T. S. Eliot Prize News

The T. S. Eliot Prize – A 2019 Retrospective

This year sees the 27th T. S. Eliot Prize being awarded, and the roster of past winners includes some very well-known poets alongside some less known authors that demand further attention.

To refresh the memory of prizes past, the T. S. Eliot Prize website contains a trove of information on the Prize shortlists from 2016, 2017 and 2018. Our YouTube channel also contains many curated playlists, including audio and video from previous prize shortlists, as well as the audio from the much-loved Shortlist Readings from Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall.

If that’s not enough, in 2013 the Poetry Book Society took 36 poets on the road, visiting 10 venues up and down the country. This short film chronicles the Tour, with an emphasis on events at Glasgow’s Mitchell Library, Square Chapel for the Arts in Halifax and Sheffield’s Off the Shelf Festival.

Among the better-known past winners, Sean O’Brien’s career has seen him win every major poetry prize in the UK, having been shortlisted five times for the T. S. Eliot Prize: in 2001 for Downriver, in 2007 for The Drowned Book (which won the Prize that year), in 2011 for November, in 2015 for The Beautiful Librarians and again this year with Europa (all Picador). Simon Armitage has been shortlisted no less than four times, alongside Pascale Petit and David Harsent, who won the Prize in 2014 with Fire Songs (Faber).

Many poets have been shortlisted twice or more, including Fiona Sampson (twice), Ruth Padel (three times), Paul Farley (four times, including this year’s shortlisting), Kathleen Jamie (twice), Carol Ann Duffy (twice, winning with Rapture in 2005), Jacob Polley (three times, winning with Jackself (Picador) in 2016), Mark Doty (three times, winning in the Prize’s third year with My Alexandria (Cape)), Jen Hadfield (shortlisted twice, winning with her debut Nigh-no-place (Bloodaxe) in 2008), Anne Carson (twice), Sharon Olds (twice, winning in 2013 with Stag’s Leap (Cape), Seamus Heaney (three times, winning with District and Circle in 2006), Robin Robertson (three times), Selima Hill (twice, in 2001 and 2015), Michael Longley (three times, winning in 2000 with The Weather in Japan (Cape)), and John Burnside, this year’s Chair of Judges, who has been shortlisted three times and won the Prize in 2011 with Black Cat Bone (Cape). Don Paterson, who has been shortlisted three times, remains the only poet to have won the Prize twice, in 1997 with God’s Gift to Women and again in 2003 with Landing Light (both Faber).

In the last ten years, the Prize has been won four times by debut collections – Jen Hadfield in 2008 with Nigh-No-Place, Sarah Howe (one of this year’s Judges) with Loop of Jade in 2015, Ocean Vuong in 2016 with Night Sky with Exit Wounds and Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems last year. Many debut collections have been shortlisted down the years, notably Jacob Polley’s The Brink in 2003, Kathryn Gray’s The Never Never in 2004, Helen Farish’s Intimates in 2005, Frances Leviston’s Public Dream in 2008, Sam Willetts’ New Light for the Old Dark in 2010, Helen Mort’s Division Street in 2013 and Fiona Benson’s Bright Travellers in 2014. This year’s Prize Shortlist contains two debutants – Jay Bernard and Ilya Kaminsky (with his first collection published in the UK), alongside established T. S. Eliot Prize shortlistees such as Sharon Olds, Deryn Rees-Jones and Paul Farley.

A total of seven publishers have won the T. S. Eliot Prize: poets from Faber & Faber have won ten times, Jonathan Cape six, Bloodaxe and Picador three times each, Carcanet twice and Chatto & Windus and The Gallery Press once each.

In it for the Long Haul by Clare Pollard

Times are dark, but the poets are singing. 2019 has been another strong year for poetry. Thematically, poetry is increasingly, necessarily political. Brecht asked in 1938:

What kind of times are they, when
A talk about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many horrors?

We live in an age where the default collection from the end of the last century, with its poems about uncomplicated landscapes or small, personal epiphanies, would feel equally uncomfortable. Who can write about a tree now without acknowledging ecocide? Who can write about their holiday without thinking of privilege, borders, carbon footprints? Paul Farley’s The Mizzy channels John Clare, but even a small poem about a goldcrest ends with us caught in the ‘simple trap’ of money.

It is also apparent that collections containing long sequences are dominating lists. Just a few years ago I was chatting to other editors about the increasing irrelevancy of the standard 64-page collection, now that readers can share so many individual poems online, and cheap, attractive pamphlets are easy to produce. But collections seem relevant again, having reinvented themselves as cohesive sequences in which poets can go more deeply into their subject. Whilst Philip Larkin treated collections: ‘like a music-hall bill: you know, contrast, difference in length, the comic, the Irish tenor, bring on the girls’, many books on this year’s shortlists give the reader an experience more akin to a novella.

