Monday, January 14, 2008

TS Eliot Prize: Last-Minute Speculation

One of the very few disadvantages of being far away the centre of things (i.e. London) is that I can’t get to the TS Eliot Prize readings, an annual event that everyone seems to enjoy – not just for the readings but for the social life afterwards.

The final decision will be made this afternoon at an intimate awards ceremony. The contenders are:

Ian Duhig - The Speed of Dark (Picador)
Alan Gillis - Hawks and Doves (Gallery)
Sophie Hannah - Pessimism for Beginners (Carcanet)
Mimi Khalvati - The Meanest Flower (Carcanet)
Frances Leviston - Public Dream (Picador)
Sarah Maguire - The Pomegranates of Kandahar (Chatto)
Edwin Morgan - A Book of Lives (Carcanet)
Sean O'Brien - The Drowned Book (Picador)
Fiona Sampson - Common Prayer (Carcanet)
Matthew Sweeney - Black Moon (Jonathan Cape)

I hope Edwin Morgan wins. He is certainly the greatest living poet never to have won the award and none of the other names on that shortlist can match his life’s output. I realise that the prize isn’t supposed to be a ‘lifetime’s service’ award, but that’s surely what it sometimes is. In any case, A Book of Lives contains many brilliant poems and wouldn’t be an unworthy winner in itself.

I’m not wildly enthusiastic about the shortlist. Four books have to be included – the Poetry Book Society ‘Choices’. Most of the others seem to be Poetry Book Society ‘Recommendations’. Many people are questioning the absence of Daljit Nagra and Luke Kennard, and I’d agree that their collections should be in there. I’d also like to know why Claire Crowther and John Ash weren’t included. Their collections are much stronger and more exciting than most of those books on the list. I also enjoyed new collections by Michael Schmidt, Jane Holland and Steven Waling and can’t see why they are considered inferior either.

Here’s a confession. Two of the books on the list had me yawning, falling asleep (literally), or drifting off to think about other things, including other poems. I couldn’t get anywhere with them. They are among the most boring poetry collections I have ever tried to read. Perhaps I never got as far as the best bits? And yet they could win this year’s TS Eliot Prize. Oh well…

There are some good books on the list too. I’ve read part of Alan Gillis’s collection and it looks excellent. I enjoyed Matthew Sweeney’s Black Moon. What I read of Mimi Khalvati’s collection (in a bookshop) was interesting stuff. So Edwin Morgan does have a little competition…


Frances said...

I'm not sure why the PBS 'choices' have to be included in the list. It doesn't seem to me that one must follow on from the other. Does that mean they don't like to be seen as having failed to choose 'one of the right books'?

Rob said...

No. One of the perks of being a PBS Choice is automatic entry to the TS Eliot Prize. It's an integral part of the selection process.

Frances said...

Oh, I see. Thanks. You do help to de-mystify the whole process Rob. I'm glad you decided to carry on blogging.

Jim Sheard said...

Hm. It seems a fairly 'right' major award list for the year, to me - there's a whole other discussion about what that means, perhaps, but that's by the by...

I'm guessing that we may differ on the quality of some of the collections on the list. I don't think anyone would object to Morgan winning, though - not even his competitors.

Andrew Shields said...

The National Book Critics Circle award in the U.S. nicely avoids all the usual suspects on their shortlist of five for 07.

I've read Duhig, Maguire, Morgan, O'Brien, and Sweeney from that list. Duhig, Morgan, and Sweeney were excellent; the other two left me flat or irritated (in an unproductive way).

I've been reading and enjoying Gillis's book, which irritates me in productive and interesting ways.

I'm rooting for Sweeney myself!

Hedgie said...

I've read only one of those on the list, Mimi Khalvati's The Meanest Flower, which I thought was excellent. As usual, it's fairly difficult to get current UK books here in the U. S. without a long wait or expensive shipping.

Matt Merritt said...

I have to admit, I haven't read any of them yet. Duhig and Morgan are two poets I always enjoy, I've not really read anything much by Leviston, Gillis or Khalvati, so have no opinion on them, and the rest leave me cold, especially O'Brien. So an Edwin Morgan win would be good.
When I was a PBS member, I was usually pretty disappointed with the quarterly choices. In particular, they were often books whose stock has sunk, rather, after lengthier critical scrutiny. Not that there weren't some gems in there...

Rob said...

Jim, I only genuinely dislike two of the books. A couple of the others don't do much for me, but I can see why some people might like them.

