Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

Everyone who has judged a literary prize knows the temptation of Gong Fatigue. Some grand old-ish man or woman yet again submits outstanding work. But s/he has won plenty of races already, and to add another award to a cupboard full of silverware will, you suspect, do little more to burnish an already lustrous name. So you pass on to some lesser light, obscurely guilty that familiarity has bred an indifference that (if the writer only knew) would probably feel a lot like contempt. Respect, then, to the TS Eliot Prize judges, who on Monday forgot about the life and rewarded the work when they gave the victor's £10,000 to Seamus Heaney for District and Circle.

Heaney has never been content to go around in circles, but he has come to sound like a voice without a terminus. This honour for his 12th collection, both timeless and timely as he always is, reminds us that not even the strongest poets can circulate for ever. We should celebrate them while we can. And this year might prove to be a just moment to applaud not merely Heaney's achievement, but that of a whole triumvirate of pensionable bards who have, in distinctive ways, moved mountains and crossed oceans to keep English-language poetry alive over four decades.

Poetry specialists may scorn as pure fiction the special category into which I tend to slot Seamus Heaney from County Derry, Les Murray from the Manning River, New South Wales, and Derek Walcott from the island of St Lucia. Sure enough, they can differ vastly in outlook and approach, Yet each of this trio of giants is both earthy and ecstatic, local and global, imbued with the past but alert to the present. And each has consistently tested and deepened the ties between Eliot's poetic "tradition" and the "individual talent" that modifies it. As Murray writes in his recent volume The Biplane Houses (Carcanet, £8.95), the past is "the live dark matter/ that flows undismissabaly with us, and impends/ unseen over every point we reach".

Another specific event makes now the time to salute them again. As we are already too weary of hearing, 2007 marks the bicentenary of the end of the British slave trade, while the 60 years since Indian independence will mean a separate trawl of the British colonial past. From the rural and coastal margins of the imperial map - in Ireland, Australia and the West Indies - these three poets have sustained a lifelong dialogue between the culture of the coloniser and colonised. None is remotely a tub-thumper or a slogan-monger, but none has ever denied the call for recognition and respect that sounded from the empire's edges through the 20th century. In their work, history makes its mark through language, in particular via a fruitful fight between the vernacular they inherited, and the literary idiom they mastered.

Faber has now issued Walcott's Selected Poems 1948-2005 (£16.99) in a volume shrewdly edited by Edward Baugh. It is, as he says, "a distillation from the harvest of one of the great poets of the 20th century". First-time readers should prepare both for the thrilling sea-swept roar of Walcott's epic style, and the tender sparkle of his lyric mode. And in "The Bright Field" from Sea Grapes (1976), he even follows Eliot, and precedes Heaney, in an underworld voyage in the Tube.

"Moved by the light on Underground-bound faces", the poet softens his "rage" at the blank power of the imperial capital into "mercy" for "every self humbled by massive places". At last, he feels "an involuntary bell begin/ to toll for everything, even in London/ heart of our history, original sin". These poets know better than any how to throw a line between the centre and the periphery, and so link the smaller district to the wider circle. Read them all this year to keep history's human ground beneath your feet.