Monday, 14 January 2013

The T S Eliot Prize for 2012: Same Shirt, Different Trousers

On Sunday night, I attended the T S Eliot Prize readings for the best 2012 poetry collection, at the Royal Festival Hall on London's Southbank. Apparently there were over 2000 in attendance.

I thought that this year's lineup was exceptional, and I will write more about that, and about the evening. First, though, I started to reflect on my own history (such as it is) with the T S Eliot Prize. It turns out that I have now attended the readings five times, in my seven and a half years in London. This will be the twentieth time that the prize has been awarded.

The first two readings which I attended were in 2007 and 2008, and they were still at the Bloomsbury Theatre, which meant that attendance would have been around 500. Three years ago, the T S Eliot Prize took an enormous leap forward when it took over the Royal Festival Hall for the readings, and (so far) they have been there ever since. I'm not sure what happened in the interim; poetry became much more fashionable, or the 2011 reading with Seamus Heaney in attendance gave the event a big push...or something. I have mixed feelings about the change. Basically it is a wonderful thing for poetry, but those first two times at the Bloomsbury felt like something truly unique and special, as though I'd been admitted to an exclusive club. (I realise that saying this won't help with the niche/ivory tower reputation of poetry consumption, but it's still true.) This was even though at the time I didn't quite realise how significant the T S Eliot Prize was. Many consider it to be the world's most important poetry prize.

My first T S Eliot Prize reading was in January 2007, for the 2006 collections. This was the year that Seamus Heaney won for District and Circle, but sadly he couldn't be in attendance as he had just suffered a minor stroke. I remember being quite disappointed by that (and worried!), but I have since managed to see him read three times; once when his collection Human Chain was released, once for the 2010 prize (when  he was beaten by Derek Walcott's White Egrets, one of my favourite collections by anyone ever), and once at Poetry Parnassus in 2012.

I certainly have a few piercing memories of the evening, though, one of which is of Sean O'Brien reading Eliot's 'Marina' ("What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands..."). I wasn't very familiar with the poem at the time and it has since become one of my favourite poems. I will never forget that moment. It was either the same year or the following year, also at the Bloomsbury, that I realised that Valerie Eliot (T S Eliot's widow) was sitting in the row right behind me. I managed to not to stare at her like a ninny, but I definitely quivered a bit.

Last year I felt that the event was dominated by the controversy over Aurum's sponsorship of the prize, and I didn't think that the list of nominees was so outstanding. At least, the readings didn't make as much of an impression on me as they sometimes have. My personal choice for the winner would have been David Harsent for Night - I find his work quite amazing - but the winner was John Burnside. It was a good shortlist, but perhaps not great.

This year, however, the lineup wasn't just outstanding - it was really exceptional, perhaps the best I have experienced. (Although I hesitate to say that when two years ago both Heaney and Walcott were on the list.) I was already familiar with a few of the collections, but a few more in particular were revelations to me in the course of the evening.

Carol Ann Duffy introduced the readings, and as is traditional, she read a poem by Eliot. It was at this point that she paid tribute to Valerie Eliot, who died a few months ago, and who did so much for the Prize, and for Eliot's legacy and poetry in general. The poem chosen was 'Dedication To My Wife', most appropriately, and it was a very moving moment.

The host was poet and broadcaster Ian McMillan, who to me always seems just on the verge of losing the plot and then turns out to be terribly funny after all. I particularly enjoyed "I realised that I'm wearing the same shirt as I did at last year's readings, but I've changed my trousers. And that's like modern poetry. Continuity and change," as well as his comment that the readings from each poet would last about eight minutes "and they'll feel like longer, but in a good way."

The shortlist was as follows:

Gillian Clarke - Ice
Sean Borodale - Bee Journal
Julia Copus - The World's Two Smallest Humans
Jorie Graham - PLACE
Simon Armitage - The Death of King Arthur
Kathleen Jamie - The Overhaul
Jacob Polley - The Havocs
Deryn Rees-Jones - Burying the Wren
Paul Farley - The Dark Film
Sharon Olds - Stag's Leap

