With the beginning of first week comes the announcement of the T. S. Eliot Prize winner. Poetry collections may not be the sort of collections on your mind at the moment, but this shortlist is worth all the time you can give it. This prize is the one that, according to Andrew Motion, “most poets want to win.” In recent years it’s been the biggest and most prestigious award for (published, page) poetry in the UK (though lately it’s getting a bit of a run for its money from the Forward Prize, which is fittingly a little more forward-looking). Financially, at the very least, the impact of the prize on its winner should not be underestimated. Vahni Capildeo, shortlisted poet and winner of the Forward Prize, does well to remind those who listen to her that a poet really must have money and a room of her own if she is to write.
I have no idea who will win. Judge Ruth Padel praises “variety” as one hallmark of poetry today, saying “we were looking for musicality, originality, energy and craft, and we believe the shortlist reflects this in a wonderful range of important and lasting voices.” She’s right to have confidence in the shortlist, but its very strength and variety makes choosing a winner seem arbitrary. As Dominic Fraser Leonard says: “the varying styles, skills and performances of these books go to show (in a potentially quite nihilistic-sounding way) how pointless these prizes are, at least in saying Which Book Is Best.” The best thing about the Eliot Prize isn’t its winner. It’s that many people pay close attention to its shortlist and have the chance to see ten of our best poets read from their work on one night at the Royal Festival Hall.
Vahni Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation recently won the Forward Prize for Best Collection and is perhaps the standout volume on the shortlist. Capildeo loves words of all tongues and ages, having worked as an etymologist on the OED, but questions their stability and fitness. Throughout her childhood, “my mother recited poetry by heart (in French, Caribbean dialects, and English) for the love of it, as did my father (in Hindi and English).” When she reads, she pronounces each word slowly and deliberately: “Sitting next to someone can make my feet curl: shy, self-destructive and oyster-like, they want to shuck their cases, to present themselves, little undersea pinks.” Capildeo’s poetry is omnivorous, sweeping through prose poems and short imagistic bursts, summoning double —or triple—perspectives on the questions of colonialism, migration and expatriation.
At a reading Alice Oswald said that an audience member once suffered an asthma attack from forgetting to breathe whilst listening to her recitations. Her “sound carvings” emerge from a process she has compared to erosion or excavation—as if something is already there—to become meticulously timed oral performances. The poems in Falling Awake are succinct, perfected and possibly her best—and she’s been excellent for quite some time. Bernard O’Donoghue’s The Seasons of Cullen Church, a moving volume of expert lyric poems reanimating the characters of his childhood in County Cork, is similarly accomplished. Shortlisted too is Denise Riley, who hammers words into new expressions for the deadly commonplace of bereavement.
Among these well-established poets are a few underdogs (and their underdog publishers). Ruby Robinson’s first collection, Every Little Sound (Pavilion Press) takes its epigraph from tinnitus expert Dr David Baguley: ‘Internal gain—an internal volume control which helps us amplify and focus upon quiet sounds in times of threat, danger or intense concentration.’ The memories are domestic—viewed from bedroom windows and over plastic mugs—and haunted by the figure of her mother. The titles are simple—‘Apology,’ ‘Tea,’ ‘Tuning Fork’—but her unflinching precision demonstrates that one small word or sound can carry a personal history of pain and love.
The rest of the shortlist is similarly varied: Rachael Boast’s musical, intoxicating Void Studies, realising a project that Arthur Rimbaud proposed but never wrote; J. O. Morgan’s strange epic poem Interference Pattern; Ian Duhig’s witty, learned The Blind Roadmaker; Jacob Polley’s Jackself, a fictionalised autobiography told through the many ‘Jacks’ of legend and folktale. Katharine Towers’ book The Remedies slightly resembles a less accomplished version of Alice Oswald’s, but nonetheless the prose-poem ‘Rain’ is rather wonderful.
Don Paterson, the only poet to have won the Eliot Prize twice, writes that “A poem is a little church, remember […] Be upstanding. Now: let us raise the fucking tone.” For Alice Oswald, who might win it twice, a poem is also like a church: her Memorial, an excavation of Homer’s Iliad, stripped away narrative “as you might lift the roof off a church in order to remember what you’re worshipping.” When I’m not reading enough poetry for pleasure, I feel the guilt of a lapsed church-goer. If you’re a seasoned church-goer, perhaps you’ll make the prestigious shortlist one day—this one is full of Oxford alumni and academics. If you don’t often voluntarily set foot in the navel of a poem, give one of these ten poets a try. The Eliot Prize still forms a defining look at the state of poetry in the UK today, and 2016 certainly wasn’t a bad year in that regard.