Poetry speed dating at the T. S. Eliot Prize shortlist reading

Peter Chappell

Peter Chappell rounds up an evening of poetry from those in the running to win one of the UK’s most coveted awards

14 January 2019 10:56

‘I would rather watch paint dry!’ So said Ian McMillan’s taxi driver as he ferried the poet to his hosting gig at the Royal Festival Hall yesterday evening. The esoteric world of contemporary poetry has only a few nights out a year, and this is one – the T. S. Eliot Prize, given annually to the best collection published in the previous year, is the most coveted award for poetry in the UK. The winner of the £25,000 prize will be announced today, but the Shortlist Readings are held, as tradition determines, the night before. It feels, at times, like poetry speed dating. Each shortlisted poet gets eight minutes to give the audience a taste of their work. 


About 2,000 people attend the readings – and they really are attentive. There are often tense moments in between poems, during which the audience quietly mulls over what they’ve just heard. Phrases will be left ringing around the room as poets close their books.


But it’s not all earnest silence. The tension is perfect for dispelling with humour, which McMillan and the poet Nick Laird did wonderfully. I was reminded of what the critic Peter Bradshaw once said about films: if one can provoke laughter, no matter how bad it is, even if its themes are serious or sad, then the viewer can’t help but be charmed. So with poems: the room fizzed with what comedians look for, a tautness begging to be tickled and made to giggle.


Richard Scott, who took to the stage with cheers from fans in the audience, did his best to exploit the humour: his collection, Soho, burst with queer lust and love, and Scott thanked the audience for delighting in his, to use the poet’s own words, ‘willy poems’.

It feels, at times, like poetry speed dating.

Scott described growing up in the Nineties under Section 28, a horrible piece of legislation that banned the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality by local authorities, leading to the censorship of books with homosexual themes in schools and libraries. In ‘Public Library 1998’, his speaker forages for erased queer truths, and finds them nestled ‘like a mushroom in moss’. It’s an image with the ring of the fairy tale about it, a touch of fantasy and fecundity.


Scott’s poetry illustrates how a reader under censorship has to delve deeper to find the subversive. His reading at the T. S. Eliot Prize began with its head in books, and ended set free by a muse, Soho. Soho is ‘my haven, my bunkermy West Central Bank,’ says the speaker, dedicating his speech to a village of gay bars whose queer history remains tangible. 


But, nowadays, nothing can avoid Trump and Brexit for too long. Many poems seethed with the rage of the political dissident, or trembled with the worry of a parent considering the world they will leave to their children. Tracy K. Smith, the incumbent Poet Laureate of the United States, gave a coolly intelligent reading of her collection Wade in the Water, interrupted by a resigned sigh from the audience as she read the title of her poem ‘The United States Welcomes You’. Smith’s collection touches on issues of forced migration in the US, bringing the voices and experiences of slaves into the contemporary context of border security.


Sean O’Brien’s reading from his collection Europa, following Smith’s, was characteristically wry and timely. At start of a week in which the UK Parliament will make serious decisions about the nature of our country’s departure from the European Union, O’Brien’s collection affirms our collective heritage; a place where common dreams, visions and nightmares recur and mutate.

Many poems seethed with the rage of the political dissident, or trembled with the worry of a parent considering the world they will leave to their children.

The various poets’ individual stage personas made for interesting comparisons throughout the evening. Some were diffident and nervous (poets are maybe not meant for an audience so large); some were witty (Nick Laird, husband of Zadie Smith, particularly); others had a wise authority. O’Brien was one of these, looking like G.K. Chesterton if you squinted. A professor in Newcastle, with a booming northern accent, he seemed the very opposite of the caricature of the moaning Remainer; his poetry a gruff rebuff to Brexit fantasies. 


‘I have never heard someone so incredulous with rage,’ observes Hannah Sullivan’s speaker, who lies on a hospital bed having given birth moments earlier. ‘Who wants to be born?’, she wonders, ‘in a windowless room / Somewhere near Paddington to Radio 5 Live.’ Three Poems is about the birth of this child and the death of a father.


As it happens, the theme of parental death ran throughout the evening: Sullivan’s family gather around her father like ‘little wimpled Puritans with tissues at the sick bed’; Nick Laird dedicated his final poem to his father, with whom he had grieved the loss of his mother this year; and Zaffar Kunial, in his collection Us, bids goodbye to his mother on a ‘Hereford hospital bed’. Many of the poets described helplessness in response to parental death, and the fear of being alone, deserted by a figure of once huge authority.


This theme may have been a coincidence, but you couldn’t help but read political connotations into it. Is it any wonder that Hannah Sullivan’s baby screams with ‘incredulous rage’ at its parents? Or that the final line of Zaffar Kunial’s ‘Prayer’ was so deeply felt by the audience? ‘I won’t know if she heard.’