Sven Birkets: “Long Tables, Open Bottles, and Smoke—Hanging out with Derek Walcott”


In this piece from Literary Hub, Sven Birkets writes about literary life in 1980s Boston and hanging out with Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, and Joseph Brodsky. Here are excerpts:

[. . .] My memories here are impressionistic and jumbled. I know it was around this time—1981—that Derek was hired to teach at Boston University, where he also founded and then presided over the Playwrights’ Theatre. Brodsky was then teaching at Mt. Holyoke and, as if obeying some larger pattern of intended convergence, Seamus Heaney had recently begun his semester-a-year teaching stint at Harvard. All three had at different times been taken up and touted by Robert Lowell; all three published with Farrar, Straus and Giroux. They could have set up as rivals, but instead became friends with a rabelaisian gusto rarely—maybe never—seen in academe.

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.”


I’ve gotten ahead of myself—it’s the way of memory. I actually met Derek in 1981 at the start of the school year. I’d heard he was allowing non-students to audit his poetry seminar, and hurried to get a place. At the first class meeting, we gave our names. I remember being nervous. Maybe, I thought, he had read my essay. I waited for a look, an indication. Nothing. I didn’t dare ask him when we had conversations later.

In this setting of students and admirers, Derek was very meetable—as Seamus too would later be (Joseph could be a bit more standoffish). We all soon found out that Derek enjoyed going out after class, sitting around over coffee or Chinese food, surrounded by the adulatory young. He did not drink, though word was out that he had been a big carouser in his younger days.

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. [. . .]

Derek’s instruction, his sleeves-rolled-up approach to the poetic line, was persuasive, but even so I’m surprised all these years later how much those incantatory repetitions have stuck with me, how they inform not just my sense of the various poems we discussed, but my reading of poetry in general. [. . .]

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