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RIP Derek Walcott, 1930-2017

By Harriet Staff

Derek Walcott

We awoke today to discover poet and playwright Derek Walcott has died. He was 87. Walcott was a towering figure in world literature, taking home almost every conceivable honor that might be bestowed upon a poet, including the Nobel Prize in 1992. The Guardian’s Richard Lea writes:

The poet and playwright Derek Walcott, who moulded the language and forms of the western canon to his own purposes for more than half a century, has died aged 87.

His monumental poetry, including 1973’s verse autobiography, Another Life, and his Caribbean reimagining of The Odyssey, 1990’s Omeros, secured him an international reputation which gained him the Nobel prize in 1992. But this was matched by a theatrical career conducted mostly in the islands of his birth as a director and writer with more than 80 plays to his credit.

The former poet laureate Andrew Motion paid tribute to “a wise and generous and brilliant man”.

“As a member of the great Nobel-winning poetic generation that included Brodsky and Heaney, he did as much or more than anyone to win the global respect for Caribbean writing that it deserves and now enjoys,” Motion said. “The rich sensualities of his writing are deeply evocative and also definitive, and its extraordinary historical and literary reach – in his long Homeric poem Omeros especially – gives everything in the present of his work the largest possible resonance. He will be remembered as a laureate of his particular world, who was also a laureate of the world in general.”

The New York Times also remembers Walcott:

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.

Walcott’s life was not without scandal. Lea’s obituary remarks on Walcott’s “teaching style,” which brought accusations by female students of unwanted sexual advances. The accusations and scandal eventually led to Walcott withdrawing his candidacy for the Oxford professor of poetry position in 2009. More from The Guardian:

A 1981 MacArthur “genius” grant cemented Walcott’s links with the US, first forged during a Rockefeller fellowship begun in 1957. Teaching positions at Boston, Columbia, Rutgers and Yale followed, but his teaching style, which he described as “deliberately personal and intense”, got him into trouble. Two female students at two universities accused him of interfering with their academic achievements after they rejected his advances. One case was settled out of court, but this was said to have counted against him when he was passed over for the post of poet laureate in 1999. It was also the focus of an anonymous smear campaign which forced him to withdraw his candidacy for the post of Oxford professor of poetry in the notorious 2009 election campaign for the post, and which forced the resignation of his rival Ruth Padel only nine days into her term, after it emerged that she had sent details of a book discussing both cases to a journalist at the Evening Standard. Walcott won the TS Eliot prize in 2011 two years later, with his collection White Egrets.

Walcott’s first appearance in the pages of Poetry came in the December 1998 issue with his poem “BECUNE POINT.” The September 2004 issue featured six poems by Walcott. Read on and remember.

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Posted in Poetry News on Friday, March 17th, 2017 by Harriet Staff.