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An evening at the T S Eliot Prize readings

T S Eliot Prize readings 2015

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.

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  1. Couldn’t agree with you more about the readings Robin. Just to say I went to the Preview in the afternoon. It was a great introduction to the poets and I enjoyed the discussions although at times I felt people were a little too negative about details in some poems but I guess you can’t get away with it in poetry. Peter

    • Hi Peter, the preview event sounds like it was worth attending, maybe I should consider that next year (would also make the day feel like less of a long haul for the amount of time spent there.)

  2. Enjoyed your post, Robin. Thanks. Helped me get the atmosphere of the event 🙂

  3. msjinnifer msjinnifer

    Yes, wasn’t it good. The afternoon “preview” was also excellent. This year Kathryn Maris led the discussion adroitly — treading that sensitive critical path, looking at sample poems closely and encoraging a range of comments, positive and negative, from the audience.

    • Ah! Another vote for the Preview …. noted, and thanks 🙂

  4. I wanted to go but the thought of the replacement bus service on the journey into London did it for me! I’ve been in the past and loved it. Sounds like a great evening. I always come away with either new poetry books or poets I want to follow up.

    • Hi Heather, yes although we avoided the replacement bus by driving, we didn’t reckon with the the M23 being resurfaced at 11pm so it still took over 2 hours to get home – ack!

  5. Gosh – this pretty much mirrors precisely how my little party felt about things. The number of stand-in readers was an all-time high, but I guess if the list includes poets from around the world then that will be inevitable.
    I felt it lacked a real crowd-pleaser (remember Sam Willetts a couple of years ago, and Danny Abse last year, for instance). Ending with Longley gave the night some gravity, but I have to say that Ian McMillan was the most pleasing contributor.

    • Interesting… yes, Ian McMillan takes his role very seriously and I can’t help thinking he’s a major factor in the event’s attraction. Thanks for commenting, Neil.

  6. Thanks for the writeup, Robin. I was feeling utterly unsociable and tired and made a run for it at the end of the evening – I really prefer smaller events for meeting people – but I did see a few I know (and lots I recognise).

    My personal choice would probably have been Michael Longley, possibly even before the reading. I love his work, and The Stairwell, and the reading was just beautiful and moving, definitely my pick of the evening. I’m pleased that David Harsent won, though – I would have liked to see him win for Night a few years ago. Fire Songs is a tough collection but really good stuff.

    I was disappointed but not surprised that Louise Gluck couldn’t be there to read. There were one or two poets/collections I felt quite “meh” about but I shall refrain from saying who. After the readings, though, I’m really excited to seek out the full collections by Ruth Padel and Pascale Petit.

    • Hi Clarissa, sorry not to see you there, don’t blame you for leaving straight away, it is a bit exhausting, and in reality you don’t get to speak to as many people as you do at a smaller event, odd but true. I knew Louise Gluck wasn’t going to be there but I did really hope to hear Hugo Williams. I probably shan’t be buying ‘I knew the bride’ but I loved ‘Dear Room’ and I’ve always had a fantastic crush on him. Ha ha! Probably not as bad as the crush I have on Don Paterson, but that’s another matter! :lol

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Robin Houghton 2021