The Forward Prizes 2011

The Forward Prizes, now in their twentieth year, are usually the source of much discussion and contention in poetry circles; or at least, the shortlists are. Will the main prize, for best collection of the year, exclusively round up the usual heavyweight suspects, or will it count a couple of unexpected books from lesser-known poets in its ranks? Will it be a commercial press shoo-in, or feature collections put out by hardworking smaller presses? Will the categories of best first collection and best poem introduce 'the next big thing'?

Looking at this year's lists, anyone inclined to grumble about the usual main prize shortlist almost always consisting of established, white, predominantly male voices won't be acting unreasonably; in this year's shortlist of Burnside, Harsent, Hill, Longley, Nurkse & O'Brien, we even have one populated entirely by blokes. Sarah Crown raises some interesting points about that here; doubtless this year's judges (three women & two men) acted in good faith, looking for (and, from those I've read, I'd say finding) the best collections regardless of their author's gender, but that can't explain away the fact that in the twenty year history of the prize, only three women have won in the Best Collection category. After all, if year on year judges are guided solely by the criteria of what they view to be the best poetry, and given that as many, if not more, women as men write the stuff seriously, probability would suggest that we really shouldn't end up with a distorted long-term outcome like that. Should we?

Pleasantly, at least, the Best First Collection category has seen this year's judges (Andrew Motion as chair, joined by Fiona Sampson, poet and teacher Leonie Rushforth, author Lady Antonia Fraser and journalist Sameer Rahim) ending up with a shortlist that represents a more diverse bunch, with collections from publishers Carcanet, CB Editions, Picador, Bloodaxe & two from Seren. I haven't read all of these, and hadn't heard of Nancy Gaffield's Tokaido Road until I saw the shortlist, but from those I have, it seems like a strong and fairly diverse grouping. Both Rachael Boast's Sidereal and John Whale's Waterloo Teeth are excellent debuts; smart, assured, distinctive and memorable. If you were to buy just one book from the shortlist, I'd strongly recommend either, though Boast's in particular - a sampler poem can be found on the Guardian website.

As to the Best Single Poem category, only four shortlistees this year, and all established poets, so no promise of bringing a new talent to a wider audience as the 2004 prize did, going to what would become the title poem of Daljit Nagra's bestselling first volume, Look We Have Coming to Dover. But then it's only the absolute quality of the poem that does and should matter here, and Alan Jenkin's "Southern Rail (The Four Students)" is a masterful, moving, devastating and wholly incisive poem that fully deserves to take the prize I think.

The three shortlists are as follows - my money's on Geoffrey Hill, Ahren Warner, & Alan Jenkins - and the winners will be announced, as ever, at a ceremony in London on the eve of National Poetry Day in October.

The Forward Prize for Best Collection

£10,000 – sponsored by the Forward Arts Foundation

John Burnside, Black Cat Bone (Jonathan Cape)
David Harsent, Night (Faber & Faber)
Geoffrey Hill, Clavics (Enitharmon)
Michael Longley, A Hundred Doors (Jonathan Cape)
D Nurkse, Voices Over Water (CB Editions)
Sean O’Brien, November (Picador Poetry)

The Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection

£5,000 – sponsored by Felix Dennis and the Forward Arts Foundation

Rachael Boast, Sidereal (Picador Poetry)
Judy Brown, Loudness (Seren)
Nancy Gaffield, Tokaido Road (CB Editions)
Ahren Warner, Confer (Bloodaxe)
John Whale, Waterloo Teeth (Carcanet)
Nerys Williams, Sound Archive (Seren)

The Forward Prize for Best Single Poem (in memory of Michael Donaghy)

£1,000 – sponsored by the Forward Arts Foundation

R. F. Langley, "To a Nightingale" (first published in London Review of Books)
Alan Jenkins, "Southern Rail (The Four Students)" (Poetry Review)
Sharon Olds "Song the Breasts Sing to the Late-in-Life Boyfriend" (Poetry London)
Jo Shapcott "Bees" (Poetry Review)


The New Political Poetry?

The recent ruckus at the UK’s Poetry Society has so far seen plenty of finger-pointing, gun-jumping, side-taking (but which sides? and who’s on them?), as yet unsubstantiated rumours of some supposedly shady goings-on, high profile resignations, and a(nother) quite funny rehash of one particularly reiterable scene from epic war film Downfall. Business as usual in poetry-biz-land, then.

Something that’s also been bandied about is the idea that the Poetry Society would be better off doing away with Poetry Review. Of course, I would never suggest that many, indeed most of the more fervent supporters of this idea are of an ilk that reacts very, very badly to repeat rejection slips. But I will say that one of the main, if not the reason I continue to be a paid-up member of the Society is to get my quarterly subscription to what has always been a thoughtful, provocative, entertaining, infuriating, but above all engaging magazine.

Yeah right, Ben, you would say that – you’ve got a poem in the latest issue! Ah yes, so I have. Well, shoot me down. Tell me it’s exactly the same as every poem that Poetry Review has ever published; bourgeois, nice & safe, formal pillar of mediocrity that it is. Then send me a copy of a real magazine, with avant-garde stuff that boggles the mind in its self-reflexive boundary-pushing, i.e. its brave disregard for not only sense and musicality, but also for the reader, who’s fast giving up on trying to wrestle something, anything from the brave new spattered word-shrapnel. Amen.

Now the cutting edge trend-vaulters have gone (or as ever, are one step ahead on the road to nowhere, scrolling down to the comments box) and I’ve stopped madly addressing myself, let me tell you that, truly, there’s some great stuff in the latest PR. New poems from Jamie McKendrick, Philip Gross, Daljit Nagra, Adam Thorpe; fascinating political letters to Crane, Milton and Shelley from John Burnside, Gwyneth Lewis and Neil Rollinson; reviews of Duhig, Cope, McDonald and others, including a round-up of debutants. The series of poems by David Harsent for the World Wildlife Fund, commissioned to accompany photographs as part of the ecological campaign Fragile Beauty, are especially compelling in their subtle, dark, questing arguments, as is the Centrefold perspective on Harsent’s work to date by poet-critic Sean O’Brien. Well worth a read.

And before I nip off to sort a nightcap, here’s a link to Dan Wyke’s blog, who kindly asked if he could feature my stab at translating Eugenio Montale’s “Il Balcone”. Needless to say I can’t speak Italian (back when I wrote the piece I worked from a mixture of literal translations and existing versions to first get a feel for the poem, before attempting to make my own), so I’m chuffed to have the poem praised by someone who can, and who’s also a talented poet in his own right. Check out his debut, Waiting for the Sky to Fall, to see what I mean.