The TS Eliot shortlist for 2017 was announced six weeks ago. As Sandeep Parmar pointed out in her short article in The Guardian:
‘For those who have championed crucial interventions in poetry publishing, reviewing and prizes, this nearly all-white shortlist cannot help but seem inexplicably naive and regressive. […]
I believe poetry must rise to the collective challenge of our times, not merely be a curio of intimate experience. But in the absence of rigorous critical debate over what poetry must do in our era, we have come to expect rather more from prize judges than expressions of taste.’
A discussion of the function of poetry prizes requires a discussion of the theoretical function of poetry criticism, which requires analysis of the function of poetry criticism as a professional practice, which requires discussion of the power structures that promote narrow and regressive ideas about what (and who) is considered worthy of celebration. In short, in a culture with a more diverse, inclusive, curious and principled critical conversation, poetry prizes would not have to shoulder the burden of being the year’s most visible act of criticism. Such a culture remains largely aspirational.
The TS Eliot prize is a long-established and very well-funded fixture in UK poetry publishing, and any decision it makes is, inevitably, a political statement. The stakes – visibility in the national press, potentially life-changing financial reward, international prestige – are too high for it to be otherwise. This year’s statement, in the simplest terms and among other things, is that these ten books are of higher quality or greater import than anything written by a British-based poet of colour in the past year. As Parmar notes, the difficulty of arriving at a consensus does not justify the pattern of omission. I tweeted a little about who had been excluded from the shortlist, but I think it’s worth scrutinising who was considered worthy.
Tara Bergin – The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx (Carcanet)
The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx engages closely with the social and institutional structures that diminish women’s achievements and drive them from participation in public life, and is, as such, a very timely book. The poems are framed by explorations of the life and work of the eponymous translator and activist, and feature an array of time periods, locations and narrators of varying reliability. That the book never wavers on the thematic concerns holding these various threads together is an extraordinary achievement; that the book is both emotionally devastating and occasionally hilarious without severe tonal whiplash defies belief. The ideas given voice in The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx about gender, emotional control and abuse, love and desire, are subtle, grounded in a recognisable reality, one which doesn’t shy away from confusion and the friction of the mundane. On top of its conceptual and internal complexities, the artistry at work in The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx is all but peerless. Bergin has an ear for the unsettling, for dissonantly full rhyme, for rhythms of speech which veer off course with little warning and to great effect. It’s difficult to see in what capacity the other books on the shortlist can compete with The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx.
Caroline Bird – In These Days of Prohibition (Carcanet)
Bird’s oeuvre is a wonderful example of what can be achieved with ostensibly bright, colourful, welcoming surfaces, work that signals loudly and clearly something very different to what is going on under the bonnet. The internal realities that underwrite the drama in In These Days of Prohibition are complex and more distinctly defined than in Bird’s previous collections, and her willingness to combine a certain understated frankness (thinking particularly of ‘Beatification’ and ‘Ms Casanova on Life Support’) with the magic realism that has always been her poems’ engine-room makes space for some truly special work. It’s rare to see mental illness, addiction and doomed romance handled so lightly, with such a delicate touch, with such obvious care for the experiences of the reader. The love poems which make up a fair proportion of In These Days of Prohibition repeatedly manage that intricate balance between sentimentality and sincerity, expressions of unglamorous but powerful emotional architecture.
Douglas Dunn – The Noise of a Fly (Faber)
Dunn’s career has been long and hugely successful, and it would take a harsh critic to question his credentials as one of Scotland’s finest lyricists. Until the TS Eliot prize institutes an award specifically for lifetime achievement, however – and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t – each book on this shortlist must be taken at its own merit. (The number of times I’ve heard questionable decisions justified with ‘but their last book should’ve won’ is deeply frustrating.) The Noise of a Fly begins strongly, with painstaking ruminations on aging, deft and surprising turns of phrase and image (‘I don’t feel like Sisyphus, I feel like his boulder’), and thoughtful investigations into the art of poetry itself. But this quality is not sustained throughout, and too often lapses into prosaic and nonspecific complaints about the state of the world or the poet’s own diminished energy; the latter shows admirable self-awareness, but its repetition makes for unedifying reading. Dunn’s poetic voice is personable, kind, principled, ‘Facing what happens without self-pity’, but a handful of excellent lyrics aside, The Noise of a Fly is not up to his own high standard.
