Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott spoke to more than 200 students about poetry in an “un-poetic age” last week, kicking off the University’s 25th Honors Symposium.
“What is un-poetic about this age is brutality and conditioned indifference,” he said. “We can flip from a cereal ad to a famine in Africa on TV. Huge suffering is made minimal by the very technology that records it.”
Walcott said one of the problems with modern American poetry is its sole focus on how American society exists today.
“There aren’t too many American poems about the Holocaust or global hunger,” he said.
He also said American poets should write about the persecution of Native Americans but they tend to avoid the topic.
“A poet must absorb the idea of guilt as a reality of the American experience before the poet can write about the American experience,” he said.
Walcott also discussed the state of American art, saying it suffers from a condition of “almostness.”
“Most work is on the edge of becoming art,” he said. “The mass industry in music, cinema and novels stays in the area of almost art. All art has to do with the sadness of the human condition.”
During his hour-long speech, Walcott read his poems “Elsewhere,” “The Migrants” and one that will be published in his next collection.
Walcott spent an additional 30 minutes answering audience questions.
One student asked what advice he would give young writers.
“Don’t give it up for anything,” he said. “The more you apprentice yourself to a master the more you become yourself. Doing your own thing is the American way, but it doesn’t work.”
Another student asked how Walcott knows what a good poem is.
“You feel a translation from yourself into the poem,” he said. “You are dissolved into something beyond your mortality.”
Several students in attendance said they felt a connection with Walcott and liked his attitude towards poetry.
“His views about poetry nowadays are different from the norm,” sophomore Ian Hamilton said. “It was interesting to hear about the topic from an artistic perspective.”
The event launched this semester’s Honors Symposium, which the Honors Program holds each semester. Honors students receive credit for attending the three-day symposium that begins with a speech open to the public.
This semester marks the first time a poet has spoken at the symposium.
Senior Kristen Eckert, a coordinator for the symposium, said past speakers include attorney Alan Gerson, Harvard University professor E. O. Wilson, and political scientist Francis Fukuyama.
“This year is something different and original,” Eckert said.
Peter Rollberg, symposium organizer and associate professor of Slavic and film studies, said students asked for someone who would speak about culture.
“One can live without poetry, but I find that life is much richer and more fulfilling with poetry in it,” Rollberg said. “We can engage in an emotional aesthetic that does not have a primary bearing on our lives but still is important in other ways.”
“I think (Walcott) is a living testament to the impulse to keep creating,” said Donna Scarboro, assistant vice president for special academic programs. “He is very true and direct.”