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Voices of Literature: Nobel Winners Gather for Olympiad

ITA DOVE, poet laureate of the United States, called it a gathering of some of the world's most creative minds.

Eight of the 16 living Nobel Prize winners in literature met in Atlanta this week for readings and discussions that touched on topics from terrorism to literature's role as defender of the human spirit. It was the largest assemblage of Nobel authors in the 94-year history of the prestigious awards.

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During discussions with moderator Ted Koppel of ABC's ''Nightline,'' the laureates shared thoughts and ideas, some simple and witty, others profound and serious.

Predictably, the recent bombing in Oklahoma City resonated deeply for each of the writers gathered. The world community possesses in the writings of these authors a deep reservoir from which human wisdom and courage may be drawn in seeking to understand not only what triggers people to inflict such horror, but more importantly, how to prevail in the face of it.

''I think one of the reasons such actions are being taken is because people can't articulate themselves,'' said Joseph Brodsky, a Russian exile and now American citizen who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1987. ''An inarticulate man uses muscles instead of verbs.''

But Wole Soyinka, a Nigerian playwright awarded the Nobel Prize in 1986, looked at the issue differently. ''The real managers of violence have been very articulate people -- they propose ideologies,'' he said.

The writers convened at the invitation of the Georgia Review, a literary magazine published at the University of Georgia, Athens, and the Cultural Olympiad of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games. The event is one of many programs the Cultural Olympiad will present through August 1996 in an effort to celebrate and showcase in world culture what the Olympics do in athletics.

The roster of Nobel Laureates included Toni Morrison (US), Claude Simon (France), Derek Walcott (Trinidad), Czeslaw Milosz (Polish-American), Octavio Paz (Mexico), Wole Soyinka (Nigeria), Joseph Brodsky (Russian-American), and Kenzaburo Oe (Japan).

Mr. Koppel touched on the subject of television and asked the obvious: How can literature compete in an age when people find it easier to digest sound bites?

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Mr. Brodsky's solution to bringing literature to the masses has been to distribute his books of poetry ''everywhere people kill time and get killed by time.'' That includes displaying works next to the National Enquirer at supermarket magazine racks. ''Poetry is a tremendous tool of secondary education,'' he says. ''The more it is available to people, the better off they are. They get more pensive.''

Mr. Soyinka believes expanding the reach of literature is partly the responsibility of individuals who set school curriculums. ''America is a very insular society. I think you have an obligation to break that insularity, and literature is one of the tools,'' he said, adding a caveat: ''Knowledge of other people is good. But don't ever teach them anything in that abominable term called political correctness.''

What makes writing a necessity, a journey these Nobel winners continue year after year?

For Ms. Morrison, who won the Nobel Prize in 1993, it's partly the never-ending supply of creativity and fluidity. ''We are all educated as consumers rather than thinkers to look for the single solution,'' she says. ''As a writer the absence of only one answer is what's exciting. That's why I'm not average. Everything I've ever written has been about -- suppose it's not this way, what happens if....''

Says Octavio Paz, ''Writers are the memory of a society, but they are also the imagination of a society. That's why writing is one of the best things that can serve our fellow man.''

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