Good to see that Northern Irish poet and novelist Nick Laird has won the 2008 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize for his second collection of poems, On Purpose, published by Faber in 2007.
The award - given alternately each year to a work of prose or verse - was judged by poets Jo Shapcott and Michael Longley, and Sam Leith, literary editor of the Daily Telegraph.
It puts Laird on a distinguished list of previous winners, including Seamus Heaney, Hugo Williams, Geoffrey Hill, Tony Harrison, Don Paterson and Michael Hofmann.
Having enjoyed and reviewed the collection for the Winter 2007/08 edition of Irish literary journal The Stinging Fly, I recommend it to readers unfamiliar with Laird's work, as well as his first collection, To a Fault. Here's an excerpt from my review of On Purpose:
What is most impressive about On Purpose, however, is Laird’s charting of the loose and difficult territory of the existential crisis between our desire to control our lives and act with certainty and conviction, as set against the possibilities and inherent unpredictability of the world we actually encounter. As Don Paterson rightly urged in his T.S. Eliot lecture in 2003: ‘It’s important that poets remember that our first perception of the world is already a misinterpretation’ (though one, it must be noted, that is no less valuable than every other). Laird often succeeds within these poems, then, in exploring that which is – both personally and universally – so often beyond our grasp and understanding, be it in the narrator’s failure to describe a beautiful vista in ‘Use of Spies’, the attempt to break habits of a lifetime and escape blinkered perspectives in ‘Variation in Tactics’, or the dedicated hunter’s speculation and failing faith in some higher power in the sombre tones of ‘Hunting is a Holy Occupation’. Laird’s poetic voice has gained an added maturity and distinctiveness since his first collection, too; gone is the unconvincing ‘newladspeak’ that knocked the shine off some of his earlier work, honed into a style that allows for poems of greater brevity, rhythmical execution, and despite a deliberate variance in seriousness of tone, real feeling. Like Armitage, he is an impressive and distinctly male writer of love poems: the expression of masculine emotion and its awkwardness measured and balanced with an economy of sentiment, as in the narrator’s stating ‘Love, I’d turn for you clean-living, / relinquish drinking, fighting, singing’ in ‘The Present Writer’. And the more I read those poems of Laird’s that explore the rural and urban landscapes of Ireland, Britain, and beyond, the more I think it not an overstatement to compare his rich descriptive powers, during their finer moments, to Heaney’s. Take the following glittering stanzas from ‘On Leaving the Scene of an Accident’:
In the eastern suburbs deer appear.
Brushed by waist-high silver steppe grass
and the lighter strokes of barley stalks,
elegant as one might half-expect
the grazing self to be, except her grace
is one complicit in departure.
For those interested, the Guardian coverage is here.