Leontia Flynn – The Radio (Cape)
I can’t pretend to be objective about Flynn’s work; her poems’ inner realities and vernacular are often very familiar, their scepticism and self-deprecation blended with hard-won optimism touches many personal nerves. In ‘Out’, for example (‘The opposite of simply sitting about / in your head, like an egg in an eggshell. That was ‘Out’.’), I could swear blind I’d been to the same pubs in my teens; knowing the size of Belfast, I probably was. The Radio marks, I think, a formal and substantial moving-on from Flynn’s previous books; this new collection is, in many ways, marked by a weariness markedly at odds with the rambunctious irreverence of Flynn’s 2004 debut, These Days. The overlaps in content between the first book and the most recent, however, feel like a kind of coming full circle; Flynn has a wonderful talent for putting into words the powerful connections built between friends, shared experiences of what, on paper, should be all the dull stuff of the day. Her argument that ‘Poetry is bullshit egotism’, fits perfectly into a collection, a whole body of work, that asserts that the quotidian is sacred, that what will save us is ‘the faint persistent hum of the first Real Thing’. The pieces about the poet’s mother, the regret and gratitude for an inner life never fully respected by the poet’s teenage self, are truly heart-breaking. Though the book occasionally has a scrapbooky feel – a series of energetic renderings of Catullus rub shoulders with a McGonigalesque piece in the voice of a Dairy Council spokesman – The Radio feels like Flynn firing on all cylinders, a book that has a clear sense of its emotional stakes and a drive to convey them with care and candour and a joyful sense of humour.
Roddy Lumsden – So Glad I’m Me (Bloodaxe)
It’s perhaps a poor reflection on the state of inter-generational poetic communication round these parts that one of the most striking things about So Glad I’m Me is its formal and aesthetic affinities with younger poets. Which would be purely academic if not for the book’s deep thoughtfulness, its constant attempts at exploring shared emotional states, the way it values empathy and permitting complex and difficult thoughts their full complexity (‘For people merely think they only / think they think that / no one thinks like them’). There are also few male poets who can write love poetry with Lumsden’s blend of delicacy and earthliness (‘The sherbet of liaison. Our twosome walks, too few.’), and with a pure joy in the tactility of language:
‘co-ordinates of murmur or yowl
Emperors, you did not favour it. You clambered
and rode the horse and whipped it to snorting
when it wanted the meadow, the sugared grass,
the tale of there not being a tale, some nothing.’
These pleasures aside, the book runs more than a little long at just under a hundred pages, and the middle third’s memories of teenagerhood and music lack a little of the conceptual and emotional urgency of the opening and closing lyrics. The less said about a rhyme between Coldplay and foreplay the better. That said, there are beautiful, unexpected moments throughout So Glad I’m Me, a commitment to asking uncomfortable questions of one’s own place in the world, and of the means by which one navigates it.
Robert Minhinnick – Diary of the Last Man (Carcanet)
There is nothing so concerning to Diary of the Last Man than man himself. The opening sequence is the account of a man in the post-catastrophe, ostensibly the sole human survivor (the circumstances of his survival go unexplored). The poem’s initial rumination on spirituality in times of distress soon becomes a kind of wish fulfilment in which the speaker breaks into Downing Street hacks the Prime Minister’s computer to sneer at his [sic] emails. The second long sequence, ‘Mouth to Mouth: A Recitation Between Two Rivers’, gives a similar focus to human subjectivity; its repeated query about whether the speaker ‘belongs’ in the poem’s landscape renders nature as a granter or withholder of a single man’s self-actualisation. At one point the speaker announces, without introduction or context, ‘Choughs’ to a passing woman in the middle of nowhere and delights in how she ‘looked alarmed’. In ‘The Body’, the speaker finds himself near people with tattoos and piercings, and decides to imagine that ‘there were wedding rings through their foreskins; / there were swastikas in their labia.’ What unites all the above is the speaker’s assumption of centrality, normativity; those unlike the speaker must be policed, corrected. Aesthetically, Minhinnick seems drawn towards the most forcefully striking line, thought or image, irrespective of the impact it has on the poem. A piece about the first Gulf War, for example, revels in the spectacle of a ‘fog of flesh’ and ‘bodies foaming like phosphorus’. What these images reveal about the nature of war or grief is undone by the act of recreating violence, making a scene; that the poem’s political commentary goes little further than ‘Think of a smart bomb. / Not so smart’ is difficult to forgive. Diary of the Last Man is content to reach for rhetorical power, reluctant to wield it responsibly.
