Like me, the TS Eliot Prize loves to celebrate poets and their collections published in the U.K. and Ireland. Like me, it is 25 this year. The prize money has increased handsomely by £5,000 to commemorate the milestone, and I must tell you that my similarities with the award end there.
On Sunday night, the Royal Festival Hall staged readings from all ten shortlisted poets. Chair of judges Bill Hebert kicked things off with ease and aplomb but also ‘The Difficulties of a Statesman’, from ‘Coriolan’ by T.S. Eliot himself, whose face loomed large and less than half-smiling. Along came Ian McMillan who, happily, was to be our host. He introduced Leontia Flynn (The Radio, Cape Poetry), who read (typically) quietly brilliantly. Next up was a writer McMillan described as ‘the Laureate of Intimacy’, James Sheard (The Abandoned Settlements, Cape). ‘For love exists, and then is ruined, and then persists,’ he finished, having made a good case for that in the poems preceding. Tara Bergin took to the stage, reading phenomenally well from The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx (Carcanet), ‘Making Robert Learn Like Susan’, making the audience laugh like drains. After Tara came Robert Minhinnick (Diary of the Last Man, Carcanet). ‘Perhaps I am the last man,’ he read, ‘perhaps I deserve to be’. He was being too hard on himself, especially as he was followed by lots of other men, notably Roddy Lumsden (So Glad I’m Me, Bloodaxe). Roddy closed the first half and when he concluded with ‘sings the national anthem of herself’ I doubted there was a dry eye in the house. (‘Cry cry what shall I cry’ says Eliot. ‘Tears, and lots of them’, said I.)
Jacqueline Saphra blew the bloody doors off when she opened the second half with poems from All My Mad Mothers (Nine Arches Press) and a shout-out to small presses. Ocean Vuong (Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Cape) brought a total hush over the audience (many of whom had troublesome coughs) during his time at the lectern. He read ‘Aubade with Burning City’ and ‘Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong’, with a nod to Frank O’Hara. Douglas Dunn read from The Noise of a Fly (Faber). ‘Poem for a Birthday’, about an incompetent conjurer, was more magic than its subject matter. Caroline Bird (In these Days of Prohibition, Carcanet) gave a lovely, lively reading of poems and tales of ‘the past worth saving in me’, in all of us, and ‘A Toddler Creates Thunder by Dancing on a Manhole’. ‘Her [the toddler’s] powers are site specific,’ said the poet. Her [the poet’s] powers travel far. Last up was Michael Symmons Roberts (Mancunia, Cape). He ended with ‘the refusal to deliver the denouement’, and despite the defiance, the reading was done.
Fast forward 24 hours (spent largely in the Bookshop, making prolonged eye contact with John’s baby, Emily), and I found myself outside the Wallace Collection as a freeloading claimant of a spare spot at the award ceremony. Whatever decision the judges (Bill Herbert, James Lasdun, Helen Mort) had come to by 6.59 p.m. on Sunday evening could well have changed during the reading. The winner was not chosen until Monday afternoon. Announcements at the ceremony included a new relationship between the Prize and the Poetry Archive, and, in a rare nugget of good news from Royal Mail, this year’s winner is to appear on a postmark.
Bill Herbert’s words about all ten poets (and all 154 collections read by the panel this year) were considered and considerate. ‘You get to disappoint scores of poets, in order to celebrate, not a few, not even that one book, but the art itself,’ he said of the judging task. It was with all the momentum of the alphabetical order Herbert employed for his run-down that Ocean Vuong was announced as the winner of the prize. In a gracious speech, Ocean told us he believes in ‘the unsurpassed power of language’, that writing can be as much an act of resistance as preservation. He read ‘Devotion’, the last poem from his collection, after which he was whisked away to do some more talking on Front Row, because time and Stig Abell wait for no one. If you would like to hear even more poems and words from Ocean, you ought to listen to this podcast from an event at the shop, when he was in conversation with Max Porter.
‘Are you Tara Bergin?’ someone asked me at the ceremony as I made my way around the room, always in the general direction of the tray of venison puffs. It was a great, inaccurate compliment on a great night for contemporary poetry.