By Judith Fitzgerald
A week ago following a gala dinner held at the British Library, Seamus Heaney (born in Bellaghy in Co Londonderry in 1939) took home one of the top literary awards in the world.
The David Cohen Prize for Literature, worth £40,000 (or, at this morning's rate, $71,900.39 CAD), is awarded every two years for a lifetime's excellence in literary achievement. When he presented the honour to Heaney, the ubiquitous flit-about UK Poet-Laureate Andrew Motion (who served as the Award's Chair this year) correctly noted that the body of transplendent work of "the venerated public figure" -- from his poetry and critical writing to his translations and lecturing -- has "crystallised the story of our times, in language which has bravely and memorably continued to extend its imaginative reach" and has "invigorated the whole wider world of poetry."
Former recipients of one of the most esteemed honours granted living British authors include Heaney's fellow Nobel laureates V.S. Naipaul, Doris Lessing and Harold Pinter. In his acceptance speech, Heaney, a tad overwhelmed (according to one source in attendance), remarked this career milestone was "highly honorific... First of all, there's the list of the previous winners, a roll call of the best; there's the fact that you don't enter for it but are chosen from the wide field of your contemporaries' and, then, there's the verification of that reference to 'lifetime achievement.'"
After a moment's thought, Heaney (whom I met when he read during my 1970s undergraduate days in Toronto and found utterly liltingly, mesmerisingly and charmingly, well, Irish), added, the David Cohen Prize represented "a lovely reward when offered by a panel of such distinguished writers and readers."
Not to be outdone, John Sutherland ante-upped his deux in an opinion piece he blogged for The Guardian concerning the fact the amount of the award in no way matched the talents nor accomplishments of the man he arguably considers "the greatest poet of our age":
Can you name any of the three quarter-finalists knocked out of Wimbledon last year? Or the 10th-best snooker player in the country? Or who plays centre-forward for Manchester United reserves? One thing all of them have in common is that they earn more in a year than the £40,000 Heaney trousered last night... For many years -- his formative ones -- Heaney was obliged to keep body and soul together by taking whatever scratch work he could find lecturing and in creative-writing academic posts (many in America). That labour probably cost the national literary heritage four or five slim volumes. Even with the huge acclaim heaped on him for early books such as North , our greatest poet could no more live on his literary earnings than any busker in the London underground. He might have been able to survive. But live? Forget it. And Heaney was top of the tree.
During the course of the celebratory evening, Heaney selected a pair of poems to read in honour of what many call "the sacramental Cohen," one of which he also delivered, IIRC, at the Nobel ceremony, 1984's " The Underground."
He also read one of the most nearly perfect poems exquisitely suited to this Holy Season in our (now) shared language, "A Drink of Water" (1979):
Here, (said poetry-blogging she, donning her critical cap), Heaney first creates a world inhabited by the sacred dignity of the catch-as-catch-can quotidian consonant with the past and redolent with those oppressive "Troubles":
She came every morning to draw water Like an old bat staggering up the field: The pump's whooping cough, the bucket's clatter And slow diminuendo as it filled, Announced her. I recall Her grey apron, the pocked white enamel Of the brimming bucket, and the treble Creak of her voice like the pump's handle.
Then, Heaney's not-quite-Shakespearean sonnet spills into the nocturnal world where, among other interpretations, either the Book of Revelation or the act of transubstantiation reminds us this is, after all, the Lenten season (not to mention the various streams-of-thought surrounding the swirl-pool of meanings attaching itself to the word with which this tiny masterpiece concludes, given the poet's all-important title):
Nights when a full moon lifted past her gable It fell back through her window and would lie Into the water set out on the table. Where I have dipped to drink again, to be Faithful to the admonishment on her cup, Remember the Giver, fading off the lip.
BTW, Cyberians will discover a lovely little audio clip (with The Maestro) at the bottom of the page plus descrip of the event here. N-Joy!
There's a storm (or a PR Bonanza) gathering on the herizon surrounding Virginia Tech's Distinguished Professor Nikki Giovanni's newest collection, Bicycles: Love Poems (Harper Collins), a work apparently featuring one entry, "We Are Virginia Tech," which includes her POV concerning the handling of a former student who "snapped" after being mercilessly bullied . . . Seems "secret poems" planted by one after another in a long line of head honchos at the venerable Times Literary Supplement exist within that publication's pages; and, one need only look for the clues to unearth them. No, not the poems that we know the world's finest literary repository regularly features. These poems are -- Dare I share it? -- hidden in the open, so to speak: "A little shuffling, et voilà. For an in-depth look at the story behind the secret poems see [Mairi's]interview with Jeremy Bentham" -- Yep, you read that correctly; perhaps it involved a Ouija Board -- in the inaugural post of one OTW blog . . . Nova Scotia-born author and poet, George Elliott Clarke (who teaches at the University of Toronto), tackles notorious slave-ship incidents in his review of Zong! . . . Over at The New York Times, Shonni Enelow blogs (in "The Moment") on an intriguing phenom slugged "Poetry in Motion": "Ugly Duckling Presse, a publishing collective specialising in experimental poetry and new editions of forgotten textual artists, produces lovely, cheeky books by authors you've probably never heard of but your grandchildren will likely read in college." . . . Oh, me; oh, my; surprise, surprise! (As if.) Queen Latifah's bringing poetry to the masses ( a.k.a. the maltitudes) in a seven-ep reality-TV spectacle [ mmffmfmfm]. . . And, last but not lost? Ready, Steady, and Heady: Coming soon to an IOW browser near you? A world-exclusive interview with Montréal's magnificent Erin Mouré. Not-to-miss bliss . . . Trust me on this . . ..