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25 January 2011

Derek Walcott wins T S Eliot prize for poetry

The Saint Lucian poet is awarded British poetry's biggest prize.

By Lucian Robinson

Derek Walcott has won the 2010 T S Eliot prize, for the best new collection of poems published in Great Britain or Ireland. He was awarded the £15,000 prize by T S Eliot’s widow, Valerie Eliot, at the Wallace Collection in London last night. As the chair of the judges, the poet Anne Stevenson, stressed, it had been a “bumper year” for poetry. Walcott’s collection White Egrets had to compete with other strong nominations from Sam Willetts, who had recovered from a decade long heroin addiction before publishing his hotly tipped debut collection, Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney and the French born poet Pascal Petit.

Anne Stevenson saluted White Egrets as a “moving, risk-taking and technically flawless book.” The prize will no doubt come as a relief to Walcott, after the controversy in 2009 which surrounded his attempt to become Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. During the election campaign, material was circulated anonymously amongst academics which contained detailed allegations of sexual harassment made against Walcott by former students. Ruth Padel, who was elected after Walcott withdrew from the election, initially denied any involvement in the allegations, though it subsequently emerged that she had told journalists about the substance of the smears and she was forced to resign.

The ceremony, which took place in the courtyard of the Wallace Collection, was mainly notable for the absence of the three nominated poets who were published by Faber: Seamus Heaney, Simon Armitage and Derek Walcott. Walcott’s failure to appear at the award ceremony seems understandable, due to his age. Yet the fact that both Armitage and Heaney didn’t come to the ceremony could perhaps be construed as a slight towards an event that it is widely considered to be the most prestigious annual prize in British poetry (Heaney, though, is apparently notorious for missing award ceremonies.)

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