Tuesday, 12 January 2016

THE TS ELIOT PRIZE: NO CITIZEN OF THE WORLD

First off, one of the best poetry books published in Great Britain in 2015 has, thankfully, just won a major poetry prize - Sarah Howe's brilliant Loop of Jade.

The problem with the TS Eliot Awards is that they seek to be seen as the canonical, major UK poetry award of the year - and the way they are held over two days, with major readings before a gala announcement 24 hours later - is all part of the ceremonial pomp. Of course, they have serious competition from The Forward and Costa prizes.

Two problems arose this year, which have rendered the Eliot awards too transparently flawed.

Firstly, several of the best poetry books of the year (even as recognised by other prizes) were not even on the shortlist and hence not in contention: Small Hands by Mona Arshi, and Physical, by Andrew McMillan. I could list other excellent books missing, but each judging panel is likely to have some eccentricities within reason; more glaringly, it was another year without any genuinely small or indie press books selected.

Secondly, and more seriously, last night's judgement seemed skewed to a limting British perspective.  The final commendation discussed how the winning book was a new way in British poetry (which begs the question, more new than Underwood, or Riviere, not even listed?) - while obviously avoiding the elephant in the room, which is that some of the major poetry books up for consideration were by Australian, Jamaican, and American poets whose work is not really about new ways in British poetry at all, nor is that the basis of the prize.

If the Eliot awards are to be global, in terms of English language, within the terms and limits they set out (published in the UK), then the judging needs to set aside national and parochial critical needs.

Howe's book was probably the second best book on the list, and she makes a most deserving winner. Eyewear BLOG, for instance, selected Loop of Jade as a book of the year 2015 in our summing up.

However, Citizen, by Claudia Rankine, is a genuine masterpiece of American Literature, a monumental and genre-shifting achievement of considerable genius - and it is surely intellectually absurd to set that aside to instead grant the prize to a debut collection, however extraordinary.

The TS Eliot judges last night seem to have erred on the side of national enthusiasms, and wishful thinking, and overlooked their larger role.

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