TS Eliot Prize Shortlist 2017

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.

Full Review of 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.

Full review of In These Days of Prohibition

 

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.

Full review of Night Sky With Exit Wounds

 

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.

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Michael Symmons Roberts – Drysalter

Statement of Prejudice: I’m largely indifferent to Roberts. I remember thinking his interview on the SPL podcast was pretty self-congratulatory, and what I’ve read of his work doesn’t do a lot for me. That this seems to be a concept album – 150 poems meeting the 150 Psalms, each 15 lines long – doesn’t fill me with confidence, nor does the fact that it was named the Poetry Book Society’s summer choice in February, two months prior to its release. I suspect there’s a totally logical but ultimately saddening reason for that being totally above board.

Reality: Reading a long series of MSR’s poetry is like a boring friend tell you about a fashionable party they went to. He talks (at length) with a cosy satisfaction that comes with the assurance that no matter what one’s audience thinks, one knows how cool one is. Several of these poems I wanted to pour cold water over. And not even because any are outrageously bad

(whatever bad means: if, as I usually do, you take bad to mean something that leaves little/no emotional/mnemonic impact then most poems are bad. What makes these poems worse is that their internal meaning-mechanisms seem to have passed through the checkpoints of the poet’s internal border control without once presenting their documents. MEANING that when a poem titled “Elegy for John Milton” (e.g.) goes, stanza by stanza: i) a brief contextualising of Milton’s relationship to his contemporary national politics; ii) a suggestion that Milton could hear, on his deathbed ‘dog duets, car-alarms, twenty-four-hour news / evacuations, bomb scares, marching troops’ (note how MSR turns seamlessly from things that one can physically hear to things one cannot (and back) without pausing to alter the syntax. Doubtless to someone this is proof of his wizardry but it feels lazy and contemptuous in a poem which is itself lazy and contemptuous of anyone trying to follow its logic (however dreamy and big idea-d it might be) the way human beings tend to. I’m all in favour of dislocating your narrative and challenging the reader, but even dream-logic demands consistent dream-logic. Lorca didn’t bloviate on local politics midway through Gypsy Ballads. For a poem to have any impact it has to respect the mind of its reader/listener, and there’s a huge difference between something that takes easy-to-follow-but-unexpected turns and the poetry version of Calvinball. I realise I say this so deep in parentheses I have little hope of escape.); iii) an image of an untended Eden so stock Kodak ought to copyright it; iv) ‘buddleia, cotoneaster, ragwort, / bindweed, russian vine, dead nettle, ivy, / on the edge of evolving into song.’ Not only is this closure largely nicked and largely unaltered from Michael Longley’s “The Ice-Cream Man” (read it), it means almost nothing. This is what Paterson describes as pumping profundity into a poem at the last minute in a grasp for significance, in an attempt to surreptitiously slip the reader the surface in place of the substance, try to cover up their lack of finish. Which I’ve said before, but it’s one of poetry’s diseases-in-trade, and demands the ability to tell between the forged note and the true mint.)

but that they try to present extremes of emotion in a dull and uninterested timbre, one that is unwavering and creepingly oppressive over the course of the book. The voice is instructive, intimately command-giving, and wholly lacking in empathy, either for you or the subject matter. Imagine telling someone a really clever and witty joke and them saying, flatly, ‘that’s hilarious’.

that's hilarious
that’s hilarious

What’s left is a book much like several others by similarly self-involved, middle-aged, middle-class straight white men with Ted Hughes fixations and an uncomfortable penchant for airing their sexual fantasies in public (“To An Immortal II” has the Gaimanesque nerve to paint a scenario in which a deathless woman wants to give the writer a shifty), and MSR just doesn’t do enough to set himself apart from the pack. What the book particularly lacks is a sense of humour about itself, that canny self-awareness the best writers deploy at opportune moments to vent the pressure of their presented egos. As a counterpoint, this opener from “What the Body Cannot Hold”: ‘I regard myself as – let’s say – Tokyo’. Few single lines of verse have so viscerally made my skin crawl. I expect it’s intended for urbane chuckles but it made me want to hurl the book out a closed window. This is not to mention that the very fact of these poems works against the likelihood of their success. Not only does the form warp many poems out of their natural shape but their sheer number virtually ensures there’s a lot of horse in the beef mince. With the best will in the world only a very few individuals have written 150 good poems in their lifetime, and for all MSR’s fine ear for the singing line and active imagination, this would have been a strong, even powerful book had it been half as long.

1 GC

To speculate to a hopefully constructive end, I suspect writing this many poems requires a certain amount of automatic function, giving (ideally) the subconscious room to breathe but also (realistically) allowing some of the more received ideas of one’s cultural immersion a free pass, as well as dropping the old quality control a few clicks. There are small moments of snobbery dotted throughout the book, the casual and unexamined reproofs to stock modern villains (financiers pop up on a few occasions) which set up a very clear an Us and Them scenario, seemingly designed (if not purely then largely) to leave the speaking voice very safely on the respectable side.

What MSR does exceedingly well is the construction of individual rhythmical units: though the lack of cumulative punch may ultimately let the book down, the poet’s ear for meter is near flawless, and the vast majority of pieces in Drysalter read elegantly and smoothly. Of course, as mentioned before, this also has a dampening effect on the poems’ content, and the few game attempts MSR makes at either rhyme or ballad meter (“Automatic Soothsayer Booth” being a particularly sketchy example) lack the confidence and significance necessary to pull off their set missions.

The book isn’t a total wash: the fact that so many poems sounding like a poem-a-day exercise manual means there’s certainly a range of engaging tidbits to pick over and think about how they could be improved – a deeper engagement with and curiosity about the individual subjects at hand would be an excellent start, see review of Michael Pedersen for a longer para on specificity – and while there are a few genuinely accomplished and moving pieces (“Excise Me”, a poem about a metamorphosed heart is excellent, as is the powerfully suggestive nightmare “What the Night Told Me”, while “Abyss of Birds” is a beautiful encapsulation of what it means to be a flock of thrushes), it’s difficult to leave the book with more than when you arrived. The poems don’t build on one another’s foundations, barely talk to one another in terms of theme and focus, and only a very few are alert to the possibility that the book’s presiding voice is outstaying its welcome.

3 PF

Tl;dr: Drysalter suffers from exactly the problems you’d anticipate of such a long book with such strict rules – too many unpolished pieces, noise that dulls out signal, irony fatigue, a growing impatience for the writer to get to the point. The biggest problem, of course, is that this book will almost certainly win; it’s written by a long-established and well-connected writer (five collections) with an extensive CV (much of it on BBC Radio) and a truckload of previous awards. He even wrote a book with one of the judges, Paul Farley. Who of course will be objective but it doesn’t hurt that he wrote a pull quote for the bloody thing. I’d love to be optimistic and say Sinead Morrissey’s Parallax (which I have high hopes for) has a chance or even Jacob Polley’s commendable The Havocs, but Forward have crowned some stinkers lately (’12: Jorie bloody Graham, ’11: John bloody Burnside, ’10: Seamus Heaney’s most pedestrian book) and are unlikely to rock the boat this time. We’ll see. For now, don’t waste your time on Drysalter.