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.
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.