Poetry Corner: The Big Poetry Prizes, Embittered Critics Claim, Are Judged by a Cabal of Sinister Academics Determined to Scare Away Readers. Not So, Writes T S Eliot Prize Judge Sean O'Brien
O'Brien, Sean, New Statesman (1996)
As with the Booker for fiction, it often seems that, to the media, annual poetry prizes have become the raison d'etre of poetry publishing, rather than a means of drawing attention to poetry itself. The combination of bile and fantasy they attract certainly suggests as much. The [pounds sterling]10,000 T S Eliot prize, it was suggested last year, was decided by a typical bunch of self-interested insiders--a rather unlikely description of the judges, the poets David Constantine, Kate Clanchy and Jane Draycott.
There may be more of the same this year, both from embittered press commentators and from irredentist cyberpoets of the avant-garde "backslash/ampersand" tendency, seething in their fastnesses in Scunthorpe, Bloxwich and beyond. Having been asked to serve as chair of the judges for this year's T S Eliot prize, I thought it might be helpful to describe what actually takes place. It may be disappointing to learn that the judges don't sit around in extensive subterranean headquarters, stroking white cats and opening trapdoors to feed their opponents to the piranhas. So what do we really do? In my case, I read 80-odd books and discussed them with Sophie Hannah, poet and novelist, and Gwyneth Lewis, the first Welsh national poet. The process is long and difficult, and not even a poet would call it lucrative.
Individual reward aside, what is the point of poetry prizes? By celebrating outstanding books, they affirm the continuing place of poetry in our cultural life. But what is that place? Let's be realistic. The American poet Dana Gioia memorably described the present-day position of poets as resembling "priests in a town of agnostics". Most people don't know what to do with poetry, but are unwilling simply to abandon it. By "people", I mean educated regular readers--those who read novels, biographies, history and even literary criticism. But faced with a collection of poetry, they feel uniquely powerless, and this is a horrible insult to their evident literacy. How are they supposed to read poetry? Unsurprisingly, this often turns out to be poetry's fault.
Much of the problem lies in how readers are introduced to poetry. At school or university, teachers are often uneasy in dealing with a subject they themselves may not have been taught well. In the press, while the better newspapers make an effort to cover poetry, there's never enough space. Poetry is most often reviewed in batches, taking up less room than a first novel or a biography. The reason for this may, again, be editorial unease, but is mostly economic: consider the sources of advertising revenue. Poetry does, of course, receive coverage when there's a scandal--Larkin's letters, the agonies of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Betjeman's infidelities--but this directs the reader to biography rather than the work itself. The life is more available, and raunchier, than the art.
Then there is the difficulty of getting hold of the stuff in the first place. The active, inquiring reader is an awkward customer. You're a reader of poetry: where would you go to buy it? Water-stone's or Amazon? That the answer is probably Amazon means there's progressively less choice for the new reader browsing for clues in the bookshop. Libraries, meanwhile, have patchy collections, often driven by short-term schemes.
You could, and in fact should, join the Poetry Book Society. But other solutions have been offered. They usually involve making poetry seem easier and more accessible, shifting it from its economic half-world towards the commodity status of the novel. The results can be seen in the numerous pastel-coloured anthologies displayed in W H Smith and Waterstone's. There is a striking coincidence there between "accessibility" and a loosely defined air of spiritual uplift not a million miles from the wisdom of Patience Strong. Worse, there is also a determination to steer the reader safely away from the potentially alarming fact that poetry is made of language. …