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The Best Poetry of 2023 - T.S. Eliot Prize Readings Review

Video by T.S. Eliot Prize on YouTube

The T. S. Eliot Prize is an annual award bestowed on the author of the best – well, according to three judges – poetry collection published in Ireland and the UK. The prize was set up in 1993 as a celebration of the Poetry Book Society’s 40th birthday and to honour its founding poet, Mr Eliot himself. Since 2016, it has been run by the T.S. Eliot Foundation. Last year the prize was dedicated to the collection Sonnets for Albert, by Anthony Joseph, who currently teaches at KCL and whom I was lucky enough to hear lecture twice last semester. This year marks the award’s 30th anniversary, whose shortlist readings I attended on Sunday the 14th of January at the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall. However, I must note that I had not read each of the collections before attending the reading; thus my review will focus only on the poems I heard, and remember, that night, which I’ve taken as representatives of their collections. Naturally, it is impossible to form accurate judgments from hearing a seven-minute snippet, and so I must also state that my opinions may alter drastically in the future after I’ve spent more time with each collection alone. So, for now, take this as the opinion of a 19-year-old who possesses a slight tendency to fuss.


The judges this year were poets Paul Muldoon, who won the T.S. Eliot prize in 1994, Sasha Dugdale, who was shortlisted in 2020, and Denise Saul, who was also shortlisted in 2022. The night commenced with the trio reading ‘A Game of Chess’ from Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’. It’s rather impertinent of me, I admit, to criticise and dwell on this part of the evening, especially as it had nothing to do with the poets themselves, but I feel compelled to comment, nonetheless. My word it was disheartening! I think I might be a little spoilt when it comes to readings of ‘The Waste Land’, having repeatedly watched both Eileen Atkins’ and Fiona Shaw’s recordings, so I’ve always considered the poem as a piece to be read out loud and performed, with multiple different voices and intonations, specifically ‘A Game of Chess’ with its infamous lines “HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME” and “O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag”, both of which require volume and character. This reading in comparison was so tame and unexciting, and it was odd because the award is in honour of Eliot and yet the judges who are there in his name appeared so detached from the material they were reading, which would typically evoke so much intensity. From this reading I then began to question more generally whether it’s a poet’s job not only to produce compelling verse, but also to perform, and to read their poems expressively in order to convey meaning. If there has been such an emphasis from previous poets on the importance of reading poetry out loud— with Eliot claiming that poetry is “One person talking to another” and Yeats admitting to having spent his writing life “clearing out of poetry every phrase written for the eye, and bringing back to syntax, that is for ear alone”— then surely a poet’s delivery of their poem, particularly when their audience don’t have the text in front of them, is just as important as the text itself. Meaning is obscured when words are just blankly recited, and a piece as evocative as ‘A Game of Chess’ loses its potency and ends up boring the audience. With this in mind, I anticipated the rest of the night, wondering whether the following poet’s readings would enhance or diminish the words they had written. 


Our host, the poet, journalist, and broadcaster Ian McMillan, stepped up on stage after the reading, and was a positive reshaping of the evening’s rhythm; his animated speech and joviality restored my enthusiasm and anticipation for poetry, in turn dissolving my sour meditations. Ian would entertain us with witty remarks on the nature of poetry, giving his own interpretation of what each of the shortlisted collections explored, and relaying back to how the poet’s work offers different explanations and explorations to the study of poetry. 


The first shortlisted poet to take the stage was Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin who read from her book The Map of the World. The collection centres on depictions of history, particularly of past disasters, and how we remember and engage with these experiences. It was unfortunate that she was up so early on, for by the time the evening had ended, despite writing notes throughout, I couldn’t properly recall her reading. However, I think it was the second poem she read, ‘Seasons of the Lemon House’, which has remained in my memory, particularly because I remember being so struck by the imagery and personification of the lemon trees. It was so comforting, the picture of them “herding together” and seeing the lemon “fruits floating under the ruffled skirts shining yellow” and how these fruits were “heavy posts of clay readied for the move outside”. She was so highly attuned and aware of each movement, and listening to her read I felt like I was there among the lemon trees. Then the poem shifted to a contemplation of language as she described “the nets of language” and how words “lie side by side”, soon to be shaped and carved by “the knife still in the sailor’s pocket” to form an order, a sentence. I couldn’t transcribe the whole poem, I wish I had, but it’s one I want to come back to. Ian at the start of her reading talked about how the act of close reading can mean a book “imprints itself on your head metaphorically”. When I heard Eiléan read this poem, I wanted to crawl inside it  and unpick each sentence verse by verse until I’d completely dismantled it, and then sew the lines back together so I could read the poem in its entirety again. 


