Reading the 2015 T. S. Eliot Prize Shortlist
Jan 8, 2016
14 Min read time
Poetry from Claudia Rankine, Mark Doty, Les Murray, Sarah Howe, and more.
Editor’s Note: On January 11, 2016, it was announced that Sarah Howe had won the 2015 T. S. Eliot Prize with her debut collection, Loop of Jade.
The T. S. Eliot Prize carries serious money (£20,000, the most of any single poetry prize in the UK) and serious bragging rights. The list of its past winners doubles as a one-stop index of poetic celebrity on this side of the Atlantic: David Harsent, Carol Ann Duffy, Don Paterson, John Burnside, and Sinéad Morrissey take their places alongside a host of other stars in the contemporary British firmament. In recent years the prize has also acted as a lightning rod for minor controversy. David Harsent’s win last year led some observers to suggest that an oligarchy was rigging the system, dishing out prizes among its members while a growing constituency of smaller presses and their poets are effectively disenfranchised. One doesn’t have to travel too far down the road of conspiracy and recrimination to recommend the sober, factual analysis of Fiona Moore, a poet and blogger who has done valuable work crunching the numbers to prove how far British poetry prizes have to go before they can claim to represent the full breadth of an increasingly vibrant and diverse publishing ecosystem.
The representation question feels particularly urgent this year since the favorite has to be Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, a book that scrutinizes how black men and women—particularly black American men—are diminished and violated every day. It would seem a woeful category error to invite comparison between the serious, insidious brutality exposed in Citizen and this rarefied anxiety over how a book by a black woman will fare in competition for a literary prize that reflects the white cultural establishment—would seem so, were it not for the fact that Citizen confronts the white British literary establishment in its very text.
In a passage titled “August 4, 2011 / In Memory of Mark Duggan,” Rankine restages an encounter between her multivalent “you” and “A man, a novelist with the face of the English sky—full of weather, always in response, constantly shifting, clouding over only to clear briefly.” They are talking at a party in an expensive house in Hackney, the borough that erupted into violence during the 2011 London riots. The casus belli for the riots was, ostensibly, the police execution of the unarmed Duggan, and our craggy, well-meaning novelist wants to know if Rankine would ever write about this moment of specifically British racism. His question, apparently innocent and engaged, turns into one of those flare points of estrangement that Rankine captures with gut-churning precision: Why couldn’t he write about it himself?
How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another? Are the tensions, the recognitions, the disappointments, and the failures that exploded in the riots too foreign?
Rankine pulls off a great, and slightly risky, technical feat when she turns the novelist by degrees into first “the man made of English sky” and then simply “the English sky.” By conflating him with the low-key melodrama of English weather, Rankine risks demeaning the novelist as an exotic “other” himself, an object defined by the clichés of his homeland. But this transition to “sky” works precisely because it enacts the inverted prejudice that prejudice provokes: the blankness, the zoning out from particularities, the reflexive withdrawal that occurs when someone feels unexpectedly isolated by racial assumptions.
Rankine’s book is the yardstick against which everything else must be measured.
When I look over the Eliot Prize’s shortlist, I can’t shake off this parable of the Hackney novelist. Citizen has already won much attention in Britain, having been picked up for Penguin’s rejuvenated poetry list, glowingly reviewed across the board, and awarded another major accolade, the Forward Prize for Best Collection. Rankine’s victory was welcomed in all quarters, a rare outcome in the famously fissiparous British prize culture. It’s not hard to understand why: Citizen is that rare book that both improves and transcends its genre, a collection innovative enough to satisfy the modernists and immediate enough to appeal to booksellers.
