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Poet Seamus Heaney wins Griffin prize for lifetime achievement

Seamus Heaney receives the Griffin Poetry Prize lifetime achievement award.

Tom Sandler/Tom Sandler

Poetry lovers will have to wait until Thursday night to learn who has won the $130,000 international and Canadian Griffin poetry prizes. At the sold out poetry readings at Koerner Hall in Toronto Wednesday night for the four international and three Canadian poets, the evening belonged to Seamus Heaney the winner of the 2012 Lifetime Recognition Award.

The crowd roared and responded with a long standing ovation when Griffin trustee Robin Robertson welcomed the 1995 Nobel Prize winning Irish poet to the stage. Referring to Mr. Heaney as "our greatest living poet, he described him as a man of "open-handed generosity" and "a craftsman" who had "never fallen out of love with words and what you can do with them." Mr. Heaney who is the author of several volumes of poetry including Field Work, Sweeney Astray Electric Light, District and Circle and Human Chain, which was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize last year, is also an essayist and translator.

Instituted in 2006, the lifetime achievement prize, which has no dollar value attached to it, is supposed to be awarded occasionally, but so far it has become an annual and much heralded event, honouring the work and achievements of internationally recognized poets, including Adrienne Rich of the United States (2010), Tomas Tranströmer of Sweden ( 2007 ) and Hans Magnus Enzensberger of Germany (2009).

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In accepting the award, Mr. Heaney, 73, a modest looking man with a ruddy complexion and a shock of white hair, said that "a man who dabbles in verses" is even luckier "if he can say he dabbled in verses and received the Griffin Lifetime Achievement Award."

In an interview after the readings, prize founder Scott Griffn said: "The shortlisted poets this year were outstanding and the audience's reaction to Seamus Heaney was terrific."

The four poets nominated for the international prize this year are David Harsent for Night (Faber and Faber); Yusef Komunyakaa for The Chameleon Couch (Farrar Straus and Giroux); Sean O'Brien for November (Picador) and Tadeusz Rozewicz for Sobbing Superpower (W.W. Norton). The Canadian contenders are Ken Babstock, for Methodist Hatchet (House of Anansi Press), Phil Hall for Killdear (Book Thug) and Jan Zwicky for Forge (Gaspereau Press). Each received $10,000 for reading tonight, as will Mr. Heaney for reading Thursday night at the invitation-only Griffin Prize Gala.

The three judges are Heather McHugh, who won the inaugural international prize with her husband Nikolai Popov for their translation of Glottal Stop: 101 Poems by Paul Celan; David O'Meara, director of the Pan 99 Reading Series and a poetry instructor at the Banff Centre; and poet, essayist and critic Fiona Sampson.

The Griffin Trust was founded in April 2000 by businessman Scott Griffin and trustees Margaret Atwood, Robert Hass, Michael Ondaatje, Robin Robertson and David Young. Carolyn Forché, joined the list of trustees in 2004.

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Sandra Martin is a Globe columnist and the author of the award-winning book, A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Choices. A long-time obituary writer for The Globe, she has written the obituaries of hundreds of significant Canadians, including Pierre Berton, Jackie Burroughs, Ed Mirvish, June Callwood, Arthur Erickson, and Ken Thomson. More


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