In Karen Solie’s The Caiplie Caves the relationship between humanity and nature is explored through the ghost of a seventh-century hermit called Ethernan; Fiona Benson’s taut sequence figures Zeus as a serial-rapist; Vidyan Ravinthiran’s The Million-petalled Flower of Being Here containa generous sonnet-cycle that explores love and race in Brexit Britain; Jay Bernard’s Surge traces links through black history between the New Cross Fire in 1981 and the Grenfell tragedywhilst Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic is a fable about resistance and silence. In very different ways each absolutely captures our political moment.

This year has also reminded us that whilst increased diversity amongst emerging poets is being celebrated, we must also lift up existing poets who have been underrated, or who have worked hard clearing the way. It’s wonderful to see Roger Robinson (and Peepal Tree) finally getting some of the attention deserved in the UK for his powerful collection A Portable Paradise.

It’s also pleasing to see Deryn Rees-Jones on the T. S. Eliot Prize shortlist, a poet who has built such a strong female list at Pavilion, along with Anthony Anaxagorou, founder of Out-Spoken Press, which aims to challenge the lack of diversity in British publishing. Not to mention Sharon Olds, who was writing trailblazing motherhood poems when the current wave of poets writing about motherhood were still in nappies (and, elsewhere, the poetry world was thrilled to see Bernardine Evaristo, founder of the Brunel International African Poetry Prize and The Complete Works, win the Booker!)

So, a year for shoring up our strengths and singing in the dark, though sometimes it must be admitted that, for this reader at least, the surfeit of talent feels almost too lucky. In Kaminsky’s words: ‘we (forgive us) // lived happily during the war.’

Clare Pollard is a poet and editor of Modern Poetry in Translation, and was a 2018

T. S. Eliot Prize judge.

Photo credit Marcos Avlonitis

Clare Pollard’s website

T. S. Eliot Prize 2019 – Shortlist Announced

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Judges John Burnside (Chair), Sarah Howe and Nick Makoha have chosen the 2019 T. S. Eliot Prize shortlist from 158 poetry collections submitted by British and Irish publishers. Featuring new voices and veteran poets, and covering an extraordinary range of themes, the shortlist comprises five men, four women and one trans non binary; one American, one Russian-American and one Canadian, as well as poets of Trinidadian, Cypriot and Sri Lankan extraction.


Anthony Anaxagorou        After the Formalities                                            Penned in the Margins

Fiona Benson                    Vertigo & Ghost                                                      Cape Poetry

Jay Bernard                      Surge                                                                         Chatto & Windus

Paul Farley                       The Mizzy                                                                 Picador

Ilya Kaminsky                 Deaf Republic                                                          Faber & Faber

Sharon Olds                    Arias                                                                         Cape Poetry

Vidyan Ravinthiran      The Million-Petalled Flower of Being Here      Bloodaxe

Deryn Rees-Jones        Erato                                                                          Seren

Roger Robinson           A Portable Paradise                                                Peepal Tree Press

Karen Solie                   The Caiplie Caves                                                     Picador

For more information on the poets shortlisted, see our shortlist page.

John Burnside said:

“In an excellent year for poetry, the judges read over 150 collections from every corner of these islands, and beyond… Each had its own vital energy, its own argument to make, its own celebration or requiem to offer, and we knew that settling upon ten from so many fine books would be difficult. Nevertheless, as our deliberations progressed, the same titles kept coming to the fore, culminating in a list that brings together work by some of the finest and most fearless poets working today.”

The T. S. Eliot Prize Shortlist Readings will take place on Sunday 12th January 2020 in Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall as part of its literature programme. The shortlist readings are the largest annual poetry event in the UK and will be hosted once again by Ian McMillan. Tickets are now on sale from Southbank Centre’s ticket office on 0203 879 9555 or via www.southbankcentre.co.uk/literature. For press tickets please email press@southbankcentre.co.uk.

The T. S. Eliot Prize is run by The T. S. Eliot Foundation. The T. S. Eliot Prize is the most valuable prize in British poetry – the winning poet will receive a cheque for £25,000 and the shortlisted poets will be presented with cheques for £1,500. It is the only major poetry prize which is judged purely by established poets.

The winner of the 2019 Prize will be announced at the Award Ceremony on Monday 13th January 2020, where the winner and the shortlisted poets will be presented with their cheques.

The weekly T. S. Eliot Prize newsletter will provide essential background on the shortlisted poets, including links to specially-commissioned new videos, readers’ notes and reviews. To subscribe go to: tseliot.com/prize/subscribe-to-the-t-s-eliot-prize-newsletter/.

Last year’s winner was Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems and the judges were Sinéad Morrisssey (chair), Daljit Nagra and Clare Pollard.