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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The Salt Book of Younger Poets – eds. Roddy Lumsden and Eloise Stonnborough

So to kick off, The Salt Book of Younger Poets is by no small margin the most exciting new book of poetry I’ve read in months. There’s a real feeling of variety, curiosity, ambition and openness here that was disappointingly lacking in Lumsden’s last anthology Identity Parade; where that felt loose and willing to lower the criteria for admission, The Salt Book maintains an impressively high standard. There are a few writers in here who already read like the finished article, and most are more suggestive and provocative (in the pleasing way) than many of our lauded prize-listers. For the sake of brevity I’ve picked out a handful who I consider worth bringing to your attention.

Dai George

[Brief intro: George is, as you’ve guessed, Welsh, has studied in Bristol and Columbia and lives in London. His first collection drops in 2013 with Seren. Listen to him read on Poetcasting.]

George’s four poems in the anthology are of an absurdly high standard. Here’s an extract from the opener, “New Translation”:

Thanks to the hacks that still insist
on fixing the smallest glitch in Luke,
the Lord’s prayer can be gamely glossed
at the tenth line. No more is sin a lake
we’re led to like bullocks on market day
but rather rum misadventure:
Save us – and here things get a little coy –
at the time of trial. So censure,
you will note, ceases to be the point.

Unf. Disregarding the fact that I’m a sucker for biblical references in poems, just listen to this thing. It sounds bloody great. It fits an energetic conversation with a delicate subject into a rhyme scheme I didn’t notice first time round and a meter that not once stutters through a series of not-uncomplicated sentences. The poem continues (and here I curse the name of copyright that makes me hesitate to reproduce it in full) into a Donaghyean (Donaghesque?) investigation of romantic temptation that acknowledges and incorporates all of its vital complexity without once appearing dry or distant. It’s a remarkable balancing act that resolves into something completely touching that only relinquishes its secrets at the third or fourth reading.

The other three poems I would be more than delighted to show to anyone who doubts the capacity for strict patterning to convey something moving, in both senses of the word. “Plans with the Unmet Wife” follows its conditional ‘Should we meet first in a market / somewhere equidistant from our lives’ with twelve lines of a developing romance to the satisfyingly earthy ‘how is this going to work?’, before another as-yet-unrealised domestic scene melts back to a depiction of the poet’s own very much completed childhood. The poem acts as a celebration/deflation of the poet-in-youth trope, balancing the writer’s own partial aggrandisement with the wholly uncertain vision of his future. And it sounds bloody lush.

I could go on. So I will, just a wee bit more. “Distraction During Evensong” ends with ‘wishful voices winding through the air / like the first snore of a bedmate, a misunderstanding.’ HOLY. LIVING. FUCK. Look me in the eye and tell me you aren’t a wee bit short of breath. Dai George is the most exciting poet in the book and one who gives me some hope for the future.

Jay Bernard

[Studied at Oriel College, Oxford and lives in London. Chapbook Your Sign is Cuckoo, Girl published by tall-lighthouse a couple years back, I have a copy if anyone wants to borrow it, it’s great. Currently poet in residence at the University of Singapore. Of course.]

Our friends up North (and I’m sure down South) know all about Bernard, who has performed at StAnza and the West Port Book Festival in recent years. If you didn’t watch her read in the above video, do so… now.

Great, right? One of the great things about catching wind of a writer early on is seeing their improvement over time – the three longish poems in The Salt Book are expansions and deepenings of themes that Bernard has been writing about for years, articulate confidences about love, loneliness, intimacy and life in one of the biggest cities on the planet. Particularly affecting is “Tuesday Morning”, which I at first took to be another fruit from the Poet’s Tree of Wahey I Had Sex Last Night but is in fact something far more interesting and 21st-century-Donne. Let’s listen:

I do not move, but something ebbs –
some small internal me wants to stretch
to their full height. They detach themselves,

unpeeling their skin from my inner limbs.
In the dark morning, lit with red stars
and Venus setting, they turn, they climb,

they wedge a foot in the groove of my groin
then vanish. They leave, gone, enjoined
with a cargo of my thoughts, all my lies, my lungs,

my regrets, my unadmitted wrongs; I’m left
hollow in the bed.

It’s no coincidence I’ve picked out a passage that rhymes: one of Bernard’s most satisfying improvements is in the sonic texture of her writing – not only in this end-rhymey poem but in all three pieces is there much greater attention paid to the demands of the poem as an orchestrated unit of sound. This is anything but chopped up prose.

AND I hasten to add it resonates like a fucker. The poem’s self-absorption is coupled with a vivid depiction of the speaker’s better self taking its leave, with the attendant disgust that perhaps only ‘someone who never stopped / to see what inward sign was blazing’ could possess. “11.16” and its relaxed, storytelling tone is the perfect vessel for one poet’s discovery of another in a dilapidated toilet stall that rings a very “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford” bell in its closing lines ‘Those figures of history / Who whisper “do something”’. The management of tone is pitch-perfect. Bernard is in serious danger of writing a book of poetry that every fucker in the country could love.

