Derek Walcott, a Nobel laureate whose poetry celebrated the Caribbean, was 87.
Derek Walcott, a Nobel laureate in literature who became one of the English-speaking world’s most renowned poets by portraying the lush, complex world of the Caribbean with a precise language that echoed the classics of literature, died March 17 at his home in Cap Estate, St. Lucia. He was 87.
His family issued a statement confirming his death, but the cause was not immediately disclosed.
Mr. Walcott, who was born on the island of St. Lucia and published his first poem at 14, won the Nobel Prize in 1992 and was the first writer from the Caribbean to receive the honor and the second black laureate in literature, after Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka.
In his poetry and plays, Mr. Walcott appropriated Greek classics, local folklore and the British literary canon in his explorations of the ambiguities of race, history and cultural identity.
Although he taught for years in the United States and later in England, Mr. Walcott created a distinctively Caribbean sensibility in his writing, rich with a sense of the weather, warmth and the rhythms of island life. In one of his early poems, “Islands,” he declared that his poetic ambition was “to write / Verse crisp as sand, clear as sunlight, / Cold as the curved wave, ordinary / As a tumbler of island water.”
His breakthrough came in 1962 with the collection “In a Green Night,” which celebrated the landscape and history of the Caribbean and explored Mr. Walcott’s conflicted identity as a multiracial descendant of a colonial culture. In his 1962 poem “A Far Cry From Africa,” he wrote:
I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein? I who have cursed The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
The vibrant quality of Mr. Walcott’s poetry was “like entering a Renoir,” British critic P.N. Furbank wrote in the Listener newspaper in 1962, “full of summery melancholy, fresh and stinging colors, luscious melody, and intense awareness of place.”
In 1973, Mr. Walcott published a book-length autobiographical poem, “Another Life,” that touched on his childhood, his spiritual growth and his struggles to forge an independent identity as an artist.
Mr. Walcott went on to publish more than 20 volumes of poetry and virtually as many plays, many of which were produced in the United States and throughout the Caribbean, often with the author as director.
His Nobel Prize citation noted, “In him, West Indian culture has found its great poet.”
As a pure composer of verse, Mr. Walcott had few equals in his time. He wrote in a smooth, carefully polished style, usually adhering to the traditional forms of English poetry, such as iambic pentameter, heroic couplets and rhyme.
Caught between the “virginal unpainted world” of St. Lucia and the historic majesty of the English language, Mr. Walcott wrote in his poem “The Schooner Flight” in the 1970s, “I had no nation now but the imagination.”
He published a new volume every year or two, drawing praise from such eminent literary critics as Helen Vendler of Harvard University and Harold Bloom of Yale University. Mr. Walcott taught at Boston University for more than 25 years, beginning in 1981.
He enjoyed the friendship of some of the era’s greatest names in poetry, including Robert Lowell, Joseph Brodsky and Seamus Heaney. He received many literary honors and in 1981 was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, also known as a genius grant.
In 1990, two years before Mr. Walcott received the Nobel Prize, he published what many critics considered his masterpiece, the 325-page poem “Omeros.” The ambitious work reimagined the ancient Greek epics of Homer in modern-day St. Lucia.
“What drove me was duty: duty to the Caribbean light,” Mr. Walcott told the New York Times in 1990. “The whole book is an act of gratitude. It is a fantastic privilege to be in a place in which limbs, features, smells, the lineaments and presence of the people are so powerful.”
The poem has the scope of a novel, ranging from the Caribbean back in time to ancient Greece, the British Empire and the 19thcentury United States. Mr. Walcott evokes Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville, James Joyce and, of course, Homer — both the ancient Greek poet and Winslow Homer, the American painter of “The Gulf Stream.”
The title, “Omeros,” is the modern name for Homer, but not without other island associations:
O was the conchshell’s invocation, mer was
both mother and sea in our Antillean patois,
os, a grey bone and the white surf as it crashes
and spreads its sibilant collar on the lace shore
The characters in “Omeros” are fishermen who battle the weather and the sea and who struggle with their all-too-human desires and shortcomings. Helen of Troy is recast as a haughty St. Lucian woman who works as a waitress and sells trinkets at the beach.
