How often do you get to meet a Nobel Prize winner?
That was my main rationale for going along to a Master Class with Derek Walcott yesterday – that and the prospect of seeing Earl Lovelace and Austin Clarke afterwards. The occasion was the inaugural Bim Literary Festival, a celebration of writers both from here in Barbados and elsewhere in the Caribbean.
The event with Derek Walcott wasn’t quite what I’d expected. It turned out to be a workshop for poets, who had registered in advance and submitted manuscripts to be read and critiqued by the man himself. I hadn’t done any of that, and I don’t even write poetry, but they let me stay and watch anyway.
To be honest, the event was quite brutal and I was intensely uncomfortable throughout. Walcott did not hold back in his criticisms: after one poet read out his work, he told him “the problem is, the entire thing hangs on a dreadful cliche”, and he asked someone else if they’d ever thought about giving up poetry and writing prose instead. As a lead-in to another attack, he said “I have to abuse you all, that’s what I’m here for.”
Is it really? Derek Walcott is one of only two Caribbean writers to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, he’s an 82-year-old man who has achieved pretty much everything a writer could hope to achieve, and now he has an opportunity to talk to a group of younger poets for two hours. What does he want to pass on to them? What does he want his legacy to be? It was interesting to hear Austin Clarke talk later in the evening about the support he received early in his career from Frank Collymore, a man who also nurtured the talents of Clarke’s schoolmates Kamau Brathwaite and George Lamming. How important a contribution is that? Barbados is a small island with an even smaller poetry-reading population. Being a poet here must be incredibly tough. Yet the thought of helping or nurturing clearly had not entered Walcott’s head. Even after all he’s received, he still has nothing to give.
The event reminded me of other times I’ve seen audiences with “great men” (yes, it is always men) who seem to derive pleasure from watching lesser beings squirm in front of them. At one point he threw out a pithy quote with Homeric allusions, waited for someone to smile and nod her appreciation, and then pounced on her and asked her to explain what the quote meant, which she couldn’t do because she’d been bluffing. He seemed to enjoy this immensely. It was one of those horrible situations in which everyone in the class is grasping tentatively for the right answer, the one that will please the great man and draw his praise, knowing even as they speak that they will fail, because praise is not what he has come there to give. Yet they must try, because this is Derek Walcott, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make an impression. God, it was horrible.
Despite all this, I did learn a few good things from Walcott. These were on the rare occasions when he strayed from generalised attack mode into specific, well-documented observation.
- “The qualities that are prosaic in your poetry are the best ones, not the poetic ones.” So don’t try too hard to be “poetic” – a simple line of observation about a common, everyday thing can be the most effective, for example Larkin’s “canal with floatings of industrial froth”. Describing the ordinary is the aim, Walcott said. As a prose writer, I translated “poetic” into “literary” and noted that I often write best when I’m describing everyday things, rather than when I’m trying very hard to be “literary”. Not that the language I use shouldn’t always be beautiful and fresh, but that I shouldn’t strive too hard for “literariness” at the expense of life.
- “In your work, I don’t find an agonised search. I find contempt. It all sounds too easy.” OK, this was another pretty brutal attack. But I think there was a good point in there, which is true for prose writers as much as poets. We need to be humble and dedicate ourselves to a lifelong study of the craft of writing. What I think he meant by “contempt” is trying to take shortcuts. Becoming a writer must involve reading widely, learning techniques from others and committing to a daily practice of developing the craft. If you don’t do this, if you just write something and publish it, then write more and publish that, then you’re showing contempt for writing.
- “The distinction between poetry and prose is very subtle.” As an example, he had someone read out the first line of To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway, and showed how it could be the first line of a poem. ‘The scansion is verse, but he writes prose. His work is full of it.” This made me think of a wonderful old 1950s book I read called The Anatomy of Prose (reviewed here), which analysed the rhythm and meter of English prose in great detail. Listening to the sound of my prose and breaking down its structure are things I need to focus on more often.
So that’s it! I’ll write a post about the Austin Clarke and Earl Lovelace event soon. This afternoon I’m going to something called Bim Rock Variations, which has no description other than a list of authors so could be anything really! I’ll let you know how it turns out. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your comments on the points Derek Walcott made, or on “great men” and the role of writers as teachers, or anything else that’s on your mind!