I confess I had forgotten that the Forward Prize results were due yesterday. Possibly, that was due to a general lack of excitement over the shortlist for Best Collection. My feeling was that, of the shortlist, Jo Shapcott’s collection looked the strongest, but it was an absurdly conservative list – more on which later. Seamus Heaney won it, the first time he has won the Forward Prize, for Human Chain. I don’t want to say too much about the book itself, as it’s possible I might be reviewing it for a proper magazine. I wonder, though, how readers think it ranks alongside other Heaney collections.
Anyway, the shortlist contained collections by Lachlan MacKinnon (Faber), Seamus Heaney (Faber), Jo Shapcott (Faber), Fiona Sampson (Carcanet), Sinead Morrissey (Carcanet) and Robin Robertson (Picador). One of the judges said that “what we have got represents the quality and brilliant variety of poetry, and poetry publishing, in Britain today.” Of course, it does no such thing. In fact, it represents an incredibly narrow range of poetry and poetry publishing. It’s difficult to imagine how it could be any narrower!
I feel it’s vital, if such prizes are to retain any credibility whatsoever, that a far broader range of styles and publishers are selected. I don’t know how to achieve that, but there must be some way of breaking through the hegemony that afflicts UK poetry at the moment. I mean, I look at Poetry (Chicago) magazine and see a genuinely wide range of poetic styles – everything from Billy Collins to Ron Silliman. People on all sides of the various poetic divides can find something to moan about, which has got to be a sign of health! In similar magazines in the UK, the range is far narrower, apart from works in translation: it’s as though idiosyncrasy in work originally written in other languages is fine, but not in English please... Generally, the First Book and Best Poem shortlists (although not always the winners) have tended to reflect far greater range than the main awards. Could it be that judges feel under less pressure to make the obvious shortlist-choices in these categories i.e. in that they are not, as established poets, having to pick and choose among their equally (or more) established contemporaries?
In any case, Hilary Menos won the Best First Collection prize with Berg – you can read a few examples from it at her website – and Julia Copus won the award for Best Poem with An Easy Passage, originally published in Magma 45, edited by Clare Pollard.