“What I wanted to do in the book was to write about very simple people who I think are heroic,” Mr. Walcott told NPR in 2007. “You can see some splendid examples of black men on the beach who can look like silhouettes on a Greek vase, and that was one of the images that I had in mind.”
The result, Australian writer Michael Heyward wrote in The Washington Post in 1990, was that Mr. Walcott had written a “massive, beguiling, sorrowful, triumphant poem . . . . He gives the impression that the whole of English is at his disposal, that he can make poetry out of anything he wants to say.”
Marking the passage of time
Derek Alton Walcott was born Jan. 23, 1930, in Castries, the capital of St. Lucia, a 240-squaremile island in the Lesser Antilles of the Caribbean. It became an independent country in 1979 after being a British colony for 165 years.
Mr. Walcott had a twin brother, Roderick, who became a playwright, and an older sister, Pamela. Their father, a civil servant and skilled watercolor painter, died when Mr. Walcott was 1. His mother taught school and worked as a seamstress.
The Walcott children spoke a local patois that was a blend of English and French, derived from the two colonial powers that settled St. Lucia. While studying at English-language schools, Mr. Walcott became devoted to English poetry and was encouraged by a small group of artists. He began painting at an early age and was 14 the first time a local newspaper published one of his poems.
Mr. Walcott received a scholarship to the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica, where he majored in French, Latin and Spanish before graduating in 1953.
He taught in St. Lucia, Grenada and Jamaica, and in 1957 received a Rockefeller Foundation grant, which he used to study theater in New York. He lived primarily in Trinidad in the 1960s.
For years, Mr. Walcott wrote as much drama as poetry, and his plays were produced in Caribbean theaters, then in London and Toronto and, by the late 1960s, in off-Broadway theaters in New York. His plays drew on folk elements and typically were written in a more casual, colloquial style than his poetry.
His play “Dream on Monkey Mountain,” produced off-Broadway, won an Obie Award in 1971. In 1998, he collaborated with singer-songwriter Paul Simon on the musical “The Capeman,” which had a short-lived run on Broadway.
During Mr. Walcott’s teaching career, primarily at Boston University, he was accused several times of sexually harassing female students. He was a leading candidate for the position of professor of poetry at Britain’s University of Oxford in 2009 when the old charges of harassment resurfaced.
Mr. Walcott condemned what he called a “low, degrading attempt at character assassination” and withdrew his name from consideration. The professorship went to poet Ruth Padel, who soon resigned after admitting that she had forwarded the allegations to journalists.
Mr. Walcott later held an academic chair at the University of Essex in Britain, but he lived primarily in St. Lucia, where he maintained diligent work habits, rising before dawn, writing for hours, then painting in the afternoon. He was usually in bed by 7:30 p.m.
He remained productive into his later years, writing plays and volumes of poetry, including “White Egrets” (2010), which won Britain’s T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, and the 2014 collection “The Poetry of Derek Walcott 19482013.”
Mr. Walcott’s marriages to Fay Moston, Margaret Ruth Maillard and Norline Metivier ended in divorce. Survivors include his longtime companion, Sigrid Nama, a former art gallery owner; a son from his first marriage and two daughters from his second marriage.
Mr. Walcott wrote of the sea and the lush burgeoning of life of the tropical islands from which he hailed, but from his earliest days as a poet, he marked the passage of time and touched on the theme of death.
After his twin brother died in 2000, Mr. Walcott looked in the mirror and recorded his impressions in his 2004 book-length poem “The Prodigal”:
Old man coming through the glass, who are you?
I am you. Learn to acknowledge me,
the cottony white hair, the heronshanks,
and, when you and your reflection bend,
the leafgreen eyes under the dented forehead,
do you think Time makes exceptions, do you think
Death mutters, “Maybe I’ll skip this one?”
The recipient of the 1992 Nobel Prize in literature, Derek Walcott, shown here in Mexico in 2014, died at his home in Cap Estate, St. Lucia, on March 17.