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Mercury Players

The Mercury Prize, 19 years old, has had a mixed past.  It's chosen duds, and brilliant albums.  What it has done is select the 12 "best" albums of popular music each year, made in Ireland or Britain, from an eclectic genre-list, of avant-jazz to hip hop to nu-folk, and all stops in between.  Famously, PJ Harvey, who won again last night, making her the Don Paterson of the music world, first won exactly a decade ago, on September 11th.  That time, the album was Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, her finest work, until Let England Shake appeared earlier this year.  It is, as I have written earlier at Eyewear, an album for the ages, one crafted with the sort of literary intelligence we normally associate with poets.  Speaking of Englishness in the context of war and empire, it could not have come at a more apt moment, and to win on the eve of the first decade of 9/11 is an unusually satisfying cultural moment of deserved recognition.  Harvey, who spoke live on TV last night to accept her award, appears to be very intelligent, lucid, dedicated - a genuine artist.  She made me proud for the British music scene, often portrayed as loutish, drug-addled, and vain.  We need more Harveys.  It only remains to be said that Katy B would have also made a great choice, but her album, brilliant as it is, lacked the cohesive moral and aesthetic vision of the winner.


Ben Wilkinson said…
Todd, I agree it was good to see PJ Harvey take the Mercury for Let England Shake - an engaging, intelligent album. No real surprise though. On a poor shortlist with a paucity of memorable records, who else could have seriously taken it? You suggest Katy B, but I find little to admire in her brand of generic pop that has bewilderingly been greeted as innovative dubstep. The only album that stood a chance against Harvey's was Elbow's Build A Rocket Boys!, but accomplished and original as it is, it doesn't seem enough of a departure from their 2008 winner, The Seldom Seen Kid. So yeah, a good choice, I reckon - a repeat of 2009 would have done the prize no favours at all.

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With the death of the poetic genius John Ashbery, whose poems, translations, and criticism made him, to my mind, the most influential American poet since TS Eliot, 21st century poetry is moving into less certain territory.

Over the past few years, we have lost most of the truly great of our era: Edwin Morgan, Gunn, Hill, Heaney and Walcott, to name just five.  There are many more, of course. This is news too sad and deep to fathom this week.  I will write more perhaps later. 

I had a letter from Ashbery on my wall, and it inspired me daily.  He gave me advice for my PhD. He said kind things about a poetry book of mine.

He was a force for good serious play in poetry, and his appeal great. So many people I know and admire are at a loss this week because of his death. It is no consolation at present to think of the many thousands of living poets, just right now. But impressively, and even oddly, poetry itself seems to keep flowing.