The winning ways of literary awards
Word for Word
The Irish Farmers Journal announced Seamus Heaney’s Nobel win, in 1995, with the charming headline “Bellaghy Celebrates as Farmer’s Son Wins Top Literary Award”. Photograph: Pat Langan
The Irish Farmers Journal announced Seamus Heaney’s Nobel win, in 1995, with the charming headline “Bellaghy Celebrates as Farmer’s Son Wins Top Literary Award”. In typically humble form, Heaney later remarked that there was simply no decorum in a sentence that might start with “I have won” and end with “the Nobel Prize”.
Although prizes now form a familiar part of the literary landscape, poets have differing attitudes to them. Robert Pinsky said that “prizes in and of themselves are baloney”, but his fellow US poet Franz Wright said, “My self-esteem is so low that winning the Pulitzer Prize just made me break even.”
Literary prizes are to be welcomed for the sales boost they usually offer. Booksellers say prizes sell more books than reviews do – shortlists influence shop displays and persuade undecided buyers. In fiction, long- and shortlisting on the Man Booker and Bailey lists often mean being on bestseller lists.
Newer prizes in Irish poetry include the Ballymaloe Poetry Prize (administered by the Moth magazine and bearing a handsome €10,000 prize for a single poem). The Piggott Poetry Prize was introduced by Listowel Writers Week this year, when its inaugural winner was Matthew Sweeney. The Trócaire/Poetry Ireland competition, which receives thousands of entries, invites unpublished single poems by schoolchildren and adults.
At the recent Mountains to Sea DLR Book Festival, Sinéad Morrissey was announced as winner of the Irish Times DLR Poetry Now prize and Tara Bergin was named as winner of the Shine/Strong award for her impressive debut, This Is Yarrow. The youth of the poets on the Poetry Now shortlist, commented on by judge (and poet) Katie Donovan, attests to the vitality of contemporary Irish poetry.
When prizes for poetry are incorporated into general literary-award schemes, the rewards for the art form can be unusually rich. Costa Award wins for the English poets Christopher Reid and Carol Ann Duffy resulted in significant sales boost for their collections.
Here, great attention is lavished on the Irish Book Awards, and so this means higher sales for winning titles. Maybe it’s time for Bord Gáis Energy to consider embracing poetry.