The Commonwealth: A Common Culture?

By Richard Maltby; Peter Quartermaine | Go to book overview

5: ALASTAIR NIVEN
The Commonwealth Poetry Prize

With its high-sounding name and prestigious backing, it is surprising that the Commonwealth Poetry Prize is not better known. It has been awarded every year since 1972, except once when the judges unanimously decided to withhold the Prize rather than to debase it by giving it to an undeserving entrant. In this time it has rarely been used to honour writers already well-known for their literary achievements. Indeed, until 1985 when the rules were changed, it was only possible for first-time authors to win – those who had not previously had a whole collection of poetry published. The change of rules has allowed veterans such as Lauris Edmond, Michael Longley and George Barker to be in contention for the award. There remains, however, every inducement for the poet who is little known outside his or her country to be seriously considered. The Commonwealth Poetry Prize has always allowed its judges to go on a voyage of discovery through both charted and uncharted waters. Of all the literary prizes with which I have had something to do, it offers the most adventurous possibilities.

The simple rules of the Prize until 1985 meant that a single overall winner was being sought. There was thus great excitement in the homeland of the winning poet when the result was announced, but inevitably little attention elsewhere. The Commonwealth spirit is not yet so generous that the people of Accra and Sydney are going to be wild with excitement at the success of a writer from Kingston or New Delhi. Under the new arrangements, however, poets are nominated on a regional basis for books they have had published in the previous year. There is thus a winner for Africa, the Americas (Canada and the Caribbean), Asia, Australasia/Pacific, and United Kingdom/Europe. From these five area winners is selected an overall winner as well as a winner for the best first book of poems. There is no reason why the overall winner of the Prize should not also be a newly published poet, but in practice it is more likely that it will now be a well-established writer. For this reason it is good that the capacity to recognise newly

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