TS Eliot ’11: Part 1: Fiona Sampson – Rough Music

As part of this site’s 2011 renaissance the ten nominees for this year’s TS Eliot Prize will come under my critical scrutiny for the entertainment of all. They are, in alphabetical order:

  • Simon Armitage – Seeing Stars
  • Annie Freud – The Mirabelles
  • John Haynes – You
  • Seamus Heaney – Human Chain
  • Pascale Petit – What the Water Gave Me
  • Robin Robertson – The Wrecking Light
  • Fiona Sampson – Rough Music
  • Brian Turner – Phantom Noise
  • Derek Walcott – White Egrets
  • Sam Willetts – New Light for the Old Dark


As we go to print I’ve only read five of the above, but let’s face it, they’re poetry books and I’m unemployed so time isn’t a priceless commodity. Going on my intuition (prejudice), Heaney’s book will probably be the most accomplished, but he along with Walcott are already Nobel Laureates and the kind of grand old men that always end up in these lists, so awarding either of them would feel redundant. Haynes and Sampson (more on her below) won’t win because they’re godawful and have no right to be here, while Robertson and Armitage probably shouldn’t win but might. That leaves Turner, Willetts, Freud and Petit. Turner’s collection is on his experiences in Iraq, and packs an almighty political punch that the others don’t come near. Willetts, as the Guardian is eager to point out, was a heroin addict, and his selection would be a (fucking) press field day. It writes itself. Freud at best is an interesting storyteller, but the collection is scattershot and doesn’t grab me as an essential read. I haven’t read Petit’s yet – it’s a collection inspired by paintings by Frida Kahlo – so judgement’ll have to wait. Kahlo’s a powerful and still popular artist and the success of the collection will be almost completely down to Petit’s handling of such a colossal personality.

So, with an entirely imperfect familiarity with the subject matter, and two weeks before the big day, I’m gunna stick out my neck and say Brian Turner will take it. The TSEP has made a couple of unusual choices in the last two years with Philip Gross and Jen Hadfield (Nigh-No-Place is one of the best collections of the decade, and not a metrical line in sight), and Turner’s political relevance seems like too good an opportunity to miss. Maybe I’m making too much of Turner’s theme, by the way – the poems themselves, while a little rough, are still excellently handled. But I’ll talk more about him when his review rolls round.

Speaking of – here’s the first on the chopping block, Fiona Sampson’s Rough Music, which I will pass over as the angel of death passed over the firstborn of Egypt. It’s all that’s bad about contemporary poetry. It’s airy and vague with its terms of engagement, it lacks an emotional core, it drops names of 19th century German philosophers as if it’s being graded, in short, it reads as if Sampson sat down and passed the whole thing without it touching the sides. If you’re content to know that living your life without reading this book will only leave you with more free time, stop here. If you’re a party to the Charlie Brooker school of criticism, read on.

(Just as an FYI – I know this is totally cruel and Fiona Sampson probably spent a lot of emotional energy on her work. But I can’t tell. Poetry is absolutely a two-player game, and so is criticism – if I turned up to Wimbledon and challenged Federer, I’d expect to be humiliated. If I got this nonsense published by one of the nation’s top poetry presses, I’d expect similar. In the spirit of competition, with each of these reviews I’ll include a poem of my own on the post beneath. Have at it.)

I thought for a long time how to start this paragraph, but I think we’re both pretty comfortable by now with what I think about this book. How about I give you a few lines of the collection and let you (with a totally overbearing editorial hand) draw your own (agree with my) conclusion. Hot tip: each of these are at the very end of their respective poems.

“sing lullabye / your mother sleeps / the tears she weeps / are blood”

“so cross your fingers / clap and count – / till superstition / finds you out”

“bespectacled and alone / in that soiled bed”

“is it you or me / I pass / and cannot see?”

God, okay, no, just… no. I thought I could read over my notes and remind myself of all this and keep quiet, but no. Just look at this shit. You aren’t even getting the oppressive white noise from which these unfathomable promontories of poop extrude. It’s like showing this to someone who’s never seen a Nic Cage movie. It’s all so self-regarding, as if Gluck and Rich never happened and we’re still not over the crushing existential void in which we’re all just discreet little universes trapped excruciatingly out of reach of each other’s private orbits. You know that scene at the end of A Bout De Souffle where Jean Seberg and the french lad start spouting lofty introspective balls over the top of each other? It’s like that, but without all the fun stuff that led us there. It’s utterly humourless, a cardinal sin in a medium that already takes itself far too seriously.

Tune in next time when we’ll have something worth reading!

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2 thoughts on “TS Eliot ’11: Part 1: Fiona Sampson – Rough Music

  1. RVW January 11, 2011 / 1:53 pm

    A thoughtful slap-down. Nice. x

  2. Rachel Fox April 3, 2011 / 12:44 pm

    When I listened to the selection on the radio re this prize it was the FS poem that made me despair/laugh the most. Have just read your reviews and enjoyed them even where I don’t agree. Spicy!

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