However, that feel-good moment may have masked more troubling and unpalatable truths underlying literary Britain’s relationship with race. Writing recently in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Sandeep Parmar argues that Citizen is “a striking example of exactly what is not happening in popular British poetry.” Her timely essay (“Not a British Subject: Race and Poetry in the UK”) has darkened the tone, and raised the stakes, in the run-up to the award announcement. Rankine’s book now looks like the yardstick against which everything else published in the last year must be measured. If almost anything else on the shortlist wins—which is to say any less original and formally assured a book; any book that lags behind Citizen’s searing ethical candor—then awkward questions will arise. Why was this judged to be better? Was Rankine’s Forward victory approbation enough, leaving us free to shine the spotlight elsewhere? As a poetic culture, we can’t afford to become an outsize version of Rankine’s “English sky”: serious, brooding, apparently responsive but “constantly shifting, clouding over only to clear briefly.” In the three months since it last won big, Citizen’s power hasn’t diminished. Indeed, recontextualized by Parmar’s essay, the glare of its moral challenge has only increased in intensity.
• • •
I don’t envy the Eliot judges. There are, after all, nine other books—all worthwhile, some excellent—whose fate it is to have been drawn against Rankine in a year when questions of identity, justice, exclusion, and microaggression have reached a tipping point in the wider literary discussion. Of the remaining poets, four are previous winners of the prize. One such returning champion, Mark Doty, will be as familiar to American audiences as Rankine is. He last won in 1995 for My Alexandria, and this year’s Deep Lane is a lovely autumnal addition to his catalog. Rich and discursive, it flits between the suburban garden and the city, ranging back and forth across thresholds of memory and desire. In a typical maneuver, “Verge” begins with a cherry tree (“A month at least before the bloom”) before widening to recollect “the night we walked, nearly strangers, / from a fevered party to the corner // where you’d left your motorcycle.” The swooning comparison between budding tree and budding love would be corny, were it not held in place by such a delicate figurative tendon: “Some things wear their becoming. . . .”
Les Murray’s Waiting for the Past finds the great Australian laureate in a comparably ruminative mood, albeit from the vantage of old rather than middle age. As its title suggests, the collection courts nostalgia, though Murray’s peculiar brand of reminiscence is never going to be straightforward or rosy hued. Now in his eighth decade, he surveys his homeland’s postwar social history with characteristic spike and irony. Progress and social mobility (Murray speaks from experience, as a farmer’s son who was able to go to “the university”) are never far away from environmental blight and the depredations of modernity. “Persistence of the Reformation” encapsulates a dizzying history of colonization, ecological blunder, and religious hypocrisy in one vast synoptic sentence, gummed together by the extraordinary language—heavy on stress, light on articles; hewn from the flora, fauna, and landscapes of rural Australia—that fans of Murray will cherish:
saucepans of wet moneybrass polyester goldcouch grass black in swamplily dams backed up in gulliesand parallel in paspalumold tillages that fed barns
The postwar social settlement haunts Sean O’Brien’s The Beautiful Librarians just as much, though differently. Where Murray’s longer view blurs distinctions and certainties, operating within the unreliable field of a particular speaker’s memory, O’Brien opts for a public mode of satire and civic address. The collection’s historical sweep clusters around the crisis and trauma of the 1980s, a decade that in Britain has become synonymous with Thatcherism’s assault on the public realm and the miner’s strike of 1984–5. “Another Country” rakes over these old graves in vinegary rhyming couplets, preempting its own critique:
‘People’ tell us nowadays these views are terribly unfair,But these forgiving ‘people’ aren’t the ‘people’ who were there.Meanwhile your greying children smile and shrug: That’s history.So what’s the point of these laments for how things used to be?
Even if you endorse O’Brien’s contempt for neoliberal triumphalism, it’s tempting to dismiss the cantankerous traditionalism of his poetics. But this would be a mistake. Beneath its surface of old-fashioned formal polish and sardonic political grandstanding, The Beautiful Librarians harbors ambiguous depths. Several of the poems inhabit a melancholy time zone of waning morning or afternoon.
