Sunday, March 22, 2009
lifetime honour collects Seamus Heaney
Irish poet Seamus Heaney gain David Cohen Prize for Literature.
The £40,000 award, given to a writer from the British Isles, was presented by Poet Laureate Andrew Motion at a ceremony in London.
The 69-year-old, whose first collection of poems appeared in 1966, said it was "a lovely reward".
Past winners include fellow Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing.
Heaney, who won the Nobel Prize in 1995, paid tribute to previous recipients, calling them "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," he added.
Motion called Heaney a "venerated public figure", with a "reputation is so exalted judging panels might be expected to feel some trepidation about bestowing another prize on him".
"But the self-renewing force of his writing, and the sheer scale of his achievement make the award an absolutely right and proper act of recognition," he added.
As the winner of the Cohen Prize, Heaney has chosen an organisation supporting young writers to receive the £12,500 Clarissa Luard Award.
About Seamus Heaney
Seamus Heaney was born in April 1939, the eldest member of a family which would eventually contain nine children. His father owned and worked a small farm of some fifty acres in County Derry in Northern Ireland, but the father's real commitment was to cattle-dealing. There was something very congenial to Patrick Heaney about the cattle-dealer's way of life to which he was introduced by the uncles who had cared for him after the early death of his own parents. The poet's mother came from a family called McCann whose connections were more with the modern world than with the traditional rural economy; her uncles and relations were employed in the local linen mill and an aunt had worked "in service" to the mill owners' family. The poet has commented on the fact that his parentage thus contains both the Ireland of the cattle-herding Gaelic past and the Ulster of the Industrial Revolution; indeed, he considers this to have been a significant tension in his background, something which corresponds to another inner tension also inherited from his parents, namely that between speech and silence. His father was notably sparing of talk and his mother notably ready to speak out, a circumstance which Seamus Heaney believes to have been fundamental to the "quarrel with himself" out of which his poetry arises.
Heaney grew up as a country boy and attended the local primary school. As a very young child, he watched American soldiers on manoeuvres in the local fields, in preparation for the Normandy invasion of 1944. They were stationed at an aerodrome which had been built a mile or so from his home and once again Heaney has taken this image of himself as a consciousness poised between "history and ignorance" as representative of the nature of his poetic life and development. Even though his family left the farm where he was reared (it was called Mossbawn) in 1953, and even though his life since then has been a series of moves farther and farther away from his birthplace, the departures have been more geographical than psychological: rural County Derry is the "country of the mind" where much of Heaney's poetry is still grounded.
When he was twelve years of age, Seamus Heaney won a scholarship to St. Columb's College, a Catholic boarding school situated in the city of Derry, forty miles away from the home farm, and this first departure from Mossbawn was the decisive one. It would be followed in years to come by a transfer to Belfast where he lived between 1957 and 1972, and by another move from Belfast to the Irish Republic where Heaney has made his home, and then, since 1982, by regular, annual periods of teaching in America. All of these subsequent shifts and developments were dependent, however, upon that original journey from Mossbawn which the poet has described as a removal from "the earth of farm labour to the heaven of education." It is not surprising, then, that this move has turned out to be a recurrent theme in his work, from "Digging", the first poem in his first book, through the much more orchestrated treatment of it in "Alphabets"(The Haw Lantern, 1987), to its most recent appearance in "A Sofa in the Forties" which was published this year in The Spirit Level.