Poetry Porch: Poetics


Heaney and Walcott Return to Boston
A Review of the AWP Keynote Event
by Joyce Wilson


Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott, poets who won the Nobel Prize in the 1990s while they wrote, published, gave readings, and taught classes all over Boston and Cambridge, were invited back for the AWP keynote event in March 2013. This gathering was the largest yet of the 40-year-old Associated Writers Programs Conference, drawing over 12,000 attendees, and demonstrating how much Boston is a poetry town and a teaching town.

Having one of these literary giants would have been a big enough attraction, and having two was stupendous. Organized as an interview by Rosanna Warren, who encouraged each to read examples from his work and discuss his approach to the writing process, the keynote event held the attention of an audience of thousands in the cavernous auditorium of the Hynes Convention Center. The unique quality of the evening became evident right away when the tension between opposites—interviewer and interviewee, art and criticism, and man and woman—was released with grace and with humor as Walcott responded to Warren’s first inquiry, which was suitably complex given the high level of his accomplishments, “But what is the question?” The audience laughed and gasped as this exchange confirmed the general anxiety about attending a poetry event: no one understands what is going on, not even the poet! Unruffled, Warren rephrased her question, asking essentially, how do you write, afterwhich Walcott tipped his head back, seemed to reach into the recesses of his mind, and nodded saying, “I understand, I understand what you mean.” Then he added that he was well aware of Warren’s poetic accomplishments in her own career, and we knew that the evening was going to be all right, that greatness was in evidence when the participants proved they could address more than one level of discourse in rapid succession, could, in effect, talk about and talk with.

Walcott launched into a summary of how he began writing by imitating poets he admired, so much so that his critics first said “He imitates all the poets,” until, he added incisively, they changed their tune and proclaimed the unique sound of his voice. He dramatized the writing process, relating how he was first taught always to begin each line with a capital letter, from which he would proceed, and all would be going well until he saw the end of the line coming and knew he must come up with a rhyme. He laughed at himself and the efforts he invested in breaking these preconceptions about method. Then he read from the beginning of a poem that exemplified the process:

    Through the stunned afternoon, when it’s too hot to think
    and the muse of this inland ocean still waits for a name,
    and from the salt, dark room, the tight horizon line
    catches nothing, I wait. Chairs sweat. Paper crumples the floor.
Walcott, who is 83, reigned with the authority of a man comfortable in his own skin. The blend of Caribbean roots and years studying the English poets was evident in the cadence of his speech and mellifluous reading from his book Midsummer. Nine years younger, Heaney looked out at the audience at first with the bemused expression of a jester, ready to crack a joke if the evening got too serious, an expression which quickly sobered when the details of his accomplishments were summarized in Warren’s introduction. It was a long list. After Walcott said that in poetry he reached for silence, Heaney concurred, qualifying that sometimes in poetry, there is clamor. He introduced “Oysters” from Field Work, about his trip from his home in Northern Ireland, when it was fraught with political turmoil in the 1970s, to the West of Ireland, where the light that reflected off the Atlantic Ocean represented a kind of liberation, which he evoked as “. . . the clear light, like poetry or freedom/ Leaning in from the sea.” He captured the action of eating oysters with the crunching of consonants (“Our shells clacked on the plates”), and named it using the word “verb” as a noun (“. . .that [it]. . ./ Might quicken me all into verb, pure verb”). Take heed, ye teachers of poetry, and note this manipulation of the adage “show don’t tell” in which he is both showing (with the consonants) and telling (with the defining of the impression as a part of speech)!

To hear two of the greatest living poets read aloud from their work is one thing; one can sit back and be entertained. To watch two enormous egos sit across from each other and comment on their having come so far is a kind of sport, in which the competitive nature of each is brought to the fore. In the audience, we sat on the edge of our seats. Poised to play an active part, Warren was wearing a black spandex mini-skirt and white tank top, like a referee ready for a tussle. Yet Walcott and Heaney are old friends, having reviewed each other’s work over the years, and sharing the stage many times before. When asked about the influence of the poet Robert Lowell, another familiar poet in the halls of Boston and Cambridge, Walcott began and Heaney continued in kind, showing that competition in poetry is more like the broad jump than a contact sport. They played as though they were on the same team. If one might show signs of lapsing into an old grievance or complaint, the other would poke him out of it with a fresh take on the topic. In the end, before they read two more poems, Walcott summarized Heaney’s career as successfully holding up the mantle of Yeats, or the anxiety of influence, and turning to the style of Kavanagh and Larkin. “Hopkins too, and Ted Hughes,” Heaney added, as if to get the final word, yet showing that he could accept Walcott’s assessment, because of their mutual admiration.

Decades ago, Heaney, Walcott, and another Nobel winner Joseph Brodsky read their work in Boston and Cambridge on a regular basis. Their presence in New England kicked off a golden age of poetry that has expanded and grown so much that it risks taking them for granted, as poets, teachers, classes, and readings multiply across the country and reshape the way language and literature are taught. To watch these two literary giants in the flesh was to witness examples of the art of poetry in all its living greatness.