AWP Nugget: Takeaways from Nobel Laureates Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott

BOSTON — If you’re given an hour to sit down and listen to two Nobel-Prize-winning writers, you do so. I am still in my infancy when it comes to my understanding and appreciation of poetry and poets, but I made a point to attend the Thursday evening 8:30 pm keynote with Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott, even though I had somehow managed to miss eating both lunch and dinner beforehand. (Don’t worry about me, I swallowed nearly whole a bacon cheeseburger in the Marriott sports bar afterward.) Below is a list of some of the impressions I was left with, along with links to my summaries of the 2010 and 2012 AWP keynotes.

  • From the Nobel Prize site we learn that the Nobel Prize Medal for Literature depicts a young man under a laurel tree listening to and transcribing the song of the Muse. Learn more by clicking on this image.
    From the Nobel Prize site we learn that the Nobel Prize Medal for Literature depicts a young man under a laurel tree listening to and transcribing the song of the Muse. Learn more by clicking on this image.

    Exposure to different languages in varying contexts when young may help make a poet. Walcott grew up in the Lesser Antilles being taught in English but hearing those around him speak in Creole. In Ireland, the most common tongue was English, but he was taught in Latin and Irish. They each bring their own unique crock pot of vocabulary and syntax experiences to their poetry.

  • Walcott said great poetry emerges from silence, and that is true with all of the arts. I wanted him to elaborate a bit more–or, more specifically, I wanted the moderator, Rosanna Warren, to encourage more elaboration–but he did go on to say that all forms of art, silence arrives when we get it right, and when your silence is phony you’ve written something bad. I’m going to reflect on this for awhile, but would welcome any thoughts on its meaning below.
  • It’s not a new idea, but it’s good to hear it from Nobel Laureates: We all copy. Walcott said he copied the great poets so exactly that a critic wrote he just wanted to be these other poets. He kept copying and kept copying, and finally the critics tired of harping on him and said, “What an original poet.” It was clear to me Walcott in his humble way was telling us that valuable lesson, that we learn by imitation of greatness, but repetition of that helps us find our own voice and style. Seamus added to that by saying he absorbs the influences of all of the legendary writers. “Great poets have no time to be original,” he said.
  • Never miss an opportunity to praise someone you admire. After the exchange above, Heaney had mentioned how he was influenced by Yeats. Walcott then said that one thing he admired about Heaney was that every Irish poet seemed to feel required to build on Yeats, but Heaney emboldened himself to break free of that legacy and explore new paths. Heaney seemed genuinely embarrassed, and replied by saying it would seem crass to immediately praise Walcott for something, so he would do it later in the conversation. But he never did. I’m sure Walcott either didn’t notice that or didn’t care, but it left me with some discomfort.

If you’d like, you can read my take on the stunning keynote by Margaret Atwood at last year’s AWP in Chicago, “AWP Nugget: Margaret Atwood on Art and Craft.” It goes into great detail on that magical evening.

I’d also encourage you to read my write-up of the 2010 AWP Keynote in Denver given by Pulitzer-Prize-winner Michael Chabon, “Ideas are Plentiful, Choosing is the Key,” in which he explains to us that the challenge is not coming up with ideas, but knowing which to choose, which to work with, and which to ultimately abandon. That too was a magical night.

11 thoughts on “AWP Nugget: Takeaways from Nobel Laureates Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott

  1. Yvette Carol

    Hi, Patrick! My personal opinion of what the poet meant by getting the silence right? That’s the state of bliss you enter when your ego-driven mind is allowed to fade away, when one is alone and still. A lot of creative people believe that the only true genius in art comes when one’s “self” goes away and the “muse” speaks. These are the moments when high art happens. And the rest of the time, it can be good but it’s only coming from our conscious mind which is not the same.
    I like to go for a long walk each day, which is a perfect time for ideas to find me, or me to ‘find them’. Ever heard that story of the writer who could hear the’ ideas coming like a great wind’? She would rush in the house to get a pen & paper ready for when they hit? That comes from a wonderful talk Elizabeth Gilbert gave on TED about ‘inspiration’. I love that idea. I don’t quite hear the wind coming, but I do give the muse opportunities to find me. I walk, I read, I watch tv, I go to the movies, I talk, I listen, I meditate, I chant mantras, I watch my children and look at nature, and sooner or later, the ideas will strike. The ideas/words that come to me from the silence are always higher, more pure, more beautiful than any ‘I’ could conjure.


      1. Yvette Carol

        Thanks, Patrick. Yes, that’s it right there. It’s in the ‘waiting’ for the answer as Einstein said, that the magic happens. It’s one of the hardest things to do, maybe more so in this day & age, than in his time, because we are all so rush-rush-rush.


  2. Pingback: AWP Nugget: What You Missed at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference | The Artist's Road

    1. Hi Debbie! I think I liked Chicago’s AWP better, but I may have been going to this show too many years in a row. Even though I blogged about looking forward to Seattle, I’m now considering taking a year off and attending a couple of smaller conferences instead.


  3. Pingback: A Survivor’s Guide to #AWP15 | The Artist's Road

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