In brief: Gillian Clarke's images of snow and cold and myth build instant and complex ice palaces in my mind. Sean Borodale's bee poems (these seem to be fashionable in recent years) were tasty and evocative and he also had pretty great cheekbones. Julia Copus read a poem about her brothers which just about had me in tears. Jorie Graham couldn't be present to read but her publisher did a very credible job with her long lines and amazing stream-of-consciousness - at the end of 'Lull', I felt as though I'd been hypnotized and was waiting to be woken with a snap of the fingers. Simon Armitage gave a forceful reading of his adopted Arthurian tale, as well as a great argument for its modern relevance. Kathleen Jamie's nature poems, especially her small charming flower poem, were pretty much flawless. Jacob Polley gained the only spontaneous applause of the evening for the creepy 'Langley Lane' and I think he may have been the people's choice. Deryn Rees-Jones read her long and disturbing 'Dogwoman' sequence with incredible conviction and cumulative force. Paul Farley was fascinating and funny - I especially love 'Google Earth', and the poem about the Queen got the biggest laugh. Finally, Sharon Olds had everyone dumbstruck with the honesty and precision of her poems about divorce.

I managed to get several books signed afterwards, which was great. Chatting with Simon Armitage about Arthuriana was lovely. Paul Farley was definitely a bit hammered by the time I got to him, and thanked me with intense sincerity for coming. I said jokingly "you must be a bit tired of signing all these books." He looked me straight in the eye: "NO! NO, I AM NOT TIRED OF IT." I then realised that, a bit ominously, he had signed my copy "Clarissa's best love to Paul Farley" (at least I think that's what it says.)

I also bumped into George Szirtes and his wife Clarissa (yes!) - it was great to see them again so soon after George's reading in London in December, and to chat briefly. I'm sure I must have walked past a few dozen (if not a few hundred) well-known poets and bloggers, but I definitely recognised Daljit Nagra. And when I was getting my books signed, I realised that I was standing ten feet from Robin Robertson. I have had a creepy fascination with Robin Robertson ever since I worked for the publishing house where he is an editor, and our paths do seem to cross with mysterious regularity. (Stalker!)

As this post goes to press (or whatever), it has been announced that Sharon Olds is this year's winner. I'm very happy to hear it - she was probably my first choice. But honestly, on a list that strong pretty much anyone could have won and there could have been few complaints. I'm hoping for another T S Eliot Prize as impressive in a year's time.


  1. As always, you make me feel as if I were right there in London, living a literary life. And I am intrigued by the ice palace images you speak of in relation to the work of Gillian Clarke. Can you recommend some Arctic poetry, or poetry or other literature of the ice-bound mountain realms?

    1. Thank you!!

      The Gillian Clarke 'Ice' collection was partly based on the very cold winters in Wales a couple of years ago. I haven't read the collection properly yet, besides dipping in, but the poems seem to revolve around cold and snow and mythic associations - so I think I will enjoy it.

      Paul Celan often returned to images of snow. I wouldn't say there's an entire collection of snowy poems but a few poems of interest would be 'Snow-bed', 'Homecoming' and 'Snow part'. They are highly symbolic though.

      If you haven't read it, Derek Mahon's 'Antarctica' is wonderful - it's based on Scott's expedition. I was reading Wallace Stevens's 'The Snow Man' today, too. (We've had a teeny tiny bit of snow in London this week.)

      I really want to write some Antarctic poetry myself, but it seems to be elusive so far.

      I will have to have a bit more of a think about your question...!

    2. As far as factual mountain literature goes, I'm reading Into the Silence at the moment (by Wade Davis) which is about Mallory and Everest and the aftermath of WWI: very moving and informative. Joe Simpson, author of Touching the Void, is probably my favourite mountain writer. Good mountaineering poetry...well, I need to discover some more of that.

  2. Thanks for the recommendations. I'm especially intrigued by 'Touching the Void', which I'd not heard of. When I finish the book I'm currently reading, which has nothing whatever to do with mountains or snow, I'll be starting Thorkild Hansen's 'The Way to Hudson Bay', translated from the Danish, an account of an attempt to find the Northwest Passage, and I'm just in the mood. Hansen himself is someone I find quite interesting and may do a blogpost on him sometime. Meanwhile, my own favorite ice and snow book is 'Winter', by the American Rick Bass, which is basically his own journal of his first year on a remote Montana ranch as caretaker and his struggles to prepare for the arrival of the snow and to survive it. I reread it every few years, a little world I escape to periodically.