T. S. Eliot Prize News

T. S. Eliot and the London Library

It worked in The Waste Land. But it made work in the British Museum nearly impossible for a young T. S. Eliot.

For no sooner had he settled at his desk each Saturday afternoon than, ‘there sounded the familiar warning’: ‘’Hurry up please, it’s time’. Employed at Lloyds bank, Eliot had only a few precious hours at the weekend for his writing. And by 1918, he’d had enough. So, like many great writers before him and since, T. S. Eliot joined the London Library. He would remain an active member for the rest of his life, serving as President from 1952 until his death in 1965 (during which time one Sir Winston Churchill served as Vice President under him).

It would prove to be an extremely productive place for Eliot down the years, and not just because of the lack of tannoy announcements. The London Library’s idiosyncratic shelving system – where ‘Insanity’ leads to ‘Inns of Court’ and ‘Football’ is followed by ‘Fools’ – was an unending source of delight for such a voracious, allusive and kaleidoscopic imagination as Eliot’s.

The air of productive calm (set off against the bustle of central London), combined with the ability to ‘take ten volumes home with me’ from the open shelving meant that for Eliot, ‘without the London Library, many of my early essays could never have been written’. Eliot recognised it as a place that fires the imagination and cultivates the soul, a place of curious books and even more curious people.

It was something he went out of his way to protect, donating handwritten manuscripts of The Waste Land to Library auctions and even appearing in court as a star witness when the library was under threat in the 1950s, despite troubles with his false teeth ‘which did not allow him to eat raspberries in public’. Eliot was unyielding: ‘the disappearance of the London Library would be a disaster to civilisation’, let alone his own writing.

So if, like T. S. Eliot you are thinking of joining the London Library, and following in the footsteps of the likes of Lord Alfred Tennyson, Virginia Woolf or Hannah Sullivan – much of whose T. S. Eliot prize-winning collection Three Poems was written in the library – then the message is clear: ‘Hurry up please, it’s time’.

Eliot’s joining form, dated October 1918

The London Library offers over one million books and periodicals dating from 1700 to the present day which are all available for borrowing. As a member you can browse 17 miles of open access shelves for an unforgettable voyage of literary discovery.

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