“Courtesy is the beginning of a good social life…”

Seamus Heaney has won the Poetry Book Society’s TS Eliot Prize for a poem from his most recent volume of poetry District and Circle. The Today programme has the man himself reading from The Blackbird of Glanmore, a poem with obvious connections to an earlier work. Coming from a fiercely political South Derry, Heaney has always resisted the temptation to let his politics drive art.

The Humphries’ interview with him and the chair of the judges Sean O’Brien is worth listening to.

O’Brien: “He is concerned with courtesies, and with praise and with recognising the dignity of others”.

Heaney’s response: “From my own experience of living in an angry, and vicious, if not deplorable situation in for years in the north, I think that one to one courtesy is the beginning of the possibility of a good social life, both in a household and in a community, and in a cultural society generally”.

As to whether Heaney is an angry poet, I’d guess the anger is in there however quiet the tone of voice. Anahorish 1944 depicts what was once a fairly normal domestic rural occupation, juxtaposed with the arrival of American troops locally. An arrival, which for many Catholics, Marianne Elliot argues in her seminal The Catholics of Ulster, put paid to the reasoning behind the IRA’s wartime campaign:

‘We were killing pigs when the Americans arrived.
A Tuesday morning, sunlight and gutter-blood
Outside the slaughterhouse. From the main road
They would have heard the squealing,
Then heard it stop and had a view of us
In our gloves and aprons coming down the hill.
Two lines of them, guns on their shoulders, marching.
Armoured cars and tanks and open jeeps.
Sunburnt hands and arms. Unknown, unnamed,
Hosting for Normandy.
Not that we knew then
Where they were headed, standing there like youngsters
As they tossed us gum and tubes of coloured sweets.’

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  • Pete Baker

    Worth adding Seamus Heaney’s note of acceptance of the award

    Heaney, who was unable to accept the award in person, expressed his delight at the news. “There are many reasons to feel honoured by the award of this prize – the aura of TS Eliot’s name, for a start; the distinction of the previous winners; the quality of the other poets on this year’s shortlist; and the high regard in which the judges are held,” he said. “When I called one of the poems in District and Circle ‘Anything Can Happen’ I wasn’t thinking that anything like this would happen to the book, but it certainly expresses what I’m feeling at the moment.”