I spent last week at the Key West Literary Seminar. I go to the seminar every year (well, okay, for the last four years – that makes a tradition, I think).
The focus of this year’s seminar, titled Clearing the Sill of the World, was poetry. Although I occasionally read poetry (particularly that of Billy Collins, another former Poet Laureate), a poetry festival wouldn’t usually call my name. But attending the Literary Seminar is, as I said, a tradition. I go every year with my friend Judy Leaver, who not only reads and appreciates poetry, but writes verses herself that have brought me to tears.
The seminar this year abounded in famous poets, many of them Pulitzer Prize winners and former Poets Laureate of the United States. The event was dedicated to honoring poet Richard Wilbur. Wilbur has won two Pulitzer Prizes, and numerous other awards, for his poetry. He was the second person named Poet Laureate of the United States, and his poems have been appearing in The New Yorker for decades.
So there I was in Key West all week, listening to poets famous and less so (Rita Dove and James Tate knocked me out) reading their work and talking about poetry and constantly referring to Richard Wilbur, in his 87th year, sitting up near the front and quietly taking it all in.
It was on the last night that the great Richard Wilbur read some of his poems and talked about his life as a poet. I wasn’t there.
Yes, I skipped out on Richard Wilbur. This was surely the last chance I’d ever have to hear Richard Wilbur in person; after all, I don’t haunt poet’s haunts. I’d flown a couple thousand miles and paid substantial money to be there. But that day, y’know, I’d come home early in the afternoon and – big mistake – gotten into my comfort clothes (okay, my pajamas) just to hang out. Once in the p.j.s, it’s almost impossible to pry me out of them again till morning.
So I didn’t see Richard Wilbur. I had a fleeting snatch of guilt. And then I remembered – philistine I may be, but I’d never HEARD of Richard Wilbur until the Seminar announced it was honoring him. I’d flicked right past his poems in The New Yorker year after year. Was my life really less rich because I didn’t hear him?
This is always a debate for me. I value experiences much more than things. Objects mostly clog up my life, I tell myself, while you can never lose or break a meaningful experience. But that doesn’t mean I take advantage of every experience offered to me.
Many years ago, a client gave me a ticket to see Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in one of their last ballet performances together. I knew it was a historic event in the cultural world. But I’d worked in the client’s conference press room all day; I was tired and had to get up early the next day. So I skipped out on Nureyev and Fonteyn. Since then, I’ve seen exactly one ballet. I haven’t mourned the missed opportunities.
My friend Robin and I have had season tickets to the Shakespeare Theatre here in Washington, DC for ages. We adore Michael Kahn, the artistic director. And we don’t hesitate to walk out at intermission if we don’t love a play. We’ve paid our money, we figure, so we don’t have to stay. Other people I know feel just the opposite: we’ve paid our money, so we have to stay. (What’s your position on this debate?)
Richard Wilbur didn’t miss me, I’m sure. Hundreds of other people turned out to honor him. I stayed home to write.