From the award ceremony for the 2016 T S Eliot Prize at the Wallace Collection January 16 2017
Thank you, first of all, from the whole poetry community to Chris Holifield who has built up this prize-judged-only-by-poets over 14 years and now has helped it continue in a new incarnation. Heartfelt thanks, also, to the T S Eliot Foundation for this new funding!
Many thanks also to my fellow judges. We worked closely and harmoniously for six months and all of us enjoyed and felt enriched by each other’s views. The 138 collections we read testify to the rich variety of poetry published today and each of us gave up collections we really really wanted to agree to arrive at the shortlist.
We read each book purely for itself, so the list does not reflect the brilliant range of new poetry publishers, which we also want to applaud.
Here, in alphabetical order, is a brief joint overview. Each book would be a worthy winner – I’ll announce the one we chose at the end.
If Rachel Boast’s book, Void Studies, were a drink it would be Pernod! It explores Rimbaud’s dream of poems as ‘musical etudes’, beautiful ‘studies in nothingness:’ an extraordinarily skilful alchemy of French thought and tone with English melody. The poems, in their own words, are “air at play,” “hammered metal with an aftertaste of black honey:” a pure, concentrated apotheosis of the lyric.
Vahni Capildeo’s exhilarating book Measures of Expatriation is about power, identity, alienation, transformation. Its many ‘measures,’ in all resonances of that word, are agile, adventurous, scholarly, surreal. Its wild blend of lyric and prose is fiercely conceptual but also boldly sensual, and driven by the insight important to everyone here – that beyond all borders, “language is my home.”
Ian Duhig is one of the most inventive, tender, rumbustious imaginations at work – or play – today. The Blind Road-Maker is roiling, tragic, witty, Arthurian and Kafkaesque, a technicolour hymn to the poetry of “ashtrayland.” Profoundly political, historically erudite testimony to the need for poetry in a bitterly unequal society, it runs on generous faith in poetry’s power to witness. The blind roadmaker – love – gives voice to the marginalised while seeking the grail of justice.
J O Morgan’s Interference Pattern is wonderfully kaleidoscopic. “Interference’ in physics, apparently, is the interaction of alternating waves and that is how these excitingly unstable, multi-vocal poems, ambiguous, sensual and intellectual, represent human consciousness: swinging between feeling and thought as you suddenly see a new idea, like lights that flash across the face/of a fruit machine…
Bernard O’Donoghue’s The Seasons of Cullen Church combines an elegantly wry tone, deceptively easy flow, intimacy with the reader which seems effortless but is actually very original, with scholarly love of poetry down the ages. Many poems think with Dante, Virgil, Old English; many lines give you one more beat than you’d expect and, when you re-read, disclose one more layer of meaning too: very suddenly – just as, he says, the swifts arrive in Cullen, like unexplained gifts on Christmas morning.
Alice Oswald’s Falling Awake is a magnificently original book about – perhaps – gravity: in our feelings and our lives. Full of beauty, endlessly fresh, it is a luminous series of encounters with nature and our experience of it: clouds, shadows, beans and rain, rotting swans, a ‘sizzle of house flies,’ a ‘rushed account of the dew’. Every image leads to some delightful new growth; the language is Shakespeareanly alert not only to nature, but to every new human story. Yet it is never dense: the lines are clear as water, filled with light.
Jacob Polley’s Jackself rises from one word in Gerard Manley Hopkins and mythologises a rural childhood through (rather like Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns) indigenous legend. But the vividly evoked countryside is not Worcestershire but Cumbria; and the ‘legend’ is English phrase and fable: folk-rhyme and riddles, nursery rhymes like ‘Jack Sprat’. The poet, the reader, everyone is Jack – and Jack’s poems crackle with wild beauty: surprising and imaginative at every level of language, form, action and feeling.
Denise Riley’s unique contribution to contemporary poetry is her burningly fierce, lyric interrogation of the language – and philosophy – of self. Say Something Back is full of anger but also humour, prayer, a ballad-like beauty and audacious metrical control. From the death of the poet’s child to the dead of the First World War it asks a question that matters to us all. Faced with human tragedy, what on earth is poetry for? But it also provides an answer. What we have here, sufficient to itself and in wonderfully beautiful variety, is song.
Ruby Robinson’s Every Little Sound, from the wonderful new Pavilion Poetry at Liverpool University Press, takes off from the concept of ‘internal gain:’ an ‘inner volume control’ which helps us focus, especially in time of danger, on important sound which may be hard to hear but really quiet. Like poetry, perhaps. In this sparky debut, the language is brilliantly hyper-perceptive. Through a range of forms and tones, these disturbing, surreal, deceptively conversational poems cunningly hunt out what we listen for with our ‘nerve endings in exile’.
‘Heartrendingly beautiful’ is easy to say, hard to do, but the poems in Katherine Towers’ The Remedies are just that. This collection, full of linguistic delights, turns on our relation with nature. Nature is not “about us” and yet we read ourselves into it all the time. These petal-light poems – like, in their own words, bones of trees laid bare by the moon – distil the paradox of poetry: that something so small, so delicate, has such enormous spiritual and emotional power.
It was an agonising choice. They are so different and all so wonderful. I never want to have to choose anything again. But the winner of the 2017 T S Eliot Prize is Jacob Polley for Jackself.