Joe Carrick-Varty was next on stage, reading from his debut book More Sky, which looks at the relationship between fathers and sons and deals with the themes of violence,  working-class masculinity, and the illusion of the nuclear family. To me, his reading was the most moving that evening – I don’t share his experiences, but he immersed you in them. His writing sends you into countless spaces, and traps you in there until you’re evacuated to a new chamber. His opening poem ‘Sambas For Christmas’ and the poem that followed, ‘Dear Postie’, were both rich in detail – similar in intensity to Eiléan, but different in the way that, as Ian mentioned when introducing Joe, he concentrates his eyes on aspects we would normally overlook. In the former poem, Joe refers to how the Sambas will “squeak for a week” and how his dad will be “running his fingers through the rosemary bush” as he stumbles back from the pub drunk. These events are written in a way that suggest routine, or ordinary inevitability, but in themselves are constructed through careful and attentive observation. What pushed me to buy his collection in the interval was the third poem he read titled ‘The Children’. When I heard this poem I wanted him to start over, I wanted it to be replayed over and over again;  I wanted to feel the punch on loop. It felt like spinning on an axis, with a growing feeling of motion sickness as I helplessly observed the milieu.

Photos by Leda Schenke Gonis

Fran Lock followed his performance with her collection Hyena, which centres on the concept of Therianthropy, the transformation of humans into animals, which she used as a metaphor for sudden loss and the transforming power of grief. Before she began Ian noted that with Fran’s poems, you have to take your time with them and they’ll grow, and this became very clear when she began to recite her poems. Nothing made sense. There were many obscure descriptions: “Smugglers of honey doomed ones lost in the errand of their jeopardy … in their clothes they’re pink like links of sausage look away look again”. They were vivid and powerful, but lost their potency in their never-ending number. Without them being in front of me it was hard to digest, and by the end, it was as though I was just hearing the sounds of words. I was completely apathetic to their meaning, and I felt like I wasn’t getting it and thought I should be. It was so different from the easy-flowing and digestible syntax of the previous poet, which gave space for pause and which allowed for reactions. I don't know whether my understanding or opinion would differ if Fran’s read slightly slower. I don’t know if by solely hearing it I could ever properly take in the verses; I’d need to tackle each line one by one.


Kit Fan was the fourth poet on stage reading from The Ink Cloud Reader, a collection that celebrates the power of ink while exploring themes of mortality, familial bonds and generally the crumbling nature of our world. Back in October, I attended a poetry reading where Kit read some of his poems, so I was already familiar with his work. One of my favourite poems of his, which he also read on the night, is titled ‘Cumulonimbus’, which opens with “My papers will topple the house before the tin roof falls. I’d better make haste and find a new address”. I enjoyed the witty nature of Kit’s writing, and his slower reading pace was effective in allowing the  lines to stick on you. 


Jason Allen-Paisant was the last poet to read before the interval. His collection Self-Portrait as Othello was the collection I found most interesting in terms of theme – the book imagines and relates what stories Othello would have told if he had been written by someone of the same skin colour at that time, and the experiences he would have endured as a foreigner in Venice. In an interview with Carcanet Press, Jason revealed that in the collection, Othello becomes a prism through which the poet’s personal history is refracted. However, as none of his poems were titled nor were introduced I found his reading slightly unpredictable and difficult to follow. I think his strength, however, lay in his command of  language. Whilst the previous poets of the evening related in their captivating use of imagery, it was Jason’s use of voice and tone which elevated the poems and made it feel as if I was disappearing into a feeling rather than a scene. 


After the interval we heard a recording of Sharon Olds reading Balladz, Her collection can’t be pinned down to one particular theme; it covers sex, ageing, and the body’s conditional alterations, as she looks back through the hazy uncertainty of our pasts to shine a light on the importance of love. I enjoyed ‘Quarantine Morning’, particularly the way it linked obscure and  unrelated events to the naked eye, but all seemed to flow and merge as a general reflection, from her likeness to a cadaver through to sex with her high school boyfriend. These unfiltered recollections brought a burst of laughter from the audience, which had remained silent until then. The last poem she read, from the final half of her book, was slower in comparison to the first  and more pensive as it dealt with loss. The line about her love going to his four poster bed, “Each post a tree”, where they rest at the end of “the festival”, was a very moving allegory of passing.


