The Juhan Liiv Prize for Poetry

by Jüri Talvet

Founded in 1965, the Juhan Liiv annual prize for poetry has been less visible perhaps for the general public than some other literary prizes, such as those awarded by the Estonian Cultural Endowment (Kultuurkapital). However, the prize, named after Juhan Liiv – probably the greatest Estonian poem lyricist of all time – carries a special significance for Estonian poets and Estonia’s poetic situation.

    The prize is awarded by the parish of Alatskivi, a locality near lake Peipus, on  Juhan Liiv’s (1864-1913) birthday, April 30, after a ceremony at the local high school. Juhan Liiv, born and buried in Alatskivi, spent the last part of his life, from about 1894 on, mentally ill and destitute.

   At the end of the 1960s the communist authorities of Estonia forbade the prize, which they considered a manifestation of “Estonian nationalism”. However, since the prize was restored in 1984, it has been awarded uninterruptedly. A seven-member jury comprised of representatives of Alatskivi as well as a selection of writers and critics chooses the winner. The head of the jury is traditionally the previous year’s prize-winner.

   There is something special about the prize. It is awarded for a single poem, published for the first time in the year preceding the prize giving.  The award carries no money, but instead the winner receives a shepherd’s leather bag – every time in a unique shape – made by a local artist.

    Since its foundation, the Juhan Liiv Prize for Poetry has been awarded to Debora Vaarandi (1965), Paul-Eerik Rummo (1966), Betti Alver (1967 and 1987), Jaan Kaplinski (1968), August Sang (1969), Ain Kaalep (1984), Juhan Viiding (1985), Rein Sander (1986), Viivi Luik (1988), Vladimir Beekman (1989), Kalju Lepik (1990 and 1998), Doris Kareva (1991), Mats Traat (1992), Hando Runnel (1993), Ene Mihkelson (1994 and 1999), Mari Vallisoo (1995 and 2001), Ellen Niit (1996), Jüri Talvet (1997), Triin Soomets (2000), Priidu Beier (2002), Andres Ehin (2003), Ly Seppel (2004) and Ülar Ploom (2005).

   Estonian Literary Magazine has in its previous issues published a number of poems chosen for the Juhan Liiv Poetry Prize. The most recent prize-winning poems follow here, by Ly Seppel and Ülar Ploom.