Laura Marsh

[Born in Bedfordshire, studied English at Christ Church, Oxford and works for a documentary film company. No word as yet on upcoming publications. Poetcasting]

Okay, after all that let’s calm down a wee bit. Marsh writes small, beautifully formed things, so let’s look at one in toto, “Mistakes in Closed Captioning”:

You’re the horse and I failed.
You will trample
a too-narrow hallway, not looking
where you are going, where the broken glass
is trodden into pheasant tracks by girls
with nicotine eyes, who set fire
to aerosol cans. Mud will splatter
your shins to theme music; on the A-road
I’m hurrying down, squinting, you will pause,
yourself again, as something I misread
returns to you.
You look worse than I feel.

Admittedly this has a little exerciseyness about it, but it’s a terrifically suggestive, lyrical piece. Her five short poems are elegantly composed (in both senses) and carry some of Hughes’ pagan bones-and-earth in their investigations of love, a philosophy summarised by the close of “Relics”: ‘We love with senseless nails and thick skin, / you say, till what a lock of hair undoes / we feel with the bones that will come to dust.’

Niall Campbell

[From South Uist, studied at Glasgow and St Andrews, won an Eric Gregory, has a pamphlet out very soon with Happenstance which I will be purchasing.]

Campbell’s another that StAnzaficionados will recognise. His work shows some of the generous close payment of attention that I liked best about Jarrell and Bishop, and if “The Apple” is a little too much in debt to Don Paterson we can excuse him for his excellent taste. Again, the gods of infringement will have to bite me, here’s “The Tear in the Sack”:

A nocturnal bird, say a nightjar,
cocking its head in the silence
of a few deflowering trees,
witnesses more than we do
the parallels.
Its twin perspective:
Seeing with one eye the sack-
grain spilt on the roadway dirt,
and with the other, the scattered stars,
their chance positioning in the dark.

What more is there to say? This is a fully realised unit of thought. Campbell conveys a mature sympathy for the presented object (a rope, a boat, an apple), a satisfying sense of disquiet and has a great ear to match: ‘I began to weight it / sure that if it was wax the few lost grams / of seeds and stones, would tell in the palm’. That ostensibly superfluous comma is certainly not. And it’s hard not to like “Hitching Lifts From Islanders,” with the line ‘“That’s one fucker of a fucker, eh?” he said.’

Inua Ellams

[Born in Nigeria, his second pamphlet, Candy Coated Unicorns and Converse All-Stars was published by Faber in December, and as of writing there are seven copies left on Amazon.]

First of all I think you should listen to the above video, and then his tracks on Poetcasting. He is an excellent reader, and I’d love to see him perform live. Here’s an extract from “GuerillaGardenWritingPoem”:

‘But more than seeds are sown here. You
can tell by his tender pat on tended patch;
the soft cuff to a boy’s head […]
The sky sways on the safe side of tipsy
and it’s altogether an alien time of half
life and hope, an after-fight of gentle fog
and city smog, where the debris of dew dips
to this narrative of progress, this city tale;
this story is my story; this vista my song.

I cluster in the quiet, stack against steel,
seek islands, hope, a pen to sow with.’

Ellams is probably the only writer in the book who successfully makes the sound of his writing overcome a thematic lightness, or actually make the sound of the poem his theme. Each of the three pieces is excellent in its own right, each has a very careful passion and emotional generosity that makes it very easy to get lost in their sound; they embody what the fella was talking about when he talked about poetry’s hypnotic tendencies. Moreover, Ellams is very carefully tending his own poetic patch – “GuerillaGardenWritingPoem” is also among the better I’m a Poet and Here’s What That Means pieces in the book, in that he takes care not to steal the limelight even when the fictionalised Writer is the poem’s vehicle. Though as you can see he does that irksome thing of breaking lines when they reach the correct length as they appear on the page rather than where it makes more rhythmic sense, but that’s a very minor gripe when the poem is so beautifully plotted when spoken aloud. And I am little if not easily irked.

To wrap up, there are plenty of great writers included in the book about whom I have slightly less to say, and I hasten to add that by no means belittles their achievements. Special mention should go to Jack Belloli’s “Yurt”, Kayo Chingonyi’s “Guide to Proper Mixtape Assembly”, Siofra McSherry’s “Faust”, Richard O’Brien’s “Isthmus” and Vidyan Ravinthiran’s “Jump-Cuts”. These guys are defs worth looking out for in future. After that slightly rhapsodic intro I should probably now make the qualifier – not everyone involved is great shakes. To me at least. There’s a lot of the fancy-pants artful-arrangement-of-sentences that’s not quite a short story so let’s call it a poem stuff, a lot of formatting disguised as poetry and a lot of the posturing bumff that is juvenalia’s calling card. But for quite so much to be quite so good is a heartening pleasure.