Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

TS Eliot Prize winner Sinead Morrissey's success gives Northern Ireland a seat at poetry's top table

Poet's win of TS Eliot Prize is further proof of our writing talent, says Malachi O'Doherty

Winning lines: Belfast poet Sinéad Morrissey

Sinead Morrissey is the fifth Northern Irish poet to win the TS Eliot prize. The first was Ciaran Carson, 20 years ago. Paul Muldoon, Michael Longley and Seamus Heaney have also won it.

Sinead, who is the first Belfast Poet Laureate, was shortlisted four times for previous work. As a poet she must now be counted as one of the best in the English-speaking world. But so also must her fellow winners.

And you have to wonder if there is any other city that could put four such poets round one table as contemporaries and friends of each other. The missing one would be Heaney, but he would be good company at that table too.

These poets all know each other, all read and praise each other.

Sinead is a lecturer in the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen's University, which now sees its own prestige elevated by her achievement.

Another Heaney Centre lecturer, Leontia Flynn, was shortlisted for the prize two years ago.

What student of creative writing anywhere wouldn't want to be taught by people with reputations like these?

I have to declare an interest and say that I was Writer in Residence for three years in the Heaney Centre and know all these people myself: I queued behind them for the kettle in the kitchen, discussed local politics and Danish thrillers with them, and never felt I was moving among the stars.

And there are more there who haven't won big prizes who are as enthralling when they speak or read their work.

So, you have to wonder what it is about this city that produces great poets.

It's not that they live in a cloister among each other and have little else to do.

Sinead Morrissey and Leontia Flynn are overworked academics who are seen more often with a pile of marking in their laps than with Clairefontaine notebooks and fountain pens.

There is nothing magical oozing out of the walls of the Heaney Centre itself. The little garden in which Sinead was photographed for university publicity has been cleared of vegetation now because of rats.

And the readings have been shifted to the Crescent Arts Centre, because booking rooms in Queen's is so difficult.

And while the Heaney Centre has been the workplace and hub for the big prize winners, the 'whatever it is' in the Belfast air that produces poetry spreads way beyond it.

Lagan Press, now shifted to Derry, has a huge back catalogue: Moyra Donaldson, Deirdre Cartmill, Damian Smyth, Gerald Dawe, Myra Vennard, Maria McManus, Matt Kirkham and more.

So, poetry is one of those things, like golf, that we just happen to do better here.

The rest of the country tends to notice that less, because winners of international golfing trophies feature on the television news, and poetry is presumed, within much of the media, to be a marginal eccentric interest.

And, if the credit for our golfing achievements traces back to the fine courses we have and the older mentors, then credit for the fostering of poetry must go to the tradition of great work that goes back at least to the celebrated 'Group', which some of its former members would say is given greater importance than it deserves.

Poetry centred at Queen's was fostered by Edna Longley, the critic, and wife of Michael, and interest was kept alive even during the Troubles, when people would make their way across town to the English Society to hear the best poets in these islands – James Fenton, Sorley McLean, Paul Durcan – and get drunk with them afterwards in the Senior Common Room. Poetry outside the university owes a lot to Pat Ramsey, the former editor of Lagan Press and another group or nexus of activity going back to the '80s that included Martin Mooney, John Hughes, Andrew Elliott and Moyra Donaldson.

None of this was for much reward. There is no money in poetry, except for the occasional prizes. The Arts Council subsidised nearly everything.

I think if there is something in the air here, it is the influence of the big writers themselves and this isn't just the example of their achievements. Many of them have that same geniality and humility that we saw in Seamus Heaney.

Sinead Morrissey, for instance, conveys no sense at all that she regards herself as a superior writer whose work is more important than anyone else's. And that is clear in her writing too; she is amazed by simple things and shares that amazement, and readers are amazed by the precision of her language. And students crumble with bliss when she praises their work.

When she reads to an audience she enthrals with an almost mesmerising intensity. People say they don't really understand poetry or get what it's about. With Sinead, it could hardly be more plain.

For most, poetry has been invisible, inaudible, but this year, for the first time, a Belfast Lord Mayor, Mairtin O Muilleoir, recognised that poetry is important in this city and nominated Sinead Morrissey as poet laureate. He picked a winner.

And maybe, that choice having been so vindicated, future mayors will continue to appoint laureates and remind the city how highly esteemed its poets are.

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