John Sutherland: Seamus Heaney deserves a lot more than £40,000

The paltry awards we give our best poets is a sign of how little we value poetry – and that's got to change

Press cameras flashed last night when the winner of the David Cohen prize for a lifetime's excellence in literature was announced. It went, deservedly, to Seamus Heaney: the greatest poet of our age. Heaney won £40,000, and, as part of the winner's package, was asked to choose the recipient of a further award – a bursary of £12,500, named in honour of arts administrator Clarissa Luard. He chose to bestow it on Poetry Aloud, an annual poetry-speaking competition open to all post-primary students in his native Ireland.

Can you name any of the three quarter-finalists knocked out of Wimbledon last year? Or the 10th-best snooker player in the country? Or who plays centre-forward for Manchester United reserves? One thing all of them have in common is that they earn more in a year than the £40,000 Heaney trousered last night. As for the Luard bursary, those sportsmen would throw away their rackets, cues and boots if that pittance was all their skills earned them.

For many years – his formative ones – Heaney was obliged to keep body and soul together by taking whatever scratch work he could find lecturing and in creative-writing academic posts (many in America). That labour probably cost the national literary heritage four or five slim volumes. Even with the huge acclaim heaped on him for early books such as North, our greatest poet could no more live on his literary earnings than any busker in the London underground. He might have been able to survive. But live? Forget it. And Heaney was top of the tree.

It's the centenary this year of the birth of Stephen Spender, a writer whose name will live for ever, along with Louis MacNeice and WH Auden, as a quintessential "1930s poet". Spender published all his life with Faber – TS Eliot's firm, and the main commercial patron of poetry in this country. One year, Spender (by then a household name) received an annual royalty of 12 shillings and sixpence – equivalent now to around £20. He published virtually no poetry in the last 20 years of his life. Would you?

The paltriness of the awards we give to our poets measures how we truly view poetry. We expect it to come naturally, like Mary's little lambs. Leave them alone and they'll come home, bringing their volumes behind them.

There is, of course, a counter-argument about pipers, payments and tunes. Who were the most generously patronised poets in the 20th century? Members of the Soviet Union's Writers' Union. A high cost was paid for the handsome wages they received: freedom. Even a writer as giftedly devious as Yevgeny Yevtushenko could only get an edgy poem like Babi Yar published with commissar approval. That kind of state patronage doesn't make for great poetry.

But there are, surely, middle ways between our "leave them alone and they'll come home" approach and Party-supervised doggerel of the Soviet kind. The American practice of installing poets as tenured writers in residence in universities is one. There are 109 English departments in this country. Plant a few more poets in them, and the literary garden would bloom. In the meantime, hail Heaney.


John Sutherland

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Extract: Human Chain by Seamus Heaney
Poems from the TS Eliot prize-shortlisted collection Human Chain

Seamus Heaney

24, Jan, 2011 @11:28 AM

Article image
Seamus Heaney: readers' tributes and reactions

Readers, poets, authors and celebrities pay tribute to the Nobel-winning poet who died today

Guardian readers and Hannah Freeman

30, Aug, 2013 @1:31 PM

Article image
Seamus Heaney reads his poems on video – which is your favourite?

Ireland's Nobel laureate, the poet Seamus Heaney, has died after a short illness. Here we round up some videos of him reading his poems. Which is your favourite?

30, Aug, 2013 @12:16 PM

Article image
Seamus Heaney obituary

Irish poet and Nobel laureate whose lines of love and loss took inspiration from his childhood in Derry

Neil Corcoran

30, Aug, 2013 @2:16 PM

Article image
Seamus Heaney chooses two poems to sum up his lifetime achievement

Poet reads The Underground and A Drink of Water at presentation of David Cohen prize for lifetime excellence in writing

Alison Flood

19, Mar, 2009 @12:27 PM

Article image
Podcast: Prizes and poetry with Michelle Paver, Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes

We talk to Michelle Paver, winner of the Guardian children's fiction prize, examine Ted Hughes's newly-discovered poem on the death of Sylvia Plath, and celebrate Seamus Heaney's Forward prize and Mario Vargas Llosa's Nobel

Presented by Claire Armitstead and produced by Tim Maby

08, Oct, 2010 @1:36 PM

Article image
Seamus Heaney remembered
Seamus Heaney was a writer of great power, a brilliant intellect – and the best of company. Roy Foster pays tribute to a giant of world literature

Roy Foster

31, Aug, 2013 @11:07 PM

Article image
Joe Biden's love for Seamus Heaney is evidence of a soul you can trust | Jonathan Jones
The president-elect has often quoted Heaney’s poetry, with his reading of The Cure at Troy going viral after his election victory

Jonathan Jones

09, Nov, 2020 @2:24 PM

Article image
Seamus Heaney – an appreciation
In Seamus Heaney's poetry, ordinary objects and places – a sofa, a satchel, the sound of rain – are sanctified. But it has edge and politics, too. Blake Morrison recognises an astonishing poetic achievement

Blake Morrison

06, Sep, 2013 @1:00 PM

Beowulf by Seamus Heaney

In off the moors, down through the mist-bands
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping.
The bane of the race of men roamed forth,
hunting for a prey in the high hall.
Under the cloud-murk he moved towards it
until it shone above him, a sheer keep
of fortified gold. Nor was that the first time
he had scouted the grounds of Hrothgar's dwelling -
although never in his life, before or since,
did he find harder fortune or hall-defenders.
Spurned and joyless, he journeyed on ahead
and arrived at the bawn. The iron-braced door
turned on its hinge when his hands touched it.
Then his rage boiled over, he ripped open
the mouth of the building, maddening for blood,
pacing the length of the patterned floor
with his loathsome tread, while a baleful light,
flame more than light, flared from his eyes.
He saw many men in the mansion, sleeping,
a ranked company of kinsmen and warriors
quartered together. And his glee was demonic,
picturing the mayhem: before morning
he would rip life from limb and devour them,
feed on their flesh; but his fate that night
was due to change, his days of ravening
had come to an end.

25, Jan, 2000 @8:13 PM