"INFLUENCE" WAS THE THEME of the seventh annual Worlds in June, a symposium which brought poets and writers from more than a dozen countries to the University of East Anglia, in Norwich, for a series of provocations, discussions, and readings. The word derives from infleur, medieval Latin for "to flow in," and indeed water metaphors proliferated over the course of the week to describe the mysterious process by which writers resist, assimilate, or embrace literary traditions, explore political and philosophical ideas, and render the particularities of the time and space into which they are born: seepage and toxic flow, liquefaction and clotting, inundation and tsunami. Thus the Hungarian-born poet and translator George Szirtes observed that writers float in language, an unfathomable medium with currents and directions that cannot be discerned in their entirety: a fair description of the drift of the conversation at Worlds.
Once you begin to look for influences, they seem to be everywhere — in the weather, in politics, in literature and art. Perhaps the end of a two-month-long drought, which had turned fields brown, played a role in shaping our discussions; foreign television viewers may not have been surprised to see matches rained out at Wimbledon, but locals welcomed the change in the weather. All eyes were on tennis star Andy Murray, who would be an English hero, according to a Scottish writer, until he lost, and then he would just be Scottish. An Irish novelist, taking note of the violent protests in Athens over the Greek government's austerity plans, explained the lack of outrage in cash-strapped Dublin this way: We don't have the weather for it.
In a more serious vein, the American poet C.K. Williams tracked some of the changes that books produce in the lives of their readers. "My mind has been shaped by poetry," he said, describing how literature can enlarge one's imaginative capacity. He suggested that sympathy and morality depend upon imagination, which is why individuals make different decisions based on the same data. To reinforce his point, he read "The Foundation," a poem which celebrates his formative influences — Plato and Aristotle, Freud and Camus and Buber, Rilke and Yeats — and what he calls his giants, his Whitman and Shakespeare, his Dante and Homer, and many, many more. The concluding stanza became a leitmotif of Worlds:
Watch me, I haven't landed, I'm hovering here
over the fragments, the remnants, the splinters and shards;
my poets are with me, my soarers, my skimmers, my skaters,
aloft on their song in the ruins, their jubilant song of the ruins.
How to turn the splinters and shards of a life into something that will endure? This is the secret theme of Worlds, which under the auspices of Writers Centre Norwich and the University of East Anglia invites 30-40 writers to talk in depth about issues relating to their own and others' work. Literary value, experimentation, imagination and exile, the relationship between humans and nature, education, translation — these are some of the topics addressed in previous years, all of which fed the discussion about writers singing in the ruins.
No writer better understood this than the late German novelist W. G. Sebald, who taught at the university for over two decades. Some of his former students have collected his class...