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"Writing the way my people talk'

Published Oct. 12, 2005

Derek Walcott likes to insist that his poetry, acclaimed as among the finest in contemporary English, is less a matter of his own art than the deep-rooted influence of his native Caribbean.

"I have not achieved anything in terms of style," Walcott once told an interviewer. "I am writing the way my people talk _ rhythmically."

The Swedish Academy saw it differently. In awarding him the 1992 Nobel Prize in literature Thursday, it cited the "luminosity" of his work, calling his poems "melodious and sensitive . . . majestic."

Throughout his writing life, Walcott, 62, has struggled to confront the Caribbean's colonial past _ and his own mixed-race background that often left him feeling like an outsider.

Born in the former British colony of St. Lucia in the West Indies, Walcott is of African, Dutch and English ancestry. In Another Life, his autobiographical poem, he speaks of himself as "the divided child of the wrong color."

But the richness and diversity of the Caribbean experience are also central to his work.

"Three loyalties are central for him _ the Caribbean where he lives, the English language and his African origin," the Swedish academy said in awarding him the prize, worth $1.2-million.

Over the years, Walcott, who divides his time between Boston and Trinidad, has written about the deep sense of estrangement and dislocation he feels in the islands _ and in living abroad.

"I miss the Caribbean, and I feel out and away from it, and I feel estranged from America considerably," he told the Associated Press in November 1987. "In a sense, too, I feel estranged from the Caribbean because there are things I can't do anything about directly, like the poverty that's there or the corruption in the politics or things you would like to see happen in the Caribbean, like theaters and museums. Not grandiose things, but simple things."

In interviews, Walcott has recalled his island childhood and its influence on his work. He told the New Yorker in 1971 that islands "are a great place to live because the sea is close and there is the elemental feeling of things that are bigger than you are."

Walcott's father, Warwick, died when he was 1 year old. He told the magazine that he, his twin brother and older sister grew up with "a terrific mother in a house full of books."

He came early to an appreciation of poetry. Walcott told the New York Times in 1982 that as a schoolboy, he became "infatuated" with the style of great English poetry.

At age 18, Walcott began privately publishing slim volumes of verse with the encouragement of his mother, Alix. He received a bachelor's degree from the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica, where he majored in French, Latin and Spanish.

He went on to teach in St. Lucia, Grenada and Jamaica, and after living in New York on a Rockefeller Foundation grant in the late 1950s, founded his own repertory company, the Trinidad Theatre Workshop.

Walcott has taught literature and creative writing at Boston University for eight years. He was a 1981 recipient of a $250,000 John D. and Catherine MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant.

Walcott's poetry includes In A Green Night, Another Life, The Arkansas Testament and Omeros. Among his plays are Dream on Monkey Mountain, The Joker of Seville and O Babylon, all bittersweet tales of life in the Caribbean.