Next, we heard Abigail Parry read from her collection I Think We’re Alone Now, titled simply after her favourite song by Tommy James and the Shondells, and not to be mistaken with Tiffany’s 80s version. The collection centres around intimacy and how intimacy can fail, and questions whether one can truly communicate with another person – if we can ever know whether what you intended to express can be understood. Her reading was, I'd say, the most entertaining to hear. She had a confident stage presence and could shift subtly from the seriousness of a restaurant scene, captured in ‘In a dream of the cold restaurant’ to a poem titled ‘Speculum’. Both poems tackle intimacy, one of personal thoughts and the other regarding a physical encounter. She knows how to capture a mood, and can both articulate the painful experience of a personal medical examination, and take on the unromantic voice of a speaker attempting to profess their love, as she does in ‘The brain of a rat in stereotaxic space’. 


Jane Clarke followed on, reading A Change in the Air, which explores what it means to connect with people and our environment against a shifting cultural background. The poem she began with, ‘Dressing my mother for her grandson’s wedding’, depicted a very sweet and wholesome scene of exactly what the title suggests. It was short, however, and I can’t tell whether I liked it for its content or because I just found her reading voice so soothing. I think the collection is one that my mother or people in the older generations would be able to appreciate more. I was able to grasp its reflective nature and mature sensitivity, but I missed the angst and quick pace of the poems that came before. The collection is also concerned with our changing environment –  in ‘At Perching Harbour’  she focuses on how if we give nature a chance, it can revive itself. At least, that was what she implied before she read the poem – to be honest, I couldn’t clearly discern the connection between the descriptions of the fisherman and climate action. A rereading is perhaps required here. 


Ishion Hutchinson was the penultimate poet, who read from his collection School of Instructions, which tells the stories of West Indian soldiers who fought in British regiments during the First World War and who, before being drafted, had fought for freedom from the UK; the land “that had first sent them to their pain”. Prior to Ishion’s reading, Ian revealed that reading School of Instructions makes you not only want to learn more about this history but also wish that history books were written in poetic form, in Ishion’s voice and style. Certainly in his first reading of an excerpt of a longer pieces, his empathic listing the names of the men from eastern Jamaica who fought for freedom was very evocative, as was the repetition of mud – “imperial mud”, “venereal mud”, “1655 mud”, “ha ha ha ha mud”. At one point, the repetition turned rhythmic, and it reminded me of the Dub poetry I had come across through Linton Kwesi Johnson. The verse seemed to be rooted in musicality, which had been missing from the poets before, and I think this is what made Ishion’s reading so taking, as you could feel the beats of his words mixed with their meaning 


The evening ended with Katie Farris, who read from her book Standing in the Forest of Being Alive. She wrote the collection when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and in her poems she places this personal turmoil against our national turmoil – the COVID lockdown, police brutality, the crises of American democracy, and so on. Her poetry was both moving and deliciously humorous and her opening poem ‘Why write love poetry in a burning world’ begins with one of the most memorable lines of the evening. "To train my mind to find in the midst of hell what isn’t hell” is so cogent and delicate that it will stick with me for a long time. A similarly gripping line is found in her poem ‘In the Event of My Death’, where she writes, “in the event of my death promise you will find my heavy braid and bury it, I will need a rope to let me down into Earth”. I almost feel embarrassed to comment on it, as it’s so clever and elegant that I can offer nothing but exaltation. The third piece she read, called ‘Rachel’s Chair’, differed completely in style and tone, but not in its effective bluntness about a chair so perfect for lovemaking that she declared she would have taken it home had she known how “rarely we would find such objects”. The poems she read were extremely effective in their plainness. The line “the lizards ran down the spines of rocks like a bad feeling” from ‘What Would Root’ is so simple, but I still find it utterly bewitching. 


When the night began, I wasn’t aware that we wouldn’t find out the prize winner until the next day; I was very confused when we were being ushered out of the theatre and told to have a great rest of our evening. I had made a mental list of potential prize winners – Joe Carrick-Varty was one of my leading contenders, along with Abigail Parry and Ishion Hutchinson. I like poems which generate emotions within me; I think I have to connect with the words and therefore a poem needs to transport me to places. I didn’t have that reaction towards Self-Portrait as Othello, and so I was a little surprised upon finding out that Jason Allen-Paisant won since he wasn’t on my radar. Jason won the Forward Prize in October and had also been shortlisted for the Writer’s Prize, so the judges’ decision does align with other people’s reception of the collection. I just would have preferred someone to have won that I felt an immediate fondness for. On the ride back home, however, I reflected on all the great lines I got to hear at Southbank, and reflected back to my initial thoughts on the importance of performance. There’s something very special about hearing the words written by the authors get read out loud by them. You get to hear how they were intended to be received. As I rode past the Chiltern Hills at 11pm, I reclined in my seat and mused on my happy fortune that brought me to hear the works of ten great poets, and wondered how their work would shape my own creative writings, as I gently drifted into unconsciousness.


Edited by Lara Mae Simpson, Literature Editor


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