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Tuesday, 16 March 2010

New Work in Poetry, or Old Hat?

When it was announced last year that Carol Ann Duffy would be using some or all of her laureate money to create a new prize - The Ted Hughes Prize for New Work in Poetry - it seemed an Obama-like moment of real change was in the air. A year later, Obama is just a politician mired in gridlock, and, well this prize is about as new as a Waste Land gramophone. The shortlist - far from introducing Britain to new, innovative poets, perhaps working with multimedia, digital, or other new forms of technology and arts fusions - is fustian, or generally conservative, and almost totally mainstream - bordering on establishment.

Several of the nominated "works" are simply books of poems, however worthy, such as Andrew Motion's rather poorly-received latest. Then again, there is the Collected Poems of Dannie Abse - a great poet, but the opposite of new - will this prize become mired in the latest career-defining final summing ups? Abse deserved the Queen's Gold Medal, not this. Farley's Field Recordings is welcome here, because it does span different media, such as radio, but then again covers a decade of work. Oswald's lovely book of poems (already nominated for the Eliot last year) combined drawings and verse - brilliantly, but in a form which is centuries old. And Duffy's old friend, Jackie Kay, seems to be the only poet to be listed whose work is both new and appears in a different form or on a different platform (though then again hardly ground-breaking - it is poetry for the stage).

In Canada and elsewhere, such prizes generate interest in, and advancement of, very innovative works, that expand the definition of what poetry is - works that combine music, architecture, dance, film, and other new media. This prize needs to become very 2011, fast, or next year may seem like 1911. It seems for now, the only thing the judges think "new" means is, is "recent".
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