It was announced on Monday that Carol Ann Duffy is the winner of this year’s T.S. Eliot Prize with her collection Rapture (Picador). The judges this time round were David Constantine, Kate Clanchy and Jane Draycott.
Speaking at the Award Ceremony in London, David Constantine, Chair of the Judges Panel, said:
‘Poetry matters, and this generous prize is a sign of that. Why does it matter? Because it is an intrinsic answering-back against the bad language all around. The medium of poetry is words, and words are in currency all around for all manner of purposes not in the least poetic. Indeed for several purposes which poetry must body and soul implacably oppose. It is against lying, against evasion and shoddiness of speech. Against all the ways of speaking and writing which reduce our humanity, narrow our sympathies, wither our ability to think and feel. Against all the forces of cretinization. Poetry is an intrinsic fight-back against all that. These writers – intelligent, passionate, witty, inventive – prove it: poetry will help us into what Lawrence called ‘a new effort of attention’. And it hardly needs saying that without that effort, without continual new efforts of attention, we shall drift into some final showdown engineered by people whose speech and sensibilities are, to put it mildly, lacking in nuance.’
I think there are some fascinating remarks in David Constantine’s speech, both above and in other parts of his address which I have not reproduced here but which can be found in full at the PBS site. What, for instance, does Constantine mean by ‘bad language’? Does he mean a poor use of English, an incorrect use of English by both English and non-English speakers, or does he mean using swear words, abusive language? A facetious question, perhaps, but it does strike me as odd that somebody complaining about the inexactitudes of contemporary speech should do so in language that is itself inexact and open to question. I agree though with the gist of his argument, that poetry is a ‘fight-back’ against the constant and inevitable slippage of language, that it can be used to shore up the ruins, as T.S. Eliot puts it in The Waste Land. Long may that fight continue.
But prizes like these, whilst celebrating the importance of some poetry, must always do so at the expense of other poetry. Following on from Neil Astley’s now infamous 'Stanza' lecture and other public remarks he has made on the imbalances within the contemporary poetry scene, it may be worth noting that only one collection on this list was published by Bloodaxe. With one Carcanet and two Seren titles also on the shortlist, it may be over-zealous to point to a continuing north-south divide. Yet the overall bias within the mainstream is still towards London-based publishers and, though I could be mistaken about this, southern-based poets. Of the avant-garde there is little evidence at all.
The T S Eliot Prize 2005 shortlist was:
Take Me with You
Carol Ann Duffy
The State of the Prisons
The Movement of Bodies
Stolen Love Behaviour
We Were Pedestrians
If you’re a member of the Poetry Book Society, you can buy any - or all! - of these poetry collections at a 25% discount.To find out more about the PBS, click here to visit the Poetry Book Society website.