The morning is eternal. It is not.For now is noon, the sun too hotFor thinking or for loving . . .(from “Always”)The ruined summer’s lush despondency,Arrested, Tennysonian . . . Late afternoon.(from “Jardin des Plantes”)Eternal afternoon, whose shadows playGrandmother’s footsteps as you lookTime in the face and quickly look away . . .(from “Thirteen O’Clocks”)
The implication is of decadence and decline, a high moment for civilization that cannot last. It’s in these mournful atmospherics that O’Brien sounds the note of pathos and shared loss that his noisier gestures can often overwhelm.
As poetry editor at Picador, the last of the past winners on the shortlist, Don Paterson, will have shepherded O’Brien’s book into print, and the two poets share much in common besides. In 40 Sonnets Paterson takes O’Brien’s recalcitrant formalism to another level—in an unkind assessment, one might say to the level of fetish. That said, these sonnets are anything but uniformly dutiful to the history of the form. Among more conventional Petrarchan and Shakespearean exercises, we find fourteen-line poems in rhyming couplets; sonnets arranged in a seven/seven split; and in “The Version,” a long prose poem that qualifies as a sonnet only insofar as it has a paragraph break acting as a volta. The traditionalism consists in Paterson’s dogged belief that the essential dialectic shape of the sonnet constitutes some perfect form of poetic utterance: claim and counterclaim, statement and revision, thesis and tangent, bound into a unified whole.
Responding five years ago to Paterson’s previous collection, Rain, I queried his recent drift toward homey metaphysical vagueness. I’m afraid—and I speak here with genuine regret, since Paterson’s first two collections remain touchstones in my world—that 40 Sonnets does nothing to alleviate these doubts. If anything, it exacerbates them. The sonnet form seems to pull Paterson’s diction into strange, contorted shapes, caught awkwardly between colloquial aphorism and philosophical speculation. An example, from “Radka Toneff”:
When the ear lights on the half-said thing
it leans into its distance, and is sent
out into those spectral fires that play
between the inner world and outer dark
as we are, to this zone of breath and blue
between the world and the dark.
The syntax in this sentence is, as Donald Davie said of Wordsworth’s The Prelude, “elaborately correct”: though hard to read at first, it resolves into a neatly turned parallelism between the main subject (“the ear” or “it”) and the general “we,” both of which are being sent out to some faraway “zone.” I can make the syntax work, but trying to parse the meaning of the language—particularly the physicality of the verbs “lean” and “send” as applied to such cosmological abstracts—makes me feel, frankly, stupid. Much easier, and better, is “A Powercut,” in which an appropriately short-circuited syntax creates a real sense of existential panic.
• • •
Selima Hill is a great poet, arguably the most prominent British veteran not to have bagged an Eliot already. (One can rule her namesake Geoffrey out of these things, by and large.) Her surreal, erotic, comic style looks more influential with each passing year, and Jutland is quintessential Hill. The only problem is that it would also be an odd choice of winner. Split between two long sequences, Advice on Wearing Animal Prints and Sunday Afternoons at the Gravel-Pits, it lacks the debonair variety and formal range that one associates with the prize. Hill’s poetry neither consoles nor very often resolves, and the Sunday Afternoons sequence is a case in point. A compulsive relay of short fragments, it tells an elliptical story of a dysfunctional father–daughter relationship from the point of view of the traumatized, vengeful daughter. Here’s “My Father’s Horse” in its entirety:
I should have been a girl he could have raped,I should have been a woman, or a horse,I should have been his own private swimming poolbut can’t he see I’m not and I refuse to be.
The whole sequence edges around the ambiguous black hole of the father’s impropriety, leaving the reader in some doubt as to whether his behavior was sexually abusive, borderline sexually abusive, or just vile enough to plant the thought in his daughter’s mind. That “should have” modality is a characteristic ploy, summoning a meaning only to deflect it, and so is the refusal of Hill’s final clause. It characterizes a collection that, quite admirably, refuses to salve the reader’s conscience or satisfy her appetite for knowing.
