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Derek Walcott, Who Wrote Of Caribbean Beauty And Bondage, Dies At 87

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Derek Walcott, Who Wrote Of Caribbean Beauty And Bondage, Dies At 87

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Derek Walcott, Who Wrote Of Caribbean Beauty And Bondage, Dies At 87

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Poet and playwright Derek Walcott has died. Walcott wrote some two dozen books of poetry and an equal number of plays, among them his epic poem "Omeros" and his Obie-winning drama "Dream On Monkey Mountain." Walcott won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1992 for work that explores the beauty of his Caribbean homeland and its brutal colonial history. Derek Walcott died this morning at his home in Cap Estate, St. Lucia. He was 87 years old. Tom Vitale has this appreciation.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: For most of his life, Derek Walcott taught poetry at universities in the United States, England and Canada. But his work never strayed far from the island where he was born, St. Lucia in the West Indies.

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DEREK WALCOTT: Islands hissing in the rain. Light rain and governments falling. Follow through cloud again the bittern's lonely calling. Can this be the right place? These islands of the blest, cheap package tours replaced by politics, rain, unrest? The edge-erasing...

VITALE: In 1984, when he was teaching at Boston University, Derek Walcott told me that a book-length poem like "Midsummer" was a natural extension of the language all around him.

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WALCOTT: You would get some fantastic syntactical phenomena. I mean, you would hear people talking in Barbados in the exact melody of a minor character in Shakespeare because here you had a thing that was not immured and preserved and mummified, but a voluble language - very active, very swift, very sharp. And that is going on still in all the languages in the Caribbean so that you didn't make yourself a poet. You entered a situation in which there was poetry.

VITALE: Derek Walcott's father was a poet and painter. He died when Derek was an infant. His mother was a school teacher who recited Shakespeare to him. He borrowed $200 to publish his first book of poetry when he was 19, and he sold it on street corners. Then he attended the University of the College of West Indies on a scholarship.

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WALCOTT: When I went to college - when I read, you know, Shakespeare or Dickens or Scott, I just felt that as a citizen of England - a British citizen, this was as much my heritage as any schoolboy's. You know, I mean, that was one of the things the empire taught that apart from citizenship, the synonymous inheritance of the citizenship was the literature.

DAVID BIESPIEL: He sort of represents an elegant West Indies murmur against history's violent colonial narrative of bondage.

VITALE: David Biespiel is a literary critic and author of a book on poetry called "A Long High Whistle."

BIESPIEL: His poems expose the discrepancy between, you know, blooming flowers and sparkling waters with these island economies built on a violent history of sugar plantations and slavery and forced labor. It's kind of grandeur mixed in with imprisonment.

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WALCOTT: The world had no time to change to a doorman's braid from the loincloths of Africa. So when the stores draw their blinds, like an empire's ending, and the banks fade like the peaks of the Hindu Kush, a cloaked wind bent like a scavenger rakes the trash in the gutters.

VITALE: In all of his work, Walcott fused his classical education with the language and history of the Caribbean. Critic David Biespiel says the result was poetry of the highest order.

BIESPIEL: I think people will be reading Derek Walcott as long as we've been reading John Milton.

VITALE: The energy to write, said Derek Walcott, came from being part of a generation of Caribbean writers who were the first to describe the world outside their doorsteps.

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WALCOTT: I go back to St. Lucia, and the exhilaration I feel is not simply an exhilaration of homecoming and of nostalgia, it is almost an irritation feeling - well, you never got it right. I mean, now you have another chance. Maybe you can try and look harder.

VITALE: Many would say Derek Walcott did get it right.

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WALCOTT: My palms have been sliced by the twine of the craft I have pulled out for more than 40 years. My Ionia is the smell of burnt grass, the scorched handle of a cistern in August squeaking to rusty islands. The lines I love have all their knots left in.

VITALE: For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSHUA HYSLOP SONG, "INSTRUMENTAL")

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