The Big Questions: Should children learn poetry by heart? How does Northern Irish history inform your work? Is textspeak bad for self-expression?

This week answered by the winner of the TS Eliot poetry prize, Sinéad Morrissey


The judges for the T S Eliot Prize that you won this week described your winning collection as “politically ambitious”. Did your background in Northern Ireland play any part in that?

I think my upbringing in a communist family played a central role in my development of a political consciousness, which was particularly interesting in the context of Northern Ireland because my family’s world-view was so strikingly at odds with the dominant political mode of either the unionist or nationalist communities. In Parallax, I was interested in exploring that sense of altered or skewed perspective further, in all sorts of ways, as well as the dichotomy between what I’d learned about the Soviet Union as a child, and what I’d discovered about its workings as an adult.

What does the recent breakdown in talks between unionists and nationalists over flags and banners tell us about the current state of Northern Ireland politics?

It’s a difficult time – and this breakdown in talks tells us that there is a long way still to go in terms of making the peace process stable. Intense community divisions persist. It’s still important to bear in mind, however, how far Northern Ireland has come since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 – and precisely because the dividends of the peace have been so rich in so many ways, there’s a lot at stake right now.

You are a reader in creative writing at Queen’s University, Belfast, where Bill Clinton is due to pay a visit in March. How important do you think he is to recent Northern Irish history?

Bill Clinton’s intervention has been pivotal during various stages of the peace process in the past. I hope his visit in March will be equally positive.

As a T S Eliot Prize winner you follow in the footsteps of, among others, Seamus Heaney. Can you sum up his contribution to literature?

Heaney’s contribution to literature was profound. He managed to combine enormous popularity with both impressive erudition and consummate craftsmanship. His mourning was a national event in Ireland, and continues to be a national event. He was owned and admired by everybody, north and south, rural and urban, old and young. Students at the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s staged a memorial event just before Christmas, and it was one of the most moving literary occasions I’ve attended because their investment in his work was so deep and ongoing. He meant a great deal to everyone.

Are you in favour of school pupils learning poetry by heart?

Yes, I am. An important aspect of poetry’s power is its ability to cast a spell over those listening to it – its basic mechanics, rhyme and rhythm exist in order to do precisely this in the act of oral delivery. It’s written to be read aloud. I remember being made to learn poetry by heart as a child in primary school, and now own those poems, and I will own them for the rest of my life. Subsequently, when I came across a poem I loved as a teenager, like T S Eliot’s “Prufrock”, or Sylvia Plath’s “Poppies in October”, it was an automatic thing for me to learn them by heart, so I would always have them. I first heard poetry from my grandmother when I was five or six – she recited the whole of Alfred Noyes’s “The Highwayman” once and I was utterly captivated. My grandfather is 92 and can still recite poetry by heart; it’s one of the last things to leave us as we age.

We read this week that “internet speak”, including texting, improves people’s language skills and powers of expression. Do you agree?

It depends on how those languages are used. “Internet speak” can be an exciting new kind of poetic form: in Conor O’Callaghan’s brilliant new collection, The Sun King, he writes a series of tiny poems, each as long as a tweet, and it’s like a new kind of Japanese haiku in his hands. Textspeak at the expense of other kinds of less condensed and foreshortened language can also of course be a kind of denigration, and might lead to an inability to sustain more complex and longer units of thought.

Graduate unemployment, and the cost of a degree, raise questions about the worth of a university education. What is your view?

I think a university education can still be extremely worthwhile and I value my own experiences, not only because of the qualifications I gained but because of what I learned for its own sake. I still remember brilliant lectures, for example, or supervisory sessions in which I was asked a question which changed my understanding. Moments like that are worth living for.

You’ve lived in both Japan and New Zealand. What of those cultures have you absorbed in your writing?

In Japan, because of my position as an outsider, I became very aware that I could only ever misread what I was witnessing, and also that the main thing I had to go on (not having the language) was what I saw. Visual perception and misconception have remained at the heart of my writing ever since. In New Zealand, I was homesick for Ireland, and simultaneously impressed and alienated by the natural world. I lived for six months in the heart of the Waitakere forests, and the beauty and otherness of the forest have made their way into my work. But New Zealand hasn’t had the same kind. of impact on my writing that Japan did.

Sinéad Morrissey is reader in creative writing at the Seamus Heaney Centre/School of English at Queen’s University, Belfast. Her latest volume of poetry, ‘Parallax’, won the T S Eliot Prize this week and is published by Carcanet

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