I agree with you, Matt, on the PBS choices.

Rob said...

Thinking more about it - I guess there are so many poetry books published every year that it's probably impossible for the judges to choose many names beyond what might be expected.

They can't possibly read everything and even if they did, how could they possibly decide whether, say, John Ashbery is better than Mimi Khalvati. Or if some experimental collection on a tiny press is better than Sean O'Brien. I guess they have to go with well known names, and big publishing houses, as long as the books are generally considered 'good' - and all of these books are.

Of course, they might want to spring a surprise or two (and have done), but maybe more than two wouldn't be much welcomed.

Jim Sheard said...

Well, personally I'm delighted that Sean O'Brien won it - The Drowned Book is a worthy winner of everything this year, it seems...

It's interesting, though, as he cruises towards pre-eminence in (specifically) English poetry, how he still attracts some many dismissive comments and - sometimes -outright hostility.

Rob said...

I just posted about his win, but you beat me to it, Jim. I guess it's partly jealousy that creates the hostility. Success tends to attract hostility somehow!

Rob said...

Now here’s a real contest – the Brit awards. How does one decide between Leona Lewis and PJ Harvey for Best Female Artist?! What area of comparison is possible? And The Eagles are in the running for Best International Group of 2007. The Eagles???

It makes the TS Eliot Prize shortlist look positively sensible.

Mark Y said...

I liked Leviston a lot, but was disappointed by Duhig and Sweeney. I didn't think there was too much that was genuinely arresting in those two. I do think Kennard should have been on the shortlist, as well.

Jane Holland: Editor said...

Thanks for the thumbs-up, Rob. But maybe my next book will make it through the poetry barricades ... this time next year we'll all be on the shortlist ... etc etc.

I did find some of these books dull, to say the least. Can't be too specific, alas. Or rather, refuse to be. But you're right about the judges having to look at the 'obvious' candidates simply through pressure of time.

And pressure of taste, too, I imagine. The Emperor's New Clothes, and all that. No one wants to be the one to say of a front-runner, 'Actually, this book was so predictable, it made me want to hang myself with boredom' - not on such a prestigious panel, anyway. You run the risk of looking like a complete philistine if no one else agrees, and a forthright opinion like that could get you stabbed in the back in the future. British poetry is just too intimate a world for honesty to thrive here.

She says, looking in drily from the peripheries.

And to think I nearly gave it all up for a proper job. What a loss that would have been.

Anonymous said...

Rob, you didn't miss much socialising. The event started 20 minutes late, and overran by a further 20 minutes. And most pubs still close at 10.30 on a Sunday!

Responses to the reading were the most negative I've encountered, and I've been to most of them in the past decade - the women writers coming in for the most stick (mostly from women).

As usual, a couple made dreadful decisions on which poems to read. One poet was nervous and swore a lot, another decided that reading in a hammy whisper was the thing to do, which went down particularly badly.

Duhig and Leviston read the best, and Hannah, though not everyone's cup of tea, was funny, which was a welcome relief.

As for the judging - there's not much scope for surprises - each judge adds two books, in theory, and it's usually big names and chums.


Mark Y said...

Wouldn't British poetry benefit from a bolt of fractious, forked comment?
Poetry - writing in general - seems to me to be something that should attract the observant, the slightly aloof, the insular. The academic or aesthetic coterie cannot help but stunt these instincts, surely?

I'm a wee nipper (22 yrs), certainly not a 'poet', nor thinking of entering a career in poetry - I've obviously not got any friends to offend or a position to lose. I'd really love to see someone step out of line though, and more opinionated, pointed criticism: frank, unequivocal, signed.
It's hard to believe that anyone can love something they're not prepared to quarrel about.

Anonymous said...

Mark - I understand your fervour - but frank and fractious criticism nearly always comes with the grinding of personal and factional axes - we are calling out for good critics in this country - those who can make cutting, constructive and clever critical remarks are few - most of our naysayers are thwarted losers - a bunch of prats, frankly, who thrive on the fact that all poets like a dose of schadenfreude.

Much better to go looking for some sparky, fractious, opinionated poetry. You are unlikely to find it in the UK, of course, but it's out there.


Rob said...

Thanks for the comments, folks. Ultimately time will tell which books are of real value. For now, it's a matter of taste which of the shortlisted books will appeal to different readers.

I think good criticism does exist in the UK but, yes, the Americans probably beat us hands down at the moment.