Prizes for poets

Jean Sprackland - 4 October 2009

Hello and welcome! I'll be here throughout this term, blogging about some of the things I'm doing between now and Christmas. The coming week is dominated by the Forward Poetry Prizes, which will be announced this Wednesday evening.

Forward Prize night is one of a handful of occasions when poetry gets a little bit of the limelight - it doesn't have the profile of the Turner Prize or the Man Booker Award, but it does raise poetry's visibility for a few days. This year I'm on the judging panel, along with Josephine Hart, Tishani Doshi, David Harsent and Nicholas Wroe. The five of us will be spending Tuesday locked in a room at Forward's offices in London until we arrive at a decision in each of the three categories: Best Collection, Best First Collection and Best Single Poem.

Judging a book prize is a mixed blessing. It's an honour to be asked, of course. And there are all those juicy new books to read. On the other hand... well, there are all those juicy new books to read. Hundreds of them. They arrived in instalments throughout the summer - boxes heaved out of the van and up the path by an increasingly taciturn delivery man. Finding space for them in my tiny office was just the start. They were all going to have to be read.

Poetry is by nature so dense and complex, you simply can't read very much of it in one sitting. It's a slow-burn experience, taking its time to release meaning in the way a cake in the oven takes time to release its delicious aroma. Some of the books were never going to make it to that stage , but when one did catch my attention I found I had to read slowly, returning again and again, letting it work on me gradually. It just wasn't something I could rush.

There are plenty of worse ways to let a summer slip by. There were delights in that reading - the surprise of discovering a new poet, or of finding an old favourite saying something new. There were moments of revelation and recognition. If I'd been feeling rather jaded, it reconnected me with the pleasure of reading.

By getting involved in making a judgement, you stick your head above the parapet and invite the rest of the poetry world to take shots at you. It doesn't matter how seriously we take the job, how long we agonise or how strenuously we point out that there are many more good books than places on the shortlist - some people will not be pleased with the result.

Then there are those who disapprove of the whole business of poetry prizes. It's true that pitting one book against another can feel artificial, a bit like comparing animals to oranges (to quote the great Arto Lindsay). Furthermore, in a world where finding a publisher for your work is like passing a camel through the eye of a needle, do we really need yet another element of competition?

It's a fair question. Still, the effect of having one of your books shortlisted for an award can make a dramatic difference to your writing life. It raises the profile of the work, and in an environment in which many poetry books sell fewer than 500 copies the extra attention can bring vital new readers. It can boost confidence too, encouraging poets early in their careers to experiment and take risks in their future writing. As a way of identifying "the best new books", prizes for poets are far from perfect... but as a way of highlighting exciting new work and celebrating the state poetry is in, it works. So here's to Wednesday, and a chance to celebrate.


I'm suprised there's nothing in the papers today about the Forward prize, and I haven't heard anything on the radio either, forget about TV! Lets be honest, the only time poetry gets a mention is when there is a scandal or a row, then the media seems excited to discover poets with human faults and vices. The rest of the time they don't know how to portray us so they steer clear! Don't you agree this is depressing? Is it a particularly British thing and what can be done to bring poetry into the cultural mainstream?

I loved the sense of what it is like to be a judge on on of these competitions, Jean. Were you pleased with the outcome? What sort of reception did the announcement of the prize winners get?

I was amused that you found reading the books a mixed blessing you know the Church has produced its fair share of poets over the years, and I wondered whether you thought that some of those, Gerard Manley Hopkins for example, would have won the equivalent of the Forward Prize in their day? Or were their interests too spiritual for a secular world?

Couldn't help noticing that two of the winners were from north of the border and have now made a clean sweep of all three Forward prizes. They must be doing something right. Is there something at work here which reflects a particular Scottish approach to poetry?
Also, how difficult or easy does it make it for you as a judge to know the competitors' identity and background?

Thanks, Napper and Palegin. The awards night has come and gone, and the modest flurry of media interest has subsided. It's hard for me to judge the popularity of our choices, but the winners were warmly received on the night and I think there's a general acknowledgement that they won through in an especially strong field this year. Of course, you can never please everyone, and no doubt there are those who would take issue with the result, particularly as the two book awards were won by Faber publications. There can sometimes be a feeling that the prizes should be more evenly spread out, but any attempt to do this would be distorting and unfair. All I can say is that we agreed to put other considerations aside and arrive at our decisions based only on the books in front of us. In a sense you have to try and be 'blind' to other factors. Palegin, you're right that Don Paterson and Robin Robertson are both from north of the border. Scottish poetry has been very vigorous in recent years - other poets who spring to mind include Kathleen Jamie, Jackie Kay, Edwin Morgan, John Burnside. You can listen to all of them here in the Archive. I don't see how we can put success down to a 'particular Scottish approach', exactly... but perhaps there is a mix of poetic tradition and heritage, and a distinctive way of thinking about language. It's noticeable, too, that many Scots poets write extensively about their landscape, which makes me wonder whether there could be something about certain kinds of environment which tends to feed poetry? It's a fascinating question: why do some nations produce more poets than others?

Father Frost, your question has got me thinking. Gerard Manley Hopkins almost certainly would not have won a 19th century version of the Forward Prize, not because of the spiritual dimension of his poetry, but because very little attention was paid to his work during his lifetime - his reputation grew only after his death. When we celebrate the work of contemporary poets, we're in a poor position to judge whether it will be highly valued, or even remembered, in fifty or a hundred years' time. A quick glance at any old anthology will confirm that some names have survived and others sunk without trace. However, plenty of contemporary poetry concerns itself with religion and spirituality - highly acclaimed poets such as Michael Symmons Roberts, Fiona Sampson and Les Murray are obvious examples, available to listen to here in the Poetry Archive - which suggests that perhaps the world we live in is not so very secular after all?

who is your favourite poet?

do you enjoy your job

Hello, Booker Avenue. Yes, I love writing, and I feel very lucky to have something I enjoy so much and find so absorbing. It's far more important than earning lots of money, as far as I'm concerned - it brings a genuine richness to my life. I've always loved reading poetry too, though it's not easy to choose a favourite poet. I don't think I'm good at picking favourites - I find it difficult enough to say what my favourite kind of chocolate is! Just a few of the poets I most admire are Ted Hughes, Charles Causley, Carol Ann Duffy and Theodore Roethke. When I was a child, one of the first poems I fell in love with was called Moonlit Apples, by John Drinkwater. It has a very special atmosphere of beauty and silence that affects me deeply, all these years later. Have you got a favourite poet or poem?

Thanks Jean, it was really insightful to read a little about the judging process of something like the Forward Prize. It's really interesting too, this idea about how certain countries or places engender lots of poetry, maybe it's a combination of a culture that values it's traditions of the spoken word/songs/lore and a landscape that is somehow inseparable from that language.


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Glossary term


A character taken on by a poet to speak in a first-person poem.

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