrote in a re­view of “The Gulf” in The New York Times Book Re­view. “Now, with the pub­li­ca­tion of his fourth book of verse, Wal­cott’s stature in the front rank of all con­tem­po­rary po­ets us­ing English should be ap­par­ent.”

The lyric strain in Mr. Wal­cott’s po­etry never dis­ap­peared, but he in­creas­ingly took on com­plex nar­ra­tive projects and ex­panded his vi­sion of the Caribbean to ac­com­mo­date an epic treat­ment of the themes that had al­ways en­gaged him. The artis­tic self-por­trait of “An­other Life,” with its rich, metaphor-heavy in­ter­twin­ing of the artist’s de­vel­op­ing sen­si­bil­ity and the lush land­scape of St. Lu­cia, set the bar for Mr. Wal­cott’s later, in­creas­ingly am­bi­tious po­etry.

In “Omeros” — the ti­tle is the mod­ern Greek word for Homer — Mr. Wal­cott cast his net wide, em­brac­ing all of Caribbean his­tory from time im­memo­rial, with spe­cial at­ten­tion to the slave trade, and re­fract­ing its story through Homeric leg­end. In his hands, the Caribbean be­came not a back­wa­ter but a cross­roads — what the scholar Jorge Her­nan­dez Martin, writ­ing in the mag­a­zine Amer­i­cas in 1994, called “a dis­per­sion zone, a sort of switch­board with in­put from and out­put to other parts of the world.”

Travel and ex­ile were con­stants in Mr. Wal­cott’s po­etry. “Tiepolo’s Hound” (2000) pre­sented a dual por­trait of the au­thor and the Im­pres­sion­ist painter Camille Pis­sarro, who spent his child­hood in the Caribbean be­fore be­ing trans­planted to Paris. Like his father, Mr. Wal­cott was an ac­com­plished wa­ter­col­orist; his land­scape paint­ings ap­pear on his book jack­ets, and in “Tiepolo’s Hound” they are in­ter­spersed through the book.

The wan­der­ings in “Omeros” were ri­valed by Mr. Wal­cott’s own zigzag itin­er­ary as a teacher and lec­turer at univer­si­ties around the world. He taught at Bos­ton Univer­sity from 1981 un­til re­tir­ing in 2007, di­vid­ing his time among Bos­ton, New York and St. Lu­cia but con­stantly en route.

“The Prodi­gal” (2004), a late-life sum­ma­tion with a distinctly ele­giac un­der­cur­rent, of­fered a glimpse of the au­thor’s rest­less move­ments, which take him, in the course of the poem, to Italy, Colom­bia, France and Mex­ico. “Prodi­gal, what were your wan­der­ings about?” he wrote. “The smoke of home­com­ing, the smoke of de­par­ture.”

Mr. Wal­cott’s three mar­riages ended in di­vorce. His sur­vivors in­clude his long­time com­pan­ion, Si­grid Nama; a son, Peter; two daugh­ters, Anna Wal­cott-Hardy and El­iz­a­beth Wal­cott-Hack­shaw; and sev­eral grand­chil­dren. His twin brother, Rod­er­ick, a play­wright, died in 2000.

In 2009, Mr. Wal­cott was pro­posed for the hon­orary post of pro­fes­sor of po­etry at Ox­ford Univer­sity. His can­di­dacy was de­railed when aca­demics at Ox­ford re­ceived an anony­mous pack­age con­tain­ing pho­to­copied pages of a book de­scrib­ing al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual ha­rass­ment brought by a Har­vard stu­dent decades ear­lier. Mr. Wal­cott with­drew his name.

“I am dis­ap­pointed that such low tac­tics have been used in this elec­tion, and I do not want to get into a race for a post where it causes em­bar­rass­ment to those who have cho­sen to sup­port me for the role or to my­self,” he told The Even­ing Stan­dard of Lon­don. He added, “While I was happy to be put for­ward for the post, if it has de­gen­er­ated into a low and de­grad­ing at­tempt at char­ac­ter as­sas­si­na­tion, I do not want to be part of it.”

Mr. Wal­cott was al­ways con­scious of writ­ing as a man apart, from a cor­ner of the world whose lit­er­a­ture was in its in­fancy. This pe­cu­liar po­si­tion, he ar­gued, had its ad­van­tages. “There can be virtues in de­pri­va­tion,” he said in his No­bel lec­ture, de­scrib­ing the “luck” of be­ing present in the early morn­ing of a cul­ture.

“For ev­ery poet, it is al­ways morn­ing in the world,” he said. “His­tory a for­got­ten, in­som­niac night; His­tory and el­e­men­tal awe are al­ways our early be­gin­ning, be­cause the fate of po­etry is to fall in love with the world, in spite of His­tory.”

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