Archive for December 1st, 2017

Partying with Walcott, Heaney, Brodsky: “I wished I could have brought it all home in a jar.”

Friday, December 1st, 2017
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Could he have found a big enough jar?

I never met Nobel poet Derek Walcott – but Sven Birkerts did, and he writes a marvelous, ebullient essay about Walcott and his sidekicks and fellow Nobel poet laureates, Seamus Heaney and Joseph Brodsky, “Long Tables, Open Bottles, and Smoke” over at Lithub.

Sven Birkerts met the Caribbean poet in 1981 at Boston University. Walcott was allowing non-students to audit his poetry seminar, and Birkerts jumped at the opportunity. It sounds a lot like Joseph Brodsky’s class back in Ann Arbor, except for the locale with its associations:

“We met in #222, the same second-floor room on Bay State road where Robert Lowell had taught his now-legendary seminar that included, among others, young poets George Starbuck, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath. Derek was pleased by the association and often invoked his old mentor “Cal.” Our class, which I audited for two years, had a loose free-associational format, like nothing I’d experienced—at least not before I met Joseph back in Ann Arbor. Was this how poets did it? It seemed radical and right, such a change from the syllabus-driven proceedings I’d known as an undergrad. In these sessions, a poem would be passed around—a ballad, something by Thomas Hardy or Elizabeth Bishop, say—like a specimen we could study, or, more flatteringly, like a melody handed off to a group of musicians to see what might happen. Meanings were not at issue—not in any conventional way. The conversations turned on rhythm, rhyme, cadence: the elements we came to see as primary to meaning.”

And the parties were unforgettable:

A judicious, sardonic rejoinder…

What a delight it was to see these three utterly distinctive looking individuals together at a party! And it seems, looking back, that there were parties all the time. Long tables, open bottles, and smoke. God, how people smoked in 1981—Joseph with his L&M’s (“Wystan smoked these”), Derek with filterless Pall Malls, Seamus with his Dunhills. And everyone gathered around them doing the same. If the reader now expects accounts of high literary seriousness, however, she will be disappointed. These gatherings were about play. They were exercises in comic brinksmanship. Who would pull off the night’s best line, the funniest story; which of the three would most quickly reduce the other two to convulsions? Those of us lucky enough to be at the table barely got a word in. If we had any function, it was to keep things going, to prompt. A question, a compliment—it didn’t matter, anything could be a trigger. Joseph was usually first out of the box with some dark jibe, which would inevitably set Derek into volatile contortions, releasing his extraordinary laugh, a full-body explosion. It would then fall to Seamus to offer the judicious sardonic rejoinder. I wished I could have brought it all home in a jar. My stomach hurt from laughing. I lay in bed, my head spinning from combined excesses, but also with the feeling that the world was, as Frost had it, “the right place for love.”

A full-body explosion

So much life – and all three are dead now. One poet mentioned in the article is most happily alive. I was pleased that Walcott loved Adam Zagajewski‘s “Going to Lvov,” and in a paragraph that makes me envious (I would not have put it this way, but I wish I had), he writes: “Derek’s reasons for adoring it are immediately clear. Zagajewski is writing directly in what I think of as the key of Walcott—and Brodsky—moving forward by the same logic of transformations, assuming the same coded equivalences between the things of the world and the words with which they are transmitted. Here the poet plays with such likeness directly, joining in our minds the visual punctuation of the Russian ‘soft sign’ and the sibilance that calls up the movement of water.”

And I couldn’t agree with him more when he reaches this conclusion: “These, I think, were the best years—before the Nobel Prizes. Say what you will, the feeling in a room changes when a certified Nobelist is present, never mind two or three. There is, of course, the overt or conspicuously concealed regard of the non-Nobelists present; and then the deft but still obvious efforts of the laureates not to be acting as eminences. It’s true, of course, that the poets were already known and honored before then, but somehow their earlier celebrity energized much more than it constrained.”

Read the whole exuberant essay here. Oh, and before I forget, check out his two-hour conversation on technology, books, and life over at the “Virtual Memories Show” here. Sample quote: “When I was your age, I discovered the doubling over of one’s own experience. . . . Themes, recurrences and motifs in my life began to manifest. Then as if on command, the whole sunken continent of memory began to detach from the sea-floor.”