Royal Festival Hall, London, 13th January 2013
Gillian Clarke, Sean Borodale, Julia Copus, Jorie Graham, Simon Armitage, Kathleen Jamie, Jacob Polley, Deryn Rees-Jones, Paul Farley, Sharon Olds.
On the eve of the T.S. Eliot Prize 2012 award more than two thousand poetry fans crammed into the Royal Festival Hall on London’s Southbank to hear the ten shortlisted poets read from their nominated collections. Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy welcomed the audience to the biggest poetry event of the year by reading Eliot’s poem ‘A Dedication to My Wife’ in honour of his widow, Valerie Eliot, who died last year. During the evening, poetry giants like Sharon Olds, Julia Copus, Simon Armitage and Gillian Clarke read a personal selection of poems from their most recent work.
Organised by the Poetry Book Society, the T.S. Eliot Prize was inaugurated in 1993 to honour its founding poet. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the £15,000 prize, awarded to the author of the best new poetry collection published in the UK and Ireland, annually. The prize, donated posthumously by Mrs Valerie Eliot, will continue to be given by the T.S. Eliot Trustees. Each of the shortlisted poets receives £1,000.
This year the three judges, Carol Ann Duffy, Michael Longley and David Morley, considered a record-breaking one hundred and thirty-one submissions. None of the ten shortlisted poets have won the award previously.
Each poet was introduced to the audience by poet, Ian McMillan. His witty, yet perceptive introductions established a celebratory mood to what is considered a serious occasion. The National Poet of Wales, Gillian Clarke, began by dedicating her nominated poetry collection, Ice, to Dennis O’Driscoll, a former judge of the TS Eliot prize who died on Christmas Eve. Sean Borodale followed with readings from his anthology, Bee Journal. Written as a practical guide to keeping bees, Borodale challenges the concept of what a poetry book can be. Each poem reads as a diary entry. Bees are a popular subject for poets, yet Borodale seems to try too hard to marry the lyrical with the practical elements of beekeeping.
Julia Copus enthralled with readings from The World’s Two Smallest Humans, particularly her poem ‘This Silence Between Us’ about a man locked into a coma; the audience seemed to hold its breath until she had spoken the very last word. Jorie Graham’s work was read by her publisher, since illness prevented her attendance. The poems from her collection, P L A C E, were full of long sentences which explored the long extended idea, and forced the brain to work at understanding her imagery. Simon Armitage, shortlisted for his alliterating epic, The Death of King Arthur, described his work as the British Iliad. His mournful delivery was lightened by humorous anecdotes, and while there was no doubt about the academic merits of his work, the bits in between his readings were more engaging. One felt this was a reluctant poet who would have been happier eating toast at home than standing on the Festival stage. Kathleen Jamie’s collection, The Overhaul, used elements of nature and the Scottish countryside to explore feelings of middle-age and Anglo-welsh poet Deryn Rees-Jones read a moving sequence of dog-woman poems about artist Paula Rego, from her collection, Burying the Wren.
Paul Farley slid spectacles down his nose to read a selection of poems from Dark Film, in which he examines the contrast between a child’s and an adult’s perception of the world. Suffused with humour, he manages to inject poignancy in his work which deals with the ordinary and mundane elements of life. Jacob Polley similarly takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary in his collection, The Havocs. After reading his ballad ‘Langley Lane’ about a conversation between a mother and her mugged, teenage son, there was silence in the hall, then the audience broke out into applause, bowled over by the powerful images evoked. The final poet, Sharon Olds, was the only American to be shortlisted. Olds read from her collection Stag’s Leap which charts the collapse of her thirty year marriage. She read poems filled with the shock and loss of love, which explore the pain of healing and redemption. There was an honesty and simplicity to the poems which caught the listener in the intimacy of her pain. Olds had waited since 1997, until her children had grown, to publish the collection.
As I left the Southbank at the end of the readings, there was no doubt that the judges had a difficult task in selecting their winner. For me and the two thousand poetry lovers inside the auditorium that evening, it was obvious from the moment Olds closed her book and stepped from the Festival stage. Sharon Olds, a worthy winner of the T S Eliot Prize 2012.