The BBC has been reporting on the TS Eliot poetry prize with alarming frequency. It is as if suddenly a giant memo got handed down: POETRY IS NOT DEAD! - okay, but almost off-kilter in its perspective (because baffled media types tend to always ask the same questions about poetry). On the famous Today show, today, one of the judges of this year's Eliots (to be adjudicated tonight), W.N. Herbert, was asked about having been up for the award last year. I was up against Heaney, he said, - ah said the presenter - and then he continued, humorously - there should be a law against that.
I know what he means. Eyewear concluded that the 2006 Eliots had to go to either Heaney or Muldoon, and ultimately was perhaps better given to Heaney. However, there was something about the presenter's sigh of understanding - far surpassing Herbert's playful modesty - which says something deeper, about the condition of British / Irish poetry today, and its general reception, among the chattering classes.
Heaney really, truly, is the only living poet they know and admire - other rivals would be Wendy Cope, Andrew Motion, Craig Raine, James Fenton, Sean O'Brien, maybe Simon Armitage, and Carol Ann Duffy, in terms of recognition - but no other poet yet has that aura, here, on these isles, of invincibility. Don Paterson, or Ian Duhig, are important younger poets (in the sense of generations) - but there is only one Heaney.
This is deeply unfortunate, for any number of reasons. One is, it would be good if a woman poet, for a change, was more widely read - or perhaps a Black or Asian poet; but, more importantly, how about an innovative one?
The new controversial Arts Council report makes much of excellence, and innovation. The two, for poetry, are not the same. No living poet, in English, is a better traditional lyric craftsman than Heaney - his excellence is supreme. Is he the master innovator of our times? No. One might then want to name other poets, such as Bernstein, Ashbery, Riley, or Prynne, or Trevor Joyce.
Two things, with Heaney, have become conflated, creating the sense of the suprahuman - one is his fame (Nobel, etc) from such a young age - the other is his immense ability. Poets, because they cannot fathom such luck, such fortune, put the two together, to create a sense that mastery of lyric can lead to such a pot of gold. As such, the poets are to blame, with the media, in lazily equating Contemporary Poetry with that sigh of ah, Heaney. As in, well, if you were up against Heaney, you had to lose. Heaney is one of the gods of poetry in the current age. Set against Larkin, or Hughes, or Hardy, or Yeats, or Auden, or Eliot, or Lowell, or Frost, he is not invincible, but simply one of the vert best at what he does, in his later lifetime.
It is time poets lost a little of the sighing deference though, and moved on a little, looking ahead - there is a new generation of under-40 poets in the UK and Ireland, of some brilliance (Kennard, Nagra, Higgins, etc.). They'll be inducing the sighs on the radio, soon enough.