Virginia Woolf once called T S Eliot the kind of man who would wear a four-piece suit. Now in its 25th year, the poetry prize set up in Eliot’s name risks looking similarly buttoned-up and unadventurous.
There were grumbles when the shortlist was announced in October, with The Guardian branding its lack of non-white nominees “inexplicably naive and regressive”. That there is just one on this 10-strong list – the young Vietnamese-American, Ocean Vuong – is regrettable, particularly when you compare it to the more forward-looking Forward Prizes, which had eight non-white poets on their shortlist of 15.
What is more worrying is that Vuong’s book is also the only debut. By ignoring 2017’s bumper crop of new voices (Kayo Chingonyi, Nick Makoha, Chrissie Williams) to make room for middling work by old hands (Douglas Dunn, Robert Minhinnick), this prize is in danger of becoming a lifetime achievement award. Newcomer Sarah Howe’s unexpected 2016 win now looks like a one-off blip.
Nonetheless, many of the established poets on this list are still finding ways to make it new. Michael Symmons Roberts’s Mancunia, for instance, may be his best work yet. The Eliot judges tend to prefer the lucid to the ludic; on past form, this would make crossword-puzzling Roddy Lumsden too clever to win, and wry surrealist Caroline Bird too funny. But both have this year produced soul-bearing, heartfelt work that demands serious attention. It’s an open field, but any of these three would be a deserving winner of the prize’s £25,000 purse.
Shortlisted writers will read at the Royal Festival Hall tonight (southbankcentre.co.uk). The winner of the 2018 T S Eliot Prize is announced on Monday.
The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx by Tara Bergin (Carcanet)
Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl, wrote the first English translation of Madame Bovary, and it is Bovary’s spirit that haunts these slender, allusive lyrics in many voices, all hint and subtext. The brilliant title poem concludes, with a wink, “Nearly all of this is true”. One piece takes the form of footnotes to a missing page; it’s the perfect symbol for Dublin-born Bergin’s riddling second collection as a whole.
In These Days of Prohibition by Caroline Bird (Carcanet)
Since she published her debut aged 15 in 2002, Bird’s witty writing has been wrongly dismissed in some quarters as lightweight. This brave eighth collection (a slant account of her year in rehab) proves those critics wrong from its first page with a defiant poem-as-manifesto, “A Surreal Joke”: “My assigned counsellor told me I used/ poetry to hide from myself [ …] a floating ruse/ of surreal jokes. He stole my notebook./ I said, they’re not jokes. He said, maybe try/ to write the simple truth? I said, why?”
The Noise of a Fly by Douglas Dunn (Faber)
Now retired from teaching university students (or, in his phrase, “posh totty”) at St Andrews, 75-year-old Dunn writes poetry that, at its best, captures “a domestic symphony/ A solitude sufficiently robust/ To encourage mumbles of wonder”. Sadly, here he more often lapses into sub-Larkinisms (“It’s a condition of verse/ That it should make life worse”) and misguided attempts at self-deprecating humour (“boredom snoredom’s what I guarantee”). He’s better on love and loss; one moving poem, “The Glove Compartment”, revives the quiet pathos of his unassailable 1985 collection Elegies.
The Radio by Leontia Flynn (Cape)
“Let’s not have any more poems on the Brontes,” declares Flynn, but she still gives us one of the best in recent memory, in a deliciously curmudgeonly fourth collection. It starts vividly, recalling her childhood in County Down with her wireless-addict mother, but the second half (with its verse dialogues, and versions of Catullus) feels awkwardly mismatched.
So Glad I’m Me by Roddy Lumsden (Bloodaxe)
Scan the acknowledgements of any book of poetry published in Britain in the last 15 years, and there’s a fair chance you’ll see the name Roddy Lumsden. A poet’s poet, he deserves wider recognition for his generous 10th collection, baggy but filled with the joy of the unexpected. It’s the most challenging on this list, but satisfying as a well-set cryptic crossword. (Lumsden writes word-puzzles for a living.) These are poems of companionship and consolation: “Friends, tomorrow/ Will be better. Every cursed thing will walk kind./ Honeys, everything will be kippers and glitter.”
Mancunia by Michael Symmons Roberts (Cape)
Dedicated to the victims of the Manchester Arena bombing (though written before the attack), this enchanting collection from four-time Eliot nominee Roberts imagines a Manchester of drunken seers, small myths and misread omens, where the battered cod on your plate might burst into song. With one eye on More’s Utopia, “remade but recognisable,” this unreal city repays repeat visits.
Diary of the Last Man by Robert Minhinnick (Carcanet)
Welsh environmentalist Minhinnick struggles to hold the reader’s attention in a collection weighed down by two long sequences: a “recitation between two rivers” (in alternating prose and verse), and the title poem’s lonely, post-apocalyptic fantasy. For a book with a sharper eye for the landscape, try Thomas A Clark’s Farm by the Shore instead.
The Abandoned Settlements by James Sheard (Cape)
For the most part, the poems in Cyprus-born Sheard’s third collection riff elegantly on the same conceit: how “love exists, and then is ruined, and then persists”. Sheard sees the lover’s mind and body reflected in “the hulks/ and helplessness” of a decrepit townscape, and vice versa (“One hill [ …] would flash its skin”). This pathetic fallacy recurs too often, leaving the collection stuck on one note – but it’s a convincing note.
All My Mad Mothers by Jacqueline Saphra (Nine Arches)
The small-press underdog on this year’s list, Saphra’s engaging and effortlessly readable second collection is a kind of autobiography in verse, moving from childhood memories of her anxious mother (“sat in the corner clutching her old skates and dispensing strings of aphorisms”) through to her own motherhood, with a touching sonnet for her son.
Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong (Cape)
Few poets in recent years have made such an immediate impact as Vuong, 29, whose debut often evokes the war-torn Vietnam he fled as a child. He conjures dreamlike images through unexpected juxtapositions; “Aubade with Burning City” puts “Snow shredded/ with gunfire” alongside lyrics from White Christmas. It’s not a perfect collection, but it’s hard to imagine another writer addressing themselves quite like he does in “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong”; vulnerable and unselfconscious, it begins, “Ocean, don’t be afraid.”
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