TS Eliot founded the Poetry Book Society in 1953. Forty years later, the society returned the favour by establishing the TS Eliot Prize for Poetry, an annual award for ‘the best collection of new verse in English’. Now in its 25th year, the stakes have been raised and the prize money increased to £25,000 – the biggest poetry cheque in Britain. I dread to think what will happen when the Prize turns 100.
The ten shortlisted poets read at the South Bank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall on Sunday 14th January 2018 before an award ceremony with announcements and prize-giving on the Monday. The shortlisted poets and collections were: Queen’s University Belfast’s Leontia Flynn, with The Radio (Cape Poetry); Keele University’s James Sheard, with The Abandoned Settlements (Cape Poetry); the University of Newcastle’s Tara Bergin, with The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx (Carcanet); Robert Minhinnick, with Diary of the Last Man (Carcanet); Roddy Lumsden, with So Glad I’m Me (Bloodaxe); Jacqueline Saphra, with All My Mad Mothers (Nine Arches Press); the University of Massachusetts’s Ocean Vuong, with Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape Poetry); Douglas Dunn, with The Noise of a Fly (Faber); Caroline Bird, with In These Days of Prohibition (Carcanet); and Manchester Metropolitan University’s Michael Symmons Roberts, with Mancunia (Cape Poetry).
But first up to read was this year’s Chair of Judges, Bill Herbert, who jokingly welcomed everyone ‘to the 25th TS Eliot Prize… that we know of.’ In line with tradition, he read a poem by Eliot himself, opting for ‘Difficulties of a Statesman’ from the unfinished Coriolan, picked because of ‘the incredible mess which our political masses have managed to get us into’ – whatever that means. To me, it was a sound choice, but I can only leave it to hope whether Herbert’s thundering of the fragment’s final words, ‘RESIGN RESIGN RESIGN’ was heard further down the Thames.
The bard of Barnsley, Ian McMillan, then led proceedings with his characteristic charm and booming Yorkshire accent. McMillan has a sharp eye and an even sharper wit: he can spot a poem’s smallest details and articulate these in such a way that makes him ideal for such an event. Such phrases of McMillan’s include a description of James Sheard as ‘a laureate of intimacy’ in whose poetry ‘the past is there like a scent’; the assertion that this year’s winner, Ocean Vuong, ‘makes a new language’; and, when introducing Douglas Dunn, the hilariously bizarre statement that ‘as you get older, poetry becomes the opposite of badminton’.
McMillan is also a fierce advocate of poetry’s linguistic superiority over prose, an opinion that needs no defence at the biggest poetry reading of the year. Emphasis was brought back to this point throughout the night, possibly because poetry’s most stereotypical feature, rhyme, is so rarely found in contemporary practice and is almost entirely absent in the shortlisted collections. But even when it looks like prose on the page, poetry is still thought of as a separate and superior form of writing because poets are more self-consciously aware of language and the surface uses of language, whereas prose writers are more interested in the creation and portrayal of a world, a dynamic, or a situation.
And Ocean Vuong, who would go on to be announced the winner the following day, perfectly captures this fundamental difference between the two types of language. His ‘Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong’ – titled after American poets Frank O’Hara and Roger Reeves – looks just like a paragraph of prose on the page, and the interjections ‘Ocean, are you listening?’ and ‘Don’t worry’ might seem at first glance to be conversational and completely un-poetic. But it’s Vuong’s imagery and turn of phrase that separates him from anything prosaic: ‘Your dead friends passing through you like wind through a wind chime. […] here’s a room so warm & blood-close, I swear, you will wake—& mistake these walls for skin.’
Vuong also read ‘Aubade with Burning City’, which juxtaposes an interior romantic scene with the exterior chaos and violence of the Fall of Saigon. The first poem of Vuong’s that I read, ‘Threshold’ opens the collection, and features this same comparison of interior and exterior life. In much of his work, Vuong brings together the intimate and the tumultuous with little visible effort.
Night Sky with Exit Wounds also won the 2017 Forward Prize for Best First Collection, as well as the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection and the Thom Gunn Award. Now, having won the TS Eliot prize, Vuong is the latest in a list that includes poetry greats such as Ted Hughes, Anne Carson, George Szirtes, Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, and Nobel Prize winners Seaumus Heaney and Derek Walcott.
You can hear Vuong and the rest of the shortlisted poets performing and see them speaking about their work in HD videos produced by the TS Eliot Prize here.
Words, Joe Williams
Pic, Adrian Pope for The Guardian