I said I’d come back to comment on Paul Farley’s Forward Prize winner Liverpool Disappears for a Billionth of a Second .
Technically, all poems published anywhere in the UK in 2005 are eligible for this award. In practice, only those published in collections by mainstream publishers, or in the more important poetry magazines, or by well-known writers, stand a chance of winning. The judges each read 7,000 poems before deciding on the winners in various categories. 109 poems were nominated for Best Individual Poem, which the judges whittled down to a shortlist of 5 before picking their favourite.
I like the Liverpool poem. It’s witty and clever, it has more than one layer to it, and it connects to the experience of many people, whether that experience is real or imagined. It’s accessible without being trite, and it’s well written, but not overly academic. You can understand it straightaway on one level, although it sets you thinking deeper. It sticks in the brain and connects with the gut.
In many ways, as an advertisement for the Forward Prize and for poetry generally, it’s an ideal winner. It’s the kind of poem I could imagine drawing an intelligent non-reader of poetry to pick up a poetry book and read more. But it doesn’t represent a “dumbing down” of what poetry should be about. The poem is well crafted, well structured. Some might feel it could be stripped-down a bit, but the UK, it seems to me, has always been less insistent on that than our U.S. counterparts.
Was it the “best” poem on the shortlist? It wasn’t my favourite, although I did enjoy it.
I thought Sarah Maguire’s “Passages” was terrific, but at 135 lines, it’s a little long for exposure on the web or in publicity.
Stephen Knight’s “99 Poems” was intriguing. It’s an alphabetical list of made-up (I think!) poem-titles laid out alphabetically, as in an anthology index. What’s clever is the way you can look at each title and immediately tell what kind of poem it would likely be – from what era, what poetry school, what tone it’s going to have. Clever, funny, and original, but probably not one to appeal to the public. It’s a poem for poets and for existing avid readers of poetry.
Katherine Pierpoint’s “Buffalo Calf” must have been a strong contender. I quoted a section of it below, in my entry of 6 December. I’d class it as equal in quality to Paul Farley’s poem, but written in a completely different style. It lacks humour, but makes up for it in its intense lyricism.
Peter Scupham’s “Seventy Years a Showman” pulses with energy and drive. It’s packed full of names I’ve never heard of, along with italicised, invented quotes to portray a life in the fast lane. It’s not that easy to get into, but it’s compelling once you’re in there.
Why did Paul Farley’s poem have the edge over the rest? I’d guess it’s because it’s a good showpiece poem, for all the reasons outlined above. And probably that’s as good a reason as any to give it the winning ticket.