Tim Liardet is another poet in the prime of his career, and The World Before Snow is an engaged and serious tenth collection from someone who’s probably overdue for a prize. As with Hill’s book, though, it may suffer from a variety problem: the vast majority of these poems come under the—by now rather well-worn—“Self Portrait with/as [x and/or y]” rubric, and I think all of them celebrate the ardor of a forbidden love affair. The cumulative effect is impressive but exhausting, with a singular, almost unvarying emotional state being figured through a kaleidoscope of finely wrought (sometimes overwrought) metaphors. “The Universe as Room Forty-Thirty-Nine” revisits the central idea of Donne’s “The Good Morrow” (“For love, all love of other sights controls, / And makes one little room an everywhere”) but twists the conceit into an even more self-obsessed position. Here, the hotel room doesn’t just become the universe; it becomes a universe that turns in on itself to observe the lovers at its center: “Its windows look through us, as if we offer a view.”
Perry is shaping a new British poem, gentler, funnier, less macho and strong-lined than its predecessors.
Likewise, I’d be surprised if Tracey Herd’s Not in This World were to come out the winner. It’s a good book with strong thematic congruence—winter, horses, lakes, classic Hollywood, Americana, a disintegrating relationship—but wants for a bit of linguistic zip when set beside the stronger contenders on the list. “Vessel” squanders a fine objective correlative (“a richly decorated vase” standing for memory) with pedestrian diction based around a phony second-person address issuing imperatives, apparently, to itself: “you’ll think you hear a little boy, invisible, his giggles / barely audible. Don’t reach out. Turn away.” Sometimes Herd’s pop cultural excursions lapse into essayistic musings or impersonations, so “The Diner” stands out for its lurid noir texture:
I took a bullet for you
last night, but it wasn’t real.
Nothing is real, absolutely nothing.
Absolute is a fantasy.
The poem interrogates and toys with genre from within, rather than name-checking its conventions from without. As a consequence, its unreality and nihilism are paradoxically vibrant, real.
• • •
A debut collection has never won the Eliot Prize, so a betting man would be well advised to stake his money elsewhere than on Beauty/Beauty by Rebecca Perry or Loop of Jade by Sarah Howe. Yet these are two extremely fine collections that, more than anything else on the shortlist, indicate future directions for British poetry. Full disclosure: I know both Perry and Howe, and work closely with Howe in editing the online journal Prac Crit, so the following endorsements should be taken with the requisite pinch of salt. Nevertheless, in pretty much any non-Citizen year, I would be rooting for them both with a clear conscience and open eyes. In “Poor Sasquatch,” Perry elegizes the mythic creature, mowed down on a divided highway:
He was moved to a secure location and subjected
To a live autopsy on the Discovery Channel revealing,
Like a huge rose, circulatory, muscular and skeletal systems
Much like our own but with all the predictable differences.
That last line perfectly captures Perry’s glinting sympathy. Sasquatch is similar to us, except in all the ways that he’s different: an almost flat pedantry camouflages this great moment of interspecies imagination. Alongside other young writers such as Jack Underwood and Andrew McMillan (both of whom released excellent debuts this year, equally deserving of recognition), Perry is shaping a new British poem, gentler, funnier, less macho and strong-lined than its predecessors, and full of space and light.
Being super-biased when it comes to Sarah Howe, I’ll limit myself to a few closing remarks and just encourage everyone to read her work. She recently scooped the Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer of the Year award for Loop of Jade, a debut of extraordinary verve and intelligence that examines Howe’s Chinese-British heritage from multiple angles. “New writer’s voyage into Chinese family history” has proved too alluring a spin for some critics, inviting the sort of pat generalization that Howe’s exquisite, accurate poetry explodes (most notably in a disgraceful recent article in The Guardian, which praised Loop of Jade for its “oriental poise”). Suffice it to say, however, that Howe is the sole British writer on this shortlist who displays a fraction of Rankine’s drive to make language and poetic form respond to the shifting structures of twenty-first–century identity politics.
January 08, 2016
14 Min read time