For various reasons, 2016 was not much of a year for reading, or reviewing poetry. So, the experience of reviewing the collections shortlisted for the 2016 T.S. Eliot prize was an intense one: a book a week from October to December.
Rachael Boast’s Void Studies was the first up and this was a poetry collection on the edge. Its language reinscribes words with power in a fabulous dreamscape of memory and desire as it invokes – reincarnates – Arthur Rimbaud. The poems’ relationships with one another are like the facets of a precious stone – individually beautiful but, together, they reflect and refract ideas and sounds into a spectrum of pure colour. This collection was jaw-droppingly inspiring and a great start to my ten weeks of reading.
Next up was Vahni Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation. As I wrote for the T.S. Eliot Foundation newsletter, this collection opens with an epigraph from the Old English poem, ‘The Seafarer’, (‘Blessed is he who lives humbly’) and ‘helps us to measure language and ideas against a thousand years of invasion, immigration and imperialism’. With a resurgence of nationalism, protectionism, introversion and a general fear of the other, Capildeo’s poetry feels important and timely.
Wit, wisdom and social engagement flow from Ian Duhig‘s Twitter account – @IanDuhig. Take this recent Tweet: ‘The Importance of Being Earnest.docx. A play on Word’. His nominated collection, The Blind Roadmaker, is filled with his trademark wit and his sheer joy in language. However, it also engages with social justice and historical revisionism through figures like Blind Jack Metcalf, a Renaissance Man of the late 1700s / early 1800s. As I wrote for the T.S. Eliot Foundation, ‘Duhig validates his subjects through cross-cultural comparisons, describing Metcalf as ‘our Daedalus of roads”. If culture is our collective memory, then Duhig’s collection is a political act: inviting society to remember a different set of figures and to spend a little less time revering the cold bronze imperialists typically memorialised by the nation. Duhig invites a humbler, more humane memory of ourselves.
J.O. Morgan’s Interference Pattern was a revelation. As I explained in my T.S. Eliot Foundation piece, the collection ‘offers vivid physical experience, offset by oblique, figurative responses’. The collection sets quasi-Homeric similes against a set of dramatic monologues – it sets the physical against the transcendental and watches as the sparks fly. Like Boast’s, Morgan’s poems gain mass and gravitas from the others around them and this book adds up to more than a poetry collection – it’s a single entity… a work of art.
I’ve been reading Bernard O’Donoghue my entire adult life. At uni, the rest of my year group wisely decided to take a course with him… and fell in love in an afternoon. He’s a generous optimist, once putting his hand in his pocket to help a friend of mine to launch a literary magazine that lasted 2 issues. Like Duhig, O’Donoghue tends the flame of a more humane humanity. In The Seasons of Cullen Church there’s no ‘project’ like Morgan’s or Boast’s, but there’s a mastery of craft like no other.
Alice Oswald’s Dart reinvigorated my faith and excitement in contemporary poetry and Falling Awake, winner of the Costa Poetry Award, is yet another superb collection from an exciting poet. The stand out poem is ‘Tithonius’. A graduated line – time? – threads through its backbone and it retains Dart’s distinctive sense of journey through landscape and time. Oswald’s deep engagement with Classical literature helps her to convey timelessness through the perpetual repetition of actions as the planet spins through space.
In Jackself, Jacob Polley creates an eponymous, quasi-mythic character and mythologises his native Cumbria. His title is wrested from one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s terrible sonnets of spiritual and existential crisis (‘My Own Heart’) and, combined with an epigram from the anonymous ‘Tom o’Bedlam’, promises a deep engagement with folktales as it wanders through a midnight world.
If Polley’s intimate engagement with landscape reminded me of Thomas Hardy, Denise Riley’s haunted Say Something Back reminded me of Hardy’s Poems 1912 – 13, his haunted, passionate response to the death of his first wife, Emma Gifford. Riley’s speaker seeks consolation in poetry: ‘I can’t get sold on reincarnating you / As those bloody ‘gentle showers of rain” – mocking the poeticisms of the past like a twenty-first century Ezra Pound – ‘oooh / Anodyne’. The collection’s engagement with grief in a godless world is stark, uncomfortable and authentic. Wordsworth, eat your heart out as ‘Peanuts in caramelised burnt chocolate bake / Through syrupy air’ underneath Riley’s Westminster Bridge.
Ruby Robinson‘s Every Little Sound opens with a summary of the concept of ‘internal gain’: ‘an internal volume control which helps to amplify and focus upon quiet sounds in times of threat, danger, or intense concentration’. The result is a set of hyperreal observations, transcending the everyday and unlocking its latent Gothic menace.
Finally, Katharine Towers‘ The Remedies is unlike the other shortlisted collections: there’s a purity, a gentleness, a stillness which serves as a foil for the political and social engagement in some of the others. However, perhaps there is a form of social engagement here – stillness and silence are premium products, luxuries, in a world overloaded with the white noise of information and demands for action. Towers offers us a salve. Simplicity and beauty are endowed with the power of an essential oil in this collection.
And who will win? The teacher in me would ask to see the assessment criteria before venturing an opinion. Ben Wilkinson makes an impassioned case for Ian Duhig. Boast, Morgan and Oswald create sublime edifices of language and this quality, I feel, chimes with the ambition in form exemplified by Eliot in The Waste Land. At an emotional level, J.O. Morgan’s Interference Pattern actually had me gasping as I read it, so, I suppose I’ll be rooting for him tomorrow as this embarrassment of riches is arbitrarily judged.
Now bag some book goodies:
- Rachael Boast, Void Studies, Picador
- Vahni Capildeo, Measures of Expatriation, Carcanet
- Ian Duhig, The Blind Roadmaker, Picador
- J.O. Morgan, Interference Pattern, Cape Poetry
- Bernard O’Donoghue, The Seasons of Cullen Church, Faber
- Alice Oswald, Falling Awake, Cape Poetry
- Jacob Polley, Jackself, Picador
- Denise Riley, Say Something Back, Picador
- Ruby Robinson, Every Little Sound, Liverpool University Press
- Katharine Towers, The Remedies, Picador