Poets, Nobel Laureates, Friends

Poets, Nobel Laureates, Friends

By Ellen Howley

Two giants of contemporary poetry sit in a local church contemplating the mural behind the alter, discussing the importance of community life. The location: Roseau Valley on the Caribbean Island of St. Lucia. The Poets: Nobel Laureates and friends, Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott.

Ida Does’ 2013 documentary on Caribbean poet Derek Walcott, Poetry is an Island, captures this rare moment between the two poets, as Heaney explains to Walcott that the Irish word for parish church is teach an phobail, house of the people.

These scene demonstrates many things at once: Walcott’s love for his locality, Heaney’s desire to make connections to his linguistic heritage and both poets’ respect for one another.

Heaney is often held as the contemporary paragon of Irish poetry and, indeed, his work and his perspective was deeply rooted in the local and the community. However, he was also part of an international network of poets that saw him develop friendships with many Anglo-American writers as well as with Walcott and Russian poet, Joseph Brodsky.

Walcott himself described this trio as poets writing in English yet on the margins of the American literary scene. This friendship culminated in the joint-publication in 1996 of a collections of essays honouring American poet, Robert Frost.

Brodsky died in 1996 but Heaney and Walcott remained friends, frequently commenting on each other’s work and visiting one another’s homes.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Anecdotes abound of their shared sense of humour and hours spent in debate in Walcott’s Boston apartment.[/perfectpullquote]

Moreover, the allegiance between the two poets, who received the Nobel Prize within just three years of one another – Walcott in 1992 and Heaney in 1995 – extends beyond their friendship and into their work. Heaney and Walcott were dedicated poets, writing with a reverence for the verse of the past but eager to distinguish their own unique poetic voice in the contemporary moment. As a result, similar themes are seen across their oeuvres.

Both poets write in English but they are also surrounded by other languages. Heaney’s early poetry attempts to capture the beauty of the Irish language, as he considers Irish place names and their particular translation and sound. The poem “Anahorish,” for example, gives the translation of this place name as it draws out the particular sound of the word itself:

My ‘place of clear water’
the first hill in the world


Anahorish, soft gradient
of consonant, vowel-meadow

Similarly, Walcott’s poetry reflects the multiple languages around him on the island of St. Lucia, which include English, French and Creole. In his poem “Sainte Lucie” he depicts a vibrant market scene and the many fruits available there and seeks out his own voice within the melee:

Pomme arac,
otaheite apple,
pomme cythère,
pomme granate,
the pineapple’s
Aztec helmet,


Come back to me,
my language.

Throughout their lives, Heaney and Walcott travelled extensively, with both spending periods living abroad, most notably, in the US. Yet, the powerful pull of their respective local landscapes is evident in many poems. For Heaney, Ireland’s bogs, waters, fields, loughs and coasts form a central part of his poetry.

In “Bogland” he writes “Our unfenced country / Is bog that keeps crusting / Between the sights of sun.” Similarly, Walcott draws inspiration from the Caribbean Sea and island, describing in “A Sea-Chanty,” “The pastures of ports, / The litany of islands / The rosary of archipelagoes [sic].”

Crucially, both Heaney and Walcott were acutely aware their role as a voice on the world stage for their respective islands, even before their Nobel Prize wins. Heaney wrote often about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, wondering what role a poet might have amidst the violence.

Ultimately, he asserted, in his Nobel speech, poetry’s power [perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it.[/perfectpullquote]

” Comparably, Walcott’s poetry displays anxiety about writing in and about a region which regularly experiences poverty and environmental disaster. At points he sensed that his work as a writer served to distance him from the very community he depicted in that work. Yet, he too upheld the importance of poetry in his Nobel speech: “There is the buried language and there is the individual vocabulary, and the process of poetry is one of excavation and of self-discovery”

Heaney and Walcott’s friendship lasted until Heaney’s death in 2013. With Walcott’s death three and a half years later, in 2017, the world said goodbye to the last of the trinity of poetic voices that were so central to the development of contemporary Anglophone poetry.

Although it is impossible to say just how much Heaney and Walcott influenced each other, striking similarities can be found in their work and their approach to poetry. Through their friendship and the enduring potency of their written words, Heaney and Walcott affirm poetry’s capacity to enhance life, form connections and inspire across borders.

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