Derek Walcott, the Nobel laureate, poet and playwright whose Caribbean retelling of the Odyseey brought him international acclaim, has died at the age of 87.
Walcott won a Nobel prize for his epic poem, “Omeros,” though he was also an accomplished playwright, with over 80 plays, often exploring Caribbean identity as well as racial and political issues.
His work inspired generations of writers and wordsmiths, including Jamaican poet Kei Miller, who said the following of Walcott:
Walcott always insisted that he was a Caribbean writer, and that this wasn’t a limit, that it didn’t make his work parochial. I always say I want to write a large literature from a small place, and it is Walcott who embodies that attitude more than anyone else.” While the colonial experience was terrible, he continued, Walcott argued that it gave him ‘the language that was his kingdom. His poetry was supremely ambitious. He was taking on Shakespeare, he was taking on Chaucer, he was taking on Dante – all of these were his forefathers and he thought of himself as equal to them. This is what great writing was and this is what he wanted to produce … he wanted to stand alongside them.
Critic and biographer Hermione Lee said Walcott described his legacy as that of “a great epic writer of the world, who turned his local place into the scene of classical epic rewritten, most memorably of all in Omeros, as a craftsman and painter in words of the utmost colour, tenderness, vividness and energy, and as a writer of the most urgent beat and rhythm.”
“Like his friends, Brodsky and Heaney, his voice will resound through history,” Lee said. “It’s a great loss to language.”
Walcott was also known to address racial and political themes and told the Guardian in 2012 that he was often viewed as a black writer in the US and the UK. “It’s a little ridiculous. The division of black theatre and white theatre still goes on, and I don’t wish to be a part of any one of those definitions. I’m a Caribbean writer,” he said, and those words certainly seem to sum him up.