The pocket size series from Faber and Faber, in which a contemporary poet selects and introduces an admired poet from the past, often casts as much light on the living poet as the dead one. That's the case with Michael Longley's introduction to his selection of work by Louis MacNeice, in which he movingly describes how, a year or so after MacNeice's death, in September 1963, he drove with Derek Mahon and Seamus Heaney to the poet's grave in Carrowdore churchyard among the drumlins of Co Down. They had been shocked by his premature death at 55 and felt bereaved of a father figure whom they had only recently been getting to know, Mahon being the only one of them who had met him personally. The return of his ashes to Ireland felt, says Longley, like some kind of repatriation. "We dawdled between the graves, then signed the visitors' book, each contemplating an elegy."
When the three were next together, Derek Mahon produced from his pocket his poem, In Carrowdore Churchyard, and read it aloud. Heaney, says Longley, started to recite his poem, then crumpled it up; Longley decided also, there and then, not to attempt anything. "Mahon had produced the definitive elegy."
It's this kind of double illumination that makes the introductions to these slim volumes special. Others in the current series include Seamus Heaney on William Wordsworth, Swift by Derek Mahon and Thomas Hardy by Tom Paulin. You won't get better value for £4.99 sterling.
With Roy Foster on last year's Booker judging panel, Irish eyes had a particularly strong interest in the prize last year. Then two Irish writers, Michael Collins and Brian O'Doherty, appeared on the shortlist, though neither won. This year the panel would seem to have no particular Irish ingredient. Instead, perhaps, there is a strong Scottish presence as represented by Prof Rory Watson, poet, authority on Scottish literature and cultural identity, and academic at the university of Stirling. Other judges are biographer and literary editor of the Daily Telegraph Kate Summerscale; novelist Michele Roberts; novelist and critic Philip Hensher and, as chairman, Kenneth Baker - Lord Baker of Dorking - whose publications include five poetry anthologies. The shortlist will be announced in mid-September; the winner on October 17th.
And just in case you think it's all glory and not too much gain, the organisers tell us that last year's winner, Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin, has so far sold more than 62,200 copies in the UK, in hardback alone. LIKE glasses of champagne, one can never have too many books. World Book Week runs this year from next Monday, to March 5th. The idea of World Book Week comes from Catalonia, where on Cervantes's anniversary each year, people began to give each other roses and books to celebrate. To mark the occasion here this year, The Irish Times will be publishing £1 vouchers every day next week, courtesy of Irish booksellers. So get out your scissors, folks. You'll be able to redeem each voucher against the price of any new book in the shops. You can collect as many of them as you like, but it's one voucher per book, so it's not possible to collect a fistful and buy a book straight out. And don't squirrel them away under the mattress either: the vouchers can only be used during World Book Week.
The shortlist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award will be revealed on Monday, March 5th, in rather unusual circumstances. The Lord Mayor, Alderman Maurice Ahern, Bertie's brother, will be announcing the runners at 8.30 a.m. on TV3's Ireland AM show. At noon on the same day in Waterstone's, on Dawson Street, there will be a Readathon of chapters from the short-listed titles, which will run until 5 p.m. Dublin Corporation's amateur dramatic society will be participating and there's even talk of free wine. Presumably the bookshop will have already stocked up on copies of the shortlisted titles, so you could always spend those £1 book vouchers on a potential IMPAC winner, if nothing else in the shop grabs you.
It's the third year of the "Stream and Gliding Sun" literature festival in Tinahely, Co Wicklow, which will run from March 2nd to 4th. There are a number of events going on over the weekend, including the performance of The Thaw, by playwright Sylvia Cullen. There will be readings by poets Paul Durcan, Paula Meehan, Sean Lysaght, and Deirdre Brennan. Fiction writers, Anne Enright and Liz McManus TD will also read, and there'll be a number of workshops. The biggest draw of the weekend will undoubtedly be the ever-popular Roddy Doyle, who closes the festival on Sunday afternoon. Booking and more information from 0402-38529.