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Royal Festival Hall, T.S.Eliot prize readings, Sunday 12th January 2014

Ian Duhig opened the evening, and felt that the audience had had enough of a cold coming to warrant reading ‘Journey of the Magi’ to start. He was quite right in saying that nothing is the same for you after you read it for the first time, with the spine of the verse like “a water mill beating the darkness”.  I found this to be even more the case upon listening to a recording of Eliot deliver the words:

“It was (you may say) satisfactory”

He had such immaculate enunciation and timing that there they will stay in my eardrum, bookended with the weighted final line “I should be glad of another death”.

Ian Macmillan then guided the audience through the 10 poets reading for eight minutes each, urging us to “murmur then whoop”. These were then judged by a panel of three for a prize of £15,000 (the equivalent of £8million according to Macmillan).

Daljit Nagra’s Ramayana went first, with his retelling of a South East Asian legend, an often told story of gods and goddesses, of buffalo and monkey, and punctuated by a lot of MWAH noises, and “YOOOUUUR” bellowed at top volume and words like ‘hornswaggler’. It could have been down to the awkward delivery given by the group of five on stage, a few of them earnest young poets, but for every rambunctious line such as “I am used to cracking off mountain tops and casting them off like nits”, there were examples of bravado that rang overly hollow, and slightly fell short: “I’m going to butcher the whole male gang so I can be the lone Bull”.

Moving swiftly on to Moniza Alvi, whose story of her widowed grandmother’s flight to Pakistan during the partition of India was further complicated by the loss of Utta, her son, who was behind her on the second bus. The arbitrary line drawn by Sir Cyril Radcliffe across the continent becomes the line between life and non-being, “a line so delicate a sparrow might have picked it up in its beak”, with memory and image ‘hopping towards her like a lone bird’.

Macmillan described reading Maurice Riordan’s poems like going to pictures in the afternoon, coming out at the end and for the first half an hour afterwards you feel like you are still in the film. His latest collection is entitled ‘The Water Stealer’ a literal translation of the Greek word for clock. Riordan’s line “I heard my soul roll away in the dark” from ‘Cranium after Neruda’ started to crack the most cynical of shells, and his poem ‘Gone with the Wind’ about being bothered by not being able to recall either Scarlett O’Hara or Jodie Foster’s names clinched it (“Why does one good woman always hide behind another”). Out on a run, he could remember 48 of the 50 American states, bar Wisconsin and Kentucky. The satisfaction of recollection is described more like relief, like dislodging “salami from one’s teeth”.

Ruth Padel read for Anne Carson in absentia, just as we were starting to really warm up. Carson’s line breaks make you reconsider narrative, creating a state of “a low, purple listening”, and reconsidering misleading terms like “musk oxen”:

“much is misnomer in our present way of grasping the world”

Michael Simmons Roberts created 150 15 line poems full of lancing images and searing lines: “The sun through glass dries my heart like a peach stone”. His honesty is not a blunt instrument; the clarity almost hurts your ears:  “I sing for fear I’ll hear the still small voice and not like what it says.” The poem shown below has yet to fade, and hovered through the interval:

HITCHCOCKEAN

The birds are taking over. Not in rows on high wires,
chittering on rooves at passers-by, fixing a lone child
with their red-ringed, sink-hole eyes, not by massing

on our window-sills at dawn and tap-tap-tapping
with the urgency, hunger, blunt-sense of the wild,
not with a skirl and swoop like smoke cut loose from fire,

but with a single egg inside each one of us,
lodged in the fold between lungs, not felt until the break,
la petite mort when shell cracks and a song begins,

an airless, blood-borne trill, a pulse, a stretch of wing,
which may be dun wren, bird of paradise, dull rook,
and none of us can know what kind is ours,

nor even know for sure it’s there, this skitter,
this arrhythmia, this restlessness, this ache that makes
you walk out, mid-meal, steal a car and disappear.

Dannie Abse kicked of the second half with a statement that may not strictly be poetry, but it is no less true for that: “I’ll put my glasses on, I’ll think better”. ‘Talking to Myself’ spoke of “plain Hardy and dandy Yeatsand Abse’s ninety years hovering:

“Now Time wastes me and there’s hardly time
to fuss for more vascular speech.

The aspen tree trembles as I do
and there are feathers in the wind.

Quick quick
speak, old parrot,
do I not feed you with my life?”

His poem ‘Scent’, about the flowering shrub that was planted by his dead wife “sober, alone and a little wretched” gained the most murmurs by far; none of us could resist his description of himself “Like Orpheus, pausing by the gate post”. His parting offering of a poem depicting the different mating approaches of cats in England and Greece brought the house down, as he explained that English cats are “private creatures, they fuck in private like people”.

A hard act to follow, but the collection “Scab” depicting Thatcher’s Britain in the North, peppered by landfills by Helen Mort was up to it. She cuts between personal recollections “my breath sickly with Malibu and coke” while considering “Cambridge offer amid the bills” and sucker punch social pictures that burn.

George Szirtes was next, with a wonderful ‘r’ sound to his speaking voice, a rolling style and an almost Chaucerian way of intoning poems like ‘Allotments’, with its “clutch of cabbages”. He gently panned words around in ‘Colours’, playing with sounds of shades, intermingled with characters and favourite sounds like  “Coleridge” “Arriviste, Siam. Glock… Grey. Flecked. Amaretto” before stating that “life being ordinary is the extraordinary thing”.

Macmillan explained that the Queen leaned forward halfway through during a reading of Sinead Morrissey’s work, and Prince Phillip said something that elicited a nod. Macmillan concluded that this was the effect of her poetry. She commenced with ‘Moscow Puzzles’, which contained a riddle within the poem. I barely grasped a problem was being set up, my neighbour said 240 quick as a flash, sadly the actual answer is 136. The main event contained the poet’s recollections of being in labour “tottering” “like a wind up fat man toy”, punctuated by her watching Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death on television at the time. She combines this with her grandmother’s war in the Raleigh bike factory in Nottingham, of typing up invoices ( interrupted by 40 hour delivery of poet’s mother). She imagines her signing David Niven into heaven with clicking heels and “sticky lipstick”, all set against the “checks and balances” of birth and death.

Robin Robertson closed the evening with his deep sonorous voice of a Proper Poet. Macmillan’s claim of his poems creating their own microclimate is supported by ‘1964’, depicting Robertson’s childhood in Aberdeen during typhoid outbreak “under the gritted lid of winter”. Despite his allegation that ‘The Key’ is his “only cheerful poem and therefore very short”, 1964 contains the wonderful line “the day’s first Labrador, flogging the surf” with his tail that is positively upbeat. Admittedly, the idea of blood buds – sawdust that has absorbed all the blood from the butcher’s floor, wrapped in hankies and taken to the woods, where the boys “break them open for their jelly” – created a keen mental scar. There is determined brutality at points “one boy holds another’s hair so he can kick him in the face”, that smacks of being Tough and Scottish that is a bit wearisome. In ‘Party Time’ the perils of drink flash “streeling I was and streeling I went”. For all the darkness, his humour comes through in his childhood quest for the stork (he knew then how babies were made) “so that she might take me back”.

The winner was announced the night after the event to be Sinead Morrisey for Parallax.

The Editors

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