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 yesterday at his home on the island of St. Lucia. He was 87.
His family issued a statement confirming his death, but the cause was not disclosed.
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 it. In his poetry and plays, he appropriated Greek classics, local folklore and the British literary canon in explorations of the ambiguities of race, history and identity.
Although he taught in the United States and England, Walcott created a distinctively Caribbean sensibility in his writing, rich with a sense of the weather, warmth and rhythms of island life. In one of his early poems, “Islands,” he declared that his 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 Walcott’s conflicted identity as a multiracial descendant of a colonial culture. In 1973, Walcott published a book-length autobiographical poem, “Another Life,” that touched on his childhood, his spiritual growth and his struggle to forge an identity.
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 composer of verse, Walcott had few equals in his time. He wrote in a smooth, carefully polished style, usually adhering to 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, 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 eminent literary critics. 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. In 1981 he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, also called a genius grant.
In 1990, two years before 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.
For years, Walcott wrote as much drama as poetry, and his plays were produced in Caribbean theaters, London, Toronto and, by the late 1960s, in Off-Broadway theaters. In 1998, he collaborated with Paul Simon on “The Capeman,” which had a short run on Broadway.
During his teaching career, primarily at Boston University, he was accused several times of sexually harassing female students.
Derek Alton Walcott was born Jan. 23, 1930, in Castries, the capital of St. Lucia. His three marriages ended in divorce. Survivors include his longtime companion, Sigrid Nama; a son from his first marriage and two daughters from his second marriage.