Michael Symmons Roberts – Mancunia (Cape)
The lyrics in Mancunia are characterised by smooth rhythms, a rich, painterly eye, and a teacher’s impulse to manoeuvre the reader along the poems’ intricate watercourses. Roberts’ speakers are immaculately turned out, effortlessly erudite, but their suavity comes at the cost of a more satisfying exploration of uncomfortable or disreputable ideas; I expected a few more socio-political brass tacks from a collection that frames itself as an essay into a Manchester of the mind. When the collection does dip into the specific (street names, named shops), the demands of the poems’ smooth lyric flow prevent the poem from slowing down enough to shake off its abstracting distance, its bird’s eye view. Roberts’ work in Mancunia is marked by certain aesthetic tics, such as its repeated catalogues of unusual, beautiful objects, taking a concept (e.g. unfolding a cloth) and playing it out to its magical, but logical, conclusion (the cloth unfolds to cover an entire county), or reader-addressed imperatives (‘Sit down’, ‘let / me lead you’). There are plenty of pleasures to be found in the collection, but for all its technical gifts, Mancunia left me a little lukewarm.
James Sheard – The Abandoned Settlements (Cape)
The Abandoned Settlements is fifty-odd pages of James Sheard’s enthusiastically heteronormative sexual ideations. Read on for fine pieces like ‘James Sheard Would Like You To Know That He Not Only Fucks But Gives Head’, ‘James Sheard Is Thinking About You Masturbating’, and ‘James Sheard Knows You Dumped Him But Have You Considered That You Are Wrong’. There’s a blessed passage from p31-35 in which Sheard doesn’t mention sex. On p36: ‘the cunt crude and flared’. While it’s tempting to make light of yet another in a dismal list of dull, emotionally juvenile and shamelessly misogynist books achieving national renown and call it a day, the extensive conversations around #MeToo demand a better calibre of response. It has become impossible to ignore the pervasiveness and acuteness of violence against women in our community, both aesthetic and embodied, and it is high time that when a poet tells us exactly what he thinks, we believe him, and act accordingly.
Jacqueline Saphra – All My Mad Mothers (Nine Arches)
Saphra’s inclusion in the shortlist was a serious highlight. Not only for a representative of the consistently groundbreaking Nine Arches, but for a book that quietly, carefully tore my heart to shreds. All My Mad Mothers is an exploration in part of Saphra’s youth in the London of the late seventies and early eighties, in part of the life of her artist mother. The poems are often domestic, close-focus vignettes that suggest no small amount of pain and trauma below the surface, but Saphra has a gift for ushering the reader into a place of hurt with often overwhelming kindness, or a wry recognition of the absurdity that sometimes accompanies suffering. The unintrusive calm of the narrative voice only breaks on a handful of occasions, and these are some of the book’s finest individual lines: ‘not saying you have a broken heart, but if you ever do, that’s a lovely, normal thing’; ‘I miss you. I wish I was a skink’. All My Mad Mothers is remarkable for its refusal to treat its subject matter as something in need of excuse or explanation, that expects the reader to approach these accounts with the same openness as they are presented. The collection is one of only a few on this shortlist that works beautifully as a realised unity, and I think it’s the consistency of Saphra’s narrative voice, its dedication and love for its subject matter, that sustains a full collection’s worth of exploration. It’s massively heartening that a book of this character and quality has been recognised at the highest level.
Ocean Vuong – Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape)
Vuong’s collection was big news even before it had a UK publisher, and it’s not surprising to see it here, not least due to his Forward Prize win. It’s been four years since a poet of colour was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize without first being shortlisted for the Forward. But this shouldn’t distract from Night Sky With Exit Wounds being a truly outstanding book. It achieves a level of thematic consistency that’s rare for first collections, and there’s a gentle, yet unmistakeable sense of purpose to the way the poems return and return to questions of immigrant identity, familial love, sexual pleasure, among others. There’s a wry humour to many of the poems which undercuts and makes a lot of the historical violence that informs the poet’s present easier to digest, as in ‘Notebook Fragments’ (‘An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farmgirl. Thus my mother exists. / Thus I exist. Thus no bombs = no family = no me. // Yikes.’); the intimate and structural violence present throughout the book is neither shied away from nor indulged. For all this, Night Sky With Exit Wounds is, I think, an essentially hopeful collection, one that fights for healing on a personal level without ignoring the social forces that would prevent it.
Out of the ten shortlisted books I count one that has no business being included and three highly questionable selections. I acknowledge that this is as personal and subjective a response as wondering why Kayo Chingonyi’s Kumuanda, Nuar Alsadir’s trailblazing Fourth Person Singular and extraordinary work from Emily Berry and Pascale Petit (to name a few) did not make the cut while so much middling work from white men did. When the white men on the judging panel (average age: 58) are of an almost identical generation to the white men on the shortlist (average age: 60), however, the privileging of familiar subjectivities is impossible to ignore. It’s difficult to look at the history of the prize and expect bravery or a commitment to inclusivity, but I refuse to accept this very obvious failure without comment.