Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet, author and playwright Seamus Heaney has been awarded the £40,000 David Cohen Prize for Literature.
Every two years the David Cohen Prize is bestowed upon a writer, novelist, short-story writer, poet, essayist or dramatist in recognition of an entire body of work, written in the English language. Previous winners include Derek Mahon, Harold Pinter, Doris Lessing, and V.S. Naipaul.
By strange coincidence I happened to read Heaney’s new poem called “In the Attic” a couple of days ago. It was published in The New Yorker last month.
Because Heaney has enjoyed a long and successful career as a poet, and many of us studied him in school and/or college, it is easy to take for granted that he is a damn fine writer. When I read “In the Attic” I was reminded of his simple, arresting phrasing, and acute observation. I was simultaneously inspired and defeated.
Tonight, I read his Nobel Lecture “Crediting Poetry“, which he delivered in 1995. It’s lovely and lyrical, and even better if you can listen to it as a podcast (the recording is available on the web site). Since he is a poet by trade it’s worth listening to him deliver the lecture, because you catch the nuances and stresses, and the minor deviations from the text. I love the journey he describes of his life through poets and writing, and his struggle to write poetry that reflects the harshness and beauty of our world.
He summarises at the end of his lecture the benefit of poetry:
Poetic form is both the ship and the anchor. It is at once a buoyancy and a steadying, allowing for the simultaneous gratification of whatever is centrifugal and whatever is centripetal in mind and body. And it is by such means that Yeats’s work does what the necessary poetry always does, which is to touch the base of our sympathetic nature while taking in at the same time the unsympathetic reality of the world to which that nature is constantly exposed. The form of the poem, in other words, is crucial to poetry’s power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry’s credit: the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest of our veritable human being.