Monday, January 14, 2008

TS Eliot Prize: and the winner is...

The winner of theTS Eliot Prize 2007 is Sean O’Brien, with The Drowned Book. O’Brien is the first person to win both the Forward Prize for Best Collection and the TS Eliot Prize in the same year. Not a bad double!

So well done to him. As far as I am concerned, the result could have been a lot worse. I don't think The Drowned Book was the best collection of the year but it had good moments, some of them very good.

14 comments:

Andrew Shields said...

When I was given O'Brien's "Cousin Coat" to review for "Orbis" a few years ago, I knew nothing about O'Brien, so I read the poems with a completely open mind. I was not very impressed (as one can see by reading the review, which is in Orbis 125, Summer 2003).

I was not very impressed by "The Drowned Book" either, and I can honestly say that it is not a matter of hostility towards his success or anything like that. As I said in my blog post on the book, O'Brien can be a very strong poet when he both has an occasion to write about and clearly presents the occasion, but his poems too often obscure their own motivations and thus become obscure themselves.

In short, I have no idea why the book won two big prizes!

Rob said...

Andrew, your blog post was well-thought-out criticism, and not in any sense 'dismissal' or 'hostility'.

Matt Merritt said that O'Brien's poetry leaves him 'cold.' I really like some of O'Brien's poems but I'm not so keen on others.

None of us have any 'agenda,' so I don't think our comments will be taken the wrong way by anyone. The 'hostility' is fueled by people in the UK poetry world who very much do have an agenda.

I met him and his wife at StAnza last year at the dinner table an hour or so before his reading. They seemed very nice people. He gave a good reading too. 2007 was definitely his year, even now in 2008!

Andrew Shields said...

Thanks for the backup, Rob. I got a bit defensive there, I guess!

Rob said...

No problem, Andrew...

Of course, no one has to like a book just because it wins prizes. But nevertheless, I plan to read it again now and see if I can work out what was good about the poems I wasn't so impressed by.

Jim Sheard said...

...and just to complete the clarifications, I wasn't pointing the finger at you, either, Andrew, in my comment below t'other Post here. I was talking more generally.

Rob said...

I better clarify also that when I said Sean O'Brien's "wife" I meant "partner." At least, from memory, I think that is what I meant to say.

Andrew Philip said...

O'Brien read for Edinburgh Uni Poetry Society when I was a student. I remember him talking in the pub afterwards about people who were "nice guys but not very good writers". I haven't read The Drowned Book yet but plan to soonish. Must see if I can spot what the fuss is about.

Cailleach said...

Not having read the collection, I am intrigued by your comments, guys. There were others in the selection that I knew and really liked.

Who can tell what criteria they used in judging - or what taste is being cultivated - it's still the subjective thing it always was.

James Wood said...

The anonymous (in the "well-known" sense)James Wood here. There's a very interesting comment about who decides what in British poetry on Todd Swift's blog this week. I shall say no more. I bought "Night Train" when it came out many years ago and I wasn't knocked out either. But see Todd's post and Private Eye issues passim for more on how and why people win things.

Rob said...

Yes, judging has got to be subjective, although subjective taste can't be altogether separated from objective considerations - what's generally considered 'good' etc.

James, yes, Todd has the idea that a few men hold all the power in UK poetry. Obviously in any sphere of activity, some people attain great influence and the opinions of certain individuals are accorded automatic respect -rightly or wrongly. The poetry world is no different.

But I don't think there's a closed shop in the sense that Todd often describes it, although I appreciate that he has personal reasons for feeeling that way. And I say this from a distance of hundreds of miles from the centre (London) where all those individuals are supposed to be dividing up the publishing deals and prizes between them.

I'm fairly sure that I could get a publishing deal and even win awards, provided my work is good enough. I think good work is often noticed (not always of course) whether it originates from within or from outside the 'establishment'. And I think that the gatekeepers in the poetry world tend to leave the gates slightly ajar, in case they miss anything important. Is that naive of me? Certainly, when I've read new collections published in the past few years, some of them have been quite exciting and have even been shortlisted for (or won) awards.

Anonymous said...

I'd suggest the gatekeepers are standing by wide open gates shouting 'come over here'. But only if you're good enough - and very few are, especially in the way of numbers of good poems.

Otherwise, some welcome sense, Rob. If you look at the poets who have emerged with acclaimed debuts in the past decade, they are from all over the UK, all sorts of background, and many of them published pamphlets with small presses first.

The main reasons claimed by poets for not getting published include, 'I'm not fashionable enough', 'I'm not in with the right people' and 'The London poetry mafia wouldn't look twice at me', which differs strangely to the reasons given by publishers for not selecting most manuscripts - that they are not good enough, that the poets have failed or negated to establish themselves in any way, that the work is adequate but unoriginal.

Roddy

Andrew Shields said...

I think Roddy is right on target here that things are much less conspiratorial than they may seem from some angles.

Still, the First Book Prize "system" in the U.S. DID turn out to have some pretty shady prize-giving going on a few years ago (people giving entry-fee prizes to their former students!). So at least in this case, the suspicion of "insider-trading" did turn out to have some pretty serious foundations (if merely, as the judges involved argued, circumstantial).

Steven Waling said...

"Not good enough" is probably right. But that's not an easy category to describe. What's "not good enough" to the poetry editor of Faber or Picador, is "amazing" to Shearsman or Reality Street, because they're operating with different sets of aesthetic criteria.

Beyond a certain level of competnce, that is.

Jane Holland said...

Agreed, Steven. When Roddy says the gatekeepers of poetry are keeping the gates wide open in the hope of some great unknowns arriving at the last minute, it has to be stressed that what those unnamed gatekeepers consider 'great' isn't necessarily what is most original or daring, or indeed what posterity will consider 'great.

It's so easy with poetry to be prescriptive about what is successful, what is 'good', what will last, but we have no real way of making those judgements.

For instance, a certain surrealism has become popular in recent years, and new poets espousing that trend are being hailed as great original talents. But while surrealism in poetry is entertaining and often startling, it's basically a fad and is likely to be forgotten within a generation. Whether those poets can move on from their early successes will be the real test of their talent.

Meanwhile, what Roddy - or anyone else, for that matter - thinks is good poetry might be some old rubbish I abhor. Ditto for those unspecified gatekeepers.

Personally, I liked the Drowned Book, as I said at some length on my blog back in September.