The T. S. Eliot Prize, awarded by the Poetry Book Society, is arguably one of the most prestigious poetry prizes in the world. Awarded every year to a poetry collection in English first published in the UK or Ireland, it has seen many household names winning in the past, including Ted Hughes, Carol Ann Duffy, Seamus Heaney, and Derek Walcott.
The Poetry Book society started the prize in 1993, on their 40th anniversary, in honour of its founding poet T.S. Eliot. Since then, along with the Forward Prize in poetry, it has become one of the two most important literary prizes in the UK dedicated solely to poetry. This year, to mark the 25th anniversary of the prize, the prize money has been increased to £25,000.
The shortlist is announced every October, and 2017’s was selected out of 154 entries, by judges Bill Herbert, James Lasdun, and Helen Mort. As per tradition, shortlisted poets will participate in a reading at the Royal Festival Hall this Sunday.
As poet Sandeep Parmar noted in his article in The Guardian, while this year’s shortlist is definitely deserving, there is a glaring lack of BAME poets, especially since 2017 has seen a significant amount of work from BAME poets published, including Kayo Chingonyi, Richard Georges, André Naffis-Sahely, and Nick Makoha, among others.
The only minority poet on the shortlist, however, has always been one of my favourite poets, and I’m glad that he has made the list: Ocean Vuong is a Vietnamese-American poet whose poetry has always sounded like music to me. His work often combines the balladic nature of his grandmother’s stories and folk songs with his keen grasp of the English language. Born on a rice farm outside Saigon, he arrived in the US at the age of two after his family spent a year in a refugee camp in the Philippines. His collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds explores themes of home, loss, and family, opening with ‘Telemachus’, a poem about the relationship between the narrator and his father, which is at once both intimate and distant, personal and anonymous. The title itself, ‘Telemachus’, suggests the fraught homecoming of Odysseus to his son. Indeed, classical references dot the collection, often in order to deepen themes and reveal the paradoxes behind complex emotions.
The collection that struck me most was Jacqueline Saphra’s All My Mad Mothers, which explores love, sex, and family through themes related to motherhood. Her poems are bold and energetic, words that bound along, extravagantly painting a picture of what a mother is, in all her multitudes. The title poem, ‘All My Mad Mothers’, describes the narrator’s mother ‘trying to catch the sun’, ‘sucking fruit flies through a straw’, ‘barely spoke between her bruises’, and finally, ‘hard to grasp’, trying ‘to ease her way into this world. Or out of it.’ The mother is at once imaginary and very real. This is not a standard collection of poetry appreciating motherhood or elevating mother-daughter relationships. Instead, this is a collection that paints motherhood in all the its gritty detail: the abuse, the disappointment, the monotony, but also the inevitable celebration of love.
As for the collection that seems the most timely, Robert Minhinnick’s Diary of the Last Man tackles the current major issues facing the world. He starts by meditating on the environmental apocalypse, then moves on to the horrors of war in the Middle East. Interestingly, in the same collection he also offers translations from Welsh, Arabic, and Turkish. Throughout the collection, there is a sense of urgency – that time is running out for humanity and there are too many terrible things that are allowed to happen. There is a running theme of loneliness and uncertainty – ‘Perhaps/I am the last man’. It is an unforgiving collection, blunt about the atrocities of the world, but among this the kindness that remains becomes even more poignant.
It is a strong shortlist this year with very current themes, and it will be interesting to see who wins. Regardless of the winner, the shortlist shows that poetry is still relevant in expressing the human condition in all its forms, from politics and family to displacement and loss.
This year’s shortlist:
Tara Bergin – The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx (Carcanet)
Caroline Bird – In these Days of Prohibition (Carcanet)
Douglas Dunn – The Noise of a Fly (Faber & Faber)
Leontia Flynn – The Radio (Cape Poetry)
Roddy Lumsden – So Glad I’m Me (Bloodaxe)
Michael Symmons Roberts – Mancunia (Cape Poetry)
Robert Minhinnick – Diary of the Last Man (Carcanet)
James Sheard – The Abandoned Settlements (Cape Poetry)
Jacqueline Saphra – All My Mad Mothers (Nine Arches Press)
Ocean Vuong – Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape Poetry)