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560 words
SHJ Issue 3
Spring 2011

Maybe the Good Die Young But Sometimes the Great Live to Productive Old Age

Chauncey Mabe

Two of the world’s greatest living writers, both still creating significant work past the age of 80, have been recognized with important awards. The poet Derek Walcott won the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry on Monday, while novelist Cynthia Ozick will receive a lifetime achievement prize at the National Jewish Book Awards in March.

Walcott’s latest collection, White Egrets, took the £15,000 Eliot prize against a distinguished short list, including work by fellow nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, plus Simon Armitage, Iraq war veteran Brian Turner, and recovering drug addict Sam Willets, who lost a decade to heroin, according to the Guardian.

Poet Anne Stevenson, chair of the judging committee, called Walcott’s book “technically flawless,” adding: “It took us not very long to decide that this collection was the yardstick by which all the others were to be measured. These are beautiful lines; beautiful poetry.”

Born in St. Lucia in 1930, Walcott was educated in Kingston, Jamaica. He spent much of his life teaching at Harvard University, publishing dozens of poetry collections, plays, essays and other books. Perhaps his most famous is Omeros (1990), a book-length epic poem evoking Greek myth to celebrate Caribbean voices and history. He won the Nobel Prize in 1992.

Reviewing White Egrets in the Guardian last year, Sarah Crown called it “a superb meditation on death, grief and the passage of time.” See sample poems from the book.

“It is a complete book from first to last; each poem belongs completely,” Stevenson said. “He is a very great poet—one of the finest poets writing in English.”

Cynthia Ozick hasn’t won anything as gaudy as a Nobel Prize, though some of us think she perhaps deserves to. David Foster Wallace once called her one of the two greatest living writers, along with Don Delilo.

She’s often labeled a Jewish writer, and it’s true she most often writes on Jewish themes and subject matter. But any reader who enjoys sly, lively, deeply humanist and intellectually provocative novels and short stories will find much pleasure in her work.

As Thomas Mallon notes, reviewing her latest novel, Foreign Bodies, in The New York Times, Ozick’s guiding literary influence remains, as it has always been, Henry James, which places her squarely in the mainstream of the American literary tradition—though puckishly.

Raving about Foreign Bodies, Mallon explains that it is an homage to James’ novel The Ambassadors, but one that upends “the whole theme and meaning and stylistic manner of its revered precursor” in a “witty, fierce way.”

I confess I didn’t enjoy Foreign Bodies as much as Mallon did, but he makes such a persuasive argument for the book that I finding myself questioning my aesthetic response. In any event, I needed no help appreciating The Puttermesser Papers (1997), a novel, or Dictation: A Quartet (2008), a collection of novellas.

Each is among the most memorable books I’ve read in the past 20 years, and Mallon’s words “witty” and “fierce” describe well what I love about them.

These honors for elder craftsmen like Ozick and Walcott give the lie to the notion, which I read once in an essay by Thomas Disch, that all great literature is written by the young. As long as creative energy abides, the possibility for greatness remains.

—From Open Page (25 January 2011)

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury