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Irish Poet Wins 1st Million-Dollar Nobel Prize

October 06, 1995|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — Popular Irish poet Seamus Heaney, a farmer's son of great insight and few pretensions, won history's first million-dollar Nobel Prize on Thursday for his works of "lyrical beauty and ethical depth."

The million-dollar literature award from the Swedish Academy opened the 1995 Nobel season by saluting a shaggy-haired, 56-year-old poet whose life and work span the divisions between Northern Ireland, where he was born, and the Irish Republic, where he lives in Dublin.

"He has balanced the burdens and benefits of two cultures, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon, to maximum applause and minimum offense, and straddled the dark Irish border, enlightening all," an admiring British reviewer wrote of Heaney's career.

The academy on Thursday praised works that "exalt everyday miracles and the living past" in selecting the first Nobel winner in 94 years whose prize reaches seven figures--thanks principally to the weakness of the U.S. dollar.

"As an Irish Catholic, he has concerned himself with analysis of the violence in Northern Ireland--with the express reservation that he wants to avoid the conventional terms," the academy citation said.

"In his opinion, the fact that there has been unwillingness on both sides to speak out--even about manifest injustices--has been of great importance in the explosive development," the academy said.

Heaney, who has published a dozen collections of poetry and is also an accomplished essayist, was vacationing in rural Greece on Thursday and not immediately aware of the award, his publisher, Faber & Faber, said here.

In his absence, toasts were drunk to Heaney by colleagues at Oxford and Harvard universities where he has taught, and by drinking mates at Scruffy Murphy, an old Dublin haunt.

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In Ireland, where Heaney is an immensely popular public figure, Prime Minister John Bruton said, "His poetry, which has enriched and illuminated Irish life, from simple everyday events to his reflection on the divisions which have afflicted the island of Ireland, truly deserves this international recognition and acclaim."

Heaney, who writes in English and Irish, is an unassuming individualist. When in a 1989 interview the Sunday Times described him as "the finest poet writing in English" and a potential Nobel winner, Heaney responded: "That's just nonsense."

Born in Mossbawm, in the Northern Irish district of Londonderry, Heaney was the eldest of nine children of a Roman Catholic farming family. He studied English language and literature at Queen's University in Belfast.

Heaney's early works, including a first volume of poetry in 1966, "Death of a Naturalist," celebrate country crafts. There, and in the 1969 "Door Into the Dark," the reader learns lyrically of thatching and butter-churning, of bubbles "gargling" on stagnant water, of the reek of "fungus and dank moss," of peat bogs and mud.

Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, but Heaney is Irish, thank you. Privately delighted to have been included in an anthology of British poetry in 1983, he nevertheless wrote to protest: "Be advised my passport's green. No glass of ours was ever raised to toast the queen."

Heaney once described himself as a mixture of Irish pieties and English literary awareness. In fact, among people who read poetry, he is as popular in Britain as in Ireland.

Around Heaney hangs a "magical ring of confidence," a gift from his family that is rare among members of the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland, his wife, Marie, told the Irish Times a few years ago.

The poet's craft, Heaney once observed, is akin to fishing: "It involves luck, skill, dedication, patience and disappointment. The poet throws the bait of his experience into the sea of language and waits and works for the right collection of words to attach themselves to it."

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In his later work, Heaney, who will receive his prize in Stockholm in December, emerges as a dense-writing poet intrigued by the implications of words and their contexts. A new collection of poems, "The Spirit Level," is scheduled for publication in May.

In the recently published "The Redress of Poetry," a collection of 10 lectures he delivered as an Oxford professor, Heaney underlines his conviction that poetry has the ability to redress spiritual imbalance. It is, he says, a powerful counterweight to oppressive forces.

Heavy going, maybe, but there is no shortage of down-home Irish wit in the farm boy-turned-scholar-turned-Nobel winner. One of his favorite stories is about a New York cop who is asked how long it would take to walk across mugger-rife Central Park: "Can't say, bud. No one ever made it," the cop replies.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Profile: Seamus Heaney

* Age: 56

* Education: Degree in English language and literature from Queen's University, Belfast, 1961.

* Career: Lecturer, Queen's University, Belfast, 1966-72; visiting professor at UC Berkeley, 1970-71; Carysfort College, Dublin, 1975-81; professor of poetry, Oxford University, 1989-94; Boylston professor of rhetoric, Harvard University, since 1985.

* Published works: "Death of a Naturalist," 1966; "Door Into the Dark," 1969; "Wintering Out," 1972; "North," 1975; "Field Work," 1979; "Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978," 1980; "Selected Poems 1965-1975," 1980; "The Rattlebag," co-edited with Ted Hughes, 1982; "Station Island," 1984; "Sweeney Astray," 1984; "The Haw Lantern," 1987; "The Government of the Tongue," 1988; "New Selected Poems 1966-1987," 1990; "The Cure at Troy," 1990; "Seeing Things," 1991; "Sweeney's Flight," 1992; "The Redress of Poetry: Oxford Lectures," 1995

Source: Associated Press

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