Last night's field was tremendously impressive, and any knee-jerk American avant-garde dismissal of such poets as from the "School of Quietude" would be absurd. This is seriously good writing.
Indeed, the long list for the TS Eliot Prize is this year nothing short of amazing: Seamus Heaney; Paul Muldoon; Simon Armitage; Paul Farley; Hugo Williams; Robin Robertson; Penelope Shuttle; Jane Hirshfield; Tim Liardet; W.N. "Bill" Herbert.
Arguably, three of the five most significant voices from the UK/ Ireland of the last thirty-odd years are represented in this field, those being Heaney, Muldoon and Armitage. Heaney, a Nobel-winner, is universally regarded, in the English world, as our time's Yeats (even Eliot) - in fact, he did not read last evening (as he is recovering from an illness) and the poet who read his work for him, Bernard O'Donoghue, wittily said it was like "being God's representative on Earth"; Muldoon is our time's Auden - the stylistically unique, intellectually vast young man who was his generation's undisputed genius and quickly scurried to New York, conquering America, too; and Armitage is our time's Muldoon - the next great poet of invention, wit and message, beloved by many, known to all. This isn't even to mention Paul Farley, who is our time's Armitage, that is, the next great stylish witty man of letters to emerge, at 40, schooled in Donaghy, fuelled by Red Bull and the charisma of The Beatles, destined to go far.
So who should win tonight?
I know many of these poets, some are my friends, so I will be diplomatic and tender here....
Seamus Heaney should win, given that his collection, District and Circle is a magisterial summing up of the themes of his career, and echoes with grace and power. The last poem, about a blackbird and the memories of his dead brother, is destined to be read in a hundred years, much as we read the great last poems of Yeats - it is a deeply moving classic; further, Heaney has not won the T.S. Eliot Prize yet, which is like the Academy Award never having gone to Hitchcock.
Paul Muldoon should win, given that his collection, Horse Latitudes, his tenth, is the most inventive, complex, witty and playfully masterful by this genius yet. It touches on war, bereavement, pop culture, and science, using a variety of forms Joycean in their difficulty and fun; yet, he has won the Eliot before, in 1994, so this may weight against him; he did, however, read delightfully last evening;
Simon Armitage should win, given that his collection,Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid, is a signal collation of what makes him the best mainstream UK poet of his generation - its verve, daring, pop sensibilities, and fearless treatment of political realities (Blair being a liar, Iraq being a quagmire) would in a normal year have made it the one to beat; also, Armitage has not won this prize, which is like Scorsese not having won an Academy Award.
The next three poets who also have a clear shot at this prize are Penelope Shuttle, who read wonderfully last night, and whose poems of loss and remembrance for her husband, the great poet Peter Redgrove, make hers a major collection; Paul Farley's Tramp on Flames is a complex, brilliant and meditative third book, and the long poem to Michael Donaghy is a major new poem; he read very well last night; Tim Liardet, although less-known than some of the superstars on the bill, has written, in The Blood Choir, a profound and important book on men, incarceration, pity, redemption and freedom - and he read superbly.
Then again, Robin Roberston could win - his book, Swithering - is a superb rendering of the traditional and sublime interests of neo-classical poetry, with echoes of the early Heaney; his use of myth is impressive. Hugo Williams has won before, and recently, for a book of which this new one is a sort of sequel, so he is less certain to win; Hirshfield and Herbert are each also possible contenders - the American because her work is redemptive, intelligible and wise; and Herbert because he is the most diversified versifier now writing in Scotland, a sort of quasi-Muldoon with his own range of interests and complex forms.
In short, this one is too close to call. Readers of poetry not based in the UK should order all ten books (you may already know Hirshfield) - the range and quality and sheer talent of contemporary mainstream British poetry is inspiring. Let's hope the judges in 2007 select a few more women, and some work that is a little beyond the linguistic comfort zone - maybe someone (innovative) published by Salt or Reality Street? It's likely next year will feature Maurice Riordan and Daljit Nagra, so, anyway, the Eliots are shaping up to be compelling for the years to come.
Note: the photo is of Paul Farley, one of the short-listed poets.