OBIT­U­AR­IES

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY STEPHANIE HANES AND MATT SCHUDEL matt.schudel@wash­post.com

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?”

BERENICE BAUTISTA/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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.

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