Season of Poetry Prizes

Daljit Nagra - 12 January 2011

The major prizes in British poetry are currently being awarded. The Forward Prizes were awarded a couple of months ago, the Costa winner was announced last week and the TS Eliot Prize will be awarded in a fortnight. I wonder what you think about prizes in poetry.

Some negatives
Do the same poets always win the big prizes? Should there be a broader inclusion of poetry writing styles in the shortlists?
Should poets be put in competition with each other?
Do prizes value a certain style which is promoted to the public and does this style reaffirm the usual preconceptions about contemporary poetry?

Some positives
Prizes inform the public of the very best poetry around.
Prizes give momentary but much needed exposure to poetry by the winners being announced in the media.
Poets need to be financially rewarded for the originality of their vision.

I'm really interested to hear what you think.

Perhaps we could focus on recent winners, such as Jo Shapcott for her collection Of Mutability, which won the Costa Prize last week, and Seamus Heaney's Human Chain which won the Forward Prize for Best Collection in October.

Or general comments about prizes, or past winners, or comments about any aspect of prize giving in poetry would be interesting to hear.

Comments:

I've just happened on this message board for the first time, and your question seems oddly timely for me, as I had just decided to go in for a few competitions. I think they are rather paradoxical - I agree that they are in general a good and helpful thing for poetry, and give it a higher profile - but at the same time a judge's decision's can only be very subjective. Another judge would probably agree on many of the poems to be eliminated, but I doubt that there would often be agreement on a first prize. If I were a judge I think I would often find it almost impossible to say 'this particular poem is better than all the others'. And when I see the results of some competitions, I'm often mystified as to why a certain poem came out on top. But I'm still going to enter, so... hey-ho.

Yes I agree Chris, competitions do not always provide the astonishingly good poem or collection because so much depends on the consensus achieved by the judges. I have judged a few competitions and I awlays assume my favourite may not. With this in mind, I think it's always worth entering poetry competitions. Good luck!

Winning prizes certainly might give a temporary financial benefit to a writer, but that's about all. I think what's missing from contemporary poetry writing is rigorous criticism - as was present early in the twentieth century with people like I. A. Richards and the dreaded F. R. Leavis. The latter was cold and puritanical in the worst sense of the word, and he shot down a lot of young writers without mercy or sensitivity to their youth, but is that any worse than the current 'anything goes' attitude that is so destructive in its 'nice' manner? I've seen so many terrible half-written poems win prizes that I've no reason to respect anyone's judgement at present! If a poem wins a prize I'm inclined to think it must need re-writing.

Hello Daljit, nice to meet you.
I may only get a placing now and then but competitions make me really critical of the poems I am presenting which is a good discipline for me. Also competitions make me get some poetry outside of my head instead of them accumulating in a folder where I keep tweaking them. Reading who won ( especially in New Zealand circles ) often looks like there are only 15 poets in New Zealand *smile* but maybe one day...
Therefore, yes, I appreciate competitions.

Dear David and Lois
I really appreciate the honesty of your statements. I'm inclined to agree with your slightly different takes on this issue. So David, yes I agree that winning a prize does not mean a poem is now officially worthy of some gold seal, I have heavily edited a poem after it had won a first prize; and whilst the harsh criticism does not seem to be out there I hope at least poets are gaining confidence (by not being ripped apart) and that perhaps through this confidence they will go on to write better poems and develop better self-critical skills...And Lois, yes I agree that the process of selecting a poem for a competition can be a sobering moment that helps you decide if the poem is good enough for a competition. Perhaps these moments of selection can help us create greater urgency about improving our poems for a magazine or for a competition deadline.

Dear David and Lois
I really appreciate the honesty of your statements. I'm inclined to agree with your slightly different takes on this issue. So David, yes I agree that winning a prize does not mean a poem is now officially worthy of some gold seal, I have heavily edited a poem after it had won a first prize; and whilst the harsh criticism does not seem to be out there I hope at least poets are gaining confidence (by not being ripped apart) and that perhaps through this confidence they will go on to write better poems and develop better self-critical skills...And Lois, yes I agree that the process of selecting a poem for a competition can be a sobering moment that helps you decide if the poem is good enough for a competition. Perhaps these moments of selection can help us create greater urgency about improving our poems for a magazine or for a competition deadline.

I enter poetry competitions because I enjoy seeing my poems being picked out by a judge; deeming them worthy of a prize. It's incredibly gratifying.

When it comes to the major prizes, I would like to see more smaller publishers represented and poets experimenting in other areas. Prizes such as the Forward, Costa et al represent current trends in contemporary poetry - the dominance of the lyric form.

Experimental poets are in the minority and have little exposure. When was the last time a concrete poet, for instance, was published by a major poetry publisher?

Finally, I'd like to see more prizes like the Crashaw and Picador Prize. New poets need a helping hand and these are a good way of doing that. If the Faber New Poets scheme is reintroduced, it should be open to everyone, not limited to the recommendations of a few scouts. Eric Gregory Awards, too, are fine if you're under 30 but what if you're 60 and have a knack for poetry?

I have not given much thought to poetry prizes. I mostly read classic poets but I do read some contemporary poetry. I remember reading an interesting article last year about a former heroin addict who was homeless at the time of the writing of the article and was in the running for one of the major poetry prizes. His story reminded me of the poet Francis Thompson. He had mentioned in the article that he was squatting and was sharing with a woman who had many cats. He had mentioned that he had started to write cat poems which amused me in an endearing way (I am a cat lover myself). I also read an article about Jo Shapcott's "Mutability". Someone (possibly the writer of the article) had pondered why illness was not a major category of literature in the same way that love and war is. Actually I believe that it is albeit a small one. Perhaps because it is not something people want to dwell on. For myself as a life-long ill person I read books/watch films/write to escape my suffering. Someone once said to me "Can you recommend well-written books dealing with family problems?" I replied "I read to escape family problems." (Half-joke). Each to their own.

Talking of confidence, I think that many of the smaller competitions are great for encouraging the amateur poet. Having said that, I'm an amateur poet and I've never entered a competition, but there are other reasons for that that have nothing to do with any value judgement. I guess there are scammers out there though, so it's best to take care and use a reputable source when deciding which competitions to enter. As far as the big prizes are concerned, I think that the positives outweigh the negatives, and the media exposure that they generate is valuable, because it garners interest in poetry for people who may otherwise be put off by the stern esotericism of the big brained ones. Poetry nourishes, so why keep it locked away. Recently, I rediscovered Simon Armitage because of an article I read in the papers which highlighted the shortlisted contenders for the TS Elliot prize, and I also enjoyed some of the other stuff I found out about when reading it. I guess one has to be wary of hype, though, and these prizes can become a little too cozy if an eye is not kept on their integrity. Having said that, it was because of the media exposure generated from competition that I heard about and invested in Look We Have Coming To Dover! ! One can make up ones mind and read, and buy, what one wants. The information is out there if you have the time to wade in. Which reminds me, maybe the age of the critic is dead and buried anyway, although I don't personally think so. Criticism is an art, and it can't be left to the masses, otherwise there would be far to much 'spoken word' and not enough poetry...he he. As a breed, the critics certainly need to be kept on their toes though, and the internet is a force for the good in this respect.

There are well over 100 new collections of poetry published each year so we need some way of knwing what to buy. The internet is an excellent way to read very honest reviews, poetry magazines run reviews which focus on the form and content and literary tradition of a collection, and I suppose poetry prizes are another way of being informed about possible books to read.And as Silas Gorin mentioned, prizes can usefully draw your attention to poets such as Simon Armitage who may be inspiring starting points in contemporary poetry...

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