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Sunday 30 April 2017

Nobel laureate Derek Walcott dies aged 87

Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott has died. (AP/ Berenice Bautista)
Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott has died. (AP/ Berenice Bautista)

Nobel laureate Derek Walcott has died at his home in St Lucia aged 87, his family has said.

The poet was best known for capturing the essence of his native Caribbean and became the region's most internationally famous writer.

Mr Walcott died early on Friday at his home in the eastern Caribbean nation, according to his son, Peter. The family planned to issue a statement later.

The prolific and versatile poet received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1992 after being shortlisted for the honour for many years.

In selecting Mr Walcott, the 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 Swedish academy in awarding the prize.

Mr Walcott, who was of African, Dutch and English ancestry, said his writing reflected the "very rich and complicated experience" of life in the Caribbean.

His dazzling, painterly work earned him a reputation as one of the greatest writers of the second half of the 20th century.

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

He compared his feeling for poetry to a religious avocation.

Soviet exile poet Joseph Brodsky, who won the Nobel literature prize in 1987, once complained that some critics relegated Mr Walcott to regional status because of "an unwillingness ... to admit that the great poet of the English language is a black man".

Mr Walcott himself 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."

Mr 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 Derek and his twin brother, Roderick, were babies.

His mother, Alix, instilled the love of language in her children, often reciting Shakespeare and reading aloud other classics of English literature.

In his autobiographical essay, What the Twilight Says, he wrote: "Both the patois of the street and the language of the classroom hid the elation of discovery. If there was nothing, there was everything to be made. With this prodigious ambition one began."

Mr Walcott once described straddling "two worlds" during his childhood in St Lucia, then a sleepy outpost of the British empire.

"Colonials, we began with this malarial enervation: that nothing could ever be built among these rotting shacks, barefooted backyards and moulting shingles; that being poor, we already had the theatre of our lives. In that simple schizophrenic boyhood one could lead two lives: the interior life of poetry, and the outward life of action and dialect," he wrote.

Early on, he struggled with questions of race and his passion for British poetry, describing it as a "wrestling contradiction of being white in mind and black in body, as if the flesh were coal from which the spirit like tormented smoke writhed to escape".

But he overcame that inner struggle, writing: "Once we have lost our wish to be white, we develop a longing to become black."

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.

Mr 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, Mr 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, Mr 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 Mr Walcott handled "English with a closer understanding of its inner magic than most - if not any - of his English-born contemporaries".

Not all his work was met with accolades. He collaborated with American pop star Paul Simon to write The Capeman story, which became a Broadway musical in 1997 and quickly became a major flop, closing less than two months into its run and getting panned by critics.

His reputation was weakened by sexual harassment allegations made against him at Harvard and Boston universities in the 1980s and 1990s.

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

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