Bethlehem in Broad Daylight
On January 15 this year, Valerie Eliot presented the third annual T.S. Eliot prize to the American poet Mark Doty for his collection My Alexandria. The previous two winners, Ciaran Carson and Paul Muldoon, were from Northern Ireland, and many a British poet will be wondering when his turn will come. The fact is that several London literary prizes have an international definition of their scope of contestant. The Booker Prize for fiction defines its “community” as being any English-language novelist except the Americans. This may sound unfair but is probably practical. It also reflects, co-incidentally, a legal definition found in literary contracts, which often include all the major English-speaking countries except the US.
The T.S. Eliot Prize is for a new collection of poetry, in English, published in the previous year in either the UK or the Republic of Ireland. This definition is very tactful, and practical. It means that a poet from Northern Ireland will be eligible, whichever community he or she comes from, and however that community is to be defined. The roots of this tact reach back to around 1983 when Seamus Heaney wrote. “An Open Letter,” a 198-line poem addressed to Andrew Motion and Blake Morrison, attacking them for including his work in what they called The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry. He wasn’t British, he said, he was Irish and always had been Irish.
My passport’s green.
No glass of ours was ever raised
To toast The Queen.
Motion and Morrison were some-what shocked and dismayed. For a start, Heaney’s work was at the very heart of their anthology, at the center of their view of the contemporary scene. Less importantly, it had previously appeared in at least six anthologies with the word “British” in the title. Finally, they had probably assumed that the poets of Northern Ireland were loosely speaking British, in the sense that they came from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Heaney was saying, in somewhat rough language, that he refused to recognize this entity.
Still, the notion of Northern Ireland as being part of the same literary world as Great Britain, the feeling that we belong to the same community, has not died out on what is sometimes called the mainland. One would feel, as an English poet, rather queasy about accepting a prize for which only English poets were eligible. There would seem to be some sinister nationalism lurking in the background. As for a prize which was only for mainland Brits, that would seem unfairly exclusive of Ulster Protestants, or at least potentially so (one would have to ask them individually whether they felt excluded).
Over recent years, nationalism has become an increasingly nuanced business for all of us, and it is illuminating to see how it gets defined, and how community is defined, in cases where a legal or quasi-legal definition is needed. And where the issues are practical: whose book is to be considered …