Since being introduced to this annual event about 5 years ago by poet friends Julia and Charlotte, I’ve made it a fixture on my calendar. Held at the cavernous Royal Festival Hall on London’s Southbank, the T S Eliot Prize readings seem to be as much about the socialising and the catching up with other poets as they are with the poetry itself.
And why not? Us poety-types aren’t always the most social of bods. As well as the chance to say hello to so many poet friends all in one place, I love the buzzy feel of this event – standing on one of the mezzanine landings and surveying the foyer and bar area (was that Melvyn Bragg over there?) Rubbing shoulders with the poetry glitterati (poet-ati?) I love the wonderful mix of ages and styles across the audience – it would be hard to point at one one person and say “that’s a poet”. And yet they probably all are.
Unlike last year, I didn’t go to Katy Evans-Bush‘s marvellous pre-readings workshop day, in which all ten nominated collections are dipped into, mulled over and discussed in the light of Katy’s expert analysis and guidance. I was familiar with the work of some of the poets reading, but certainly not all. And not these latest collections.
This year the Poetry Book Society went gung-ho on the live tweeting, with two of the tweeters at the end of our row causing a slight fracas at the end of the first half as people in the row behind them asked to desist from tapping into their phones non-stop. I did feel for the complainants. I had a terrific view from my seat and wanted to take photos of the poets as they read, but couldn’t bring myself to do it as I know it can be distracting. And as I struggled to concentrate on Pascale Petit‘s reading with the phone action going on next to me, I resolved quite early on that the my phone was staying in the bag. Except for the empty lectern shot you see here, taken before the second half got going. Anyway, I think the live tweeters were more discreet in the second half so hopefully peace broke out.
As regards the actual readings (ahem!) there was nothing I really didn’t like, but I did enjoy very much hearing Michael Longley (warm, down to earth, compelling), Arundhathi Subramaniam (assured and commanding), Fiona Benson (charmingly nervous but read very powerfully) and David Harsent (made me want to read more of him). Sadly there were three proxy readers – while I was gutted that Hugo Williams couldn’t be there, it was good news to hear that he is apparently on the mend, and actor Jeremy Clyde gave an excellent delivery of Hugo’s poems. Here is the ‘From the dialysis ward’ sequence from his collection ‘I knew the Bride’ (Faber). But I didn’t feel justice was done to Kevin Powers’ work ‘Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting’ (Sceptre) by the reader who took his place, as he didn’t come across as being at all engaged with the material, which was a shame.
As always, Ian McMillan did a fine job of compering, picking out aspects of the various collections and pulling them into an intellectual yet entertaining ribbon of thought. Funny yet respectful. I don’t really know how he does that but it works! And who will win the £20,000 prize? Who knows!
The full shortlist and details of the judges are here. The result is announced this evening.