If Harpenden Gang Show was an enjoyable piece of popular culture, the following evening at the South Bank Centre was a dip into the rarefied waters of ‘high-end’ culture for the T S Eliot Poetry Prize Readings. True to my intention of making 2012 my ‘poetry’ year, this event turned out to be a ‘full immersion’ rather than a ‘toe-dip’ into modern poetry. Eight of the finest modern poets in the English language (there should have been ten, but Alice Oswald and John Kinsella had withdrawn in anti-capitalist protest)had roughly ten minutes to showcase their collection.
I had forgotten what a wonderful auditorium the Royal Festival Hall is, we used to take our children to the Sir Robert Meyer Concerts there over thirty years ago. The superb Ian Macmillan hosted the event and introduced the proceedings and each of the short-listed poets with great aplomb and no little admiration. Here are my brief impressions of the ten-minute readings:
Daljit Nagra - Tippoo Sultan’s Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger Toy-Machine!!! At once very funny and very edgy in a post-colonial, Kiplingesque kind of way.
Bernard O’Donoghue – Farmers Cross. Skilful, insightful, academic yet accessible and beautiful verse, and again, subtly edgy.
Esther Morgan – Grace. Precise verse of great charm and subtleness, great craft and, as the title suggests, full of grace.
David Harsent – Night. Enigmatic and masterful, somehow reminded me of Lawrence Durrell but I’m not sure quite why or how?
John Burnside – Black Cat Bone. Seemed a nervous reader but very funny and vivid.
Leontia Flynn – Profit and Loss. Such an eye for detail and irony, and a curious understated humour.
Sean O’Brien – November. This was the only volume I had bought before the event and this was my raison d’etre, and Sean did not disappoint. Loved it.
Carol Ann Duffy – The Bees. She wears her laurels with consummate ease and seemingly unbothered by the establishment. Simply superb.
It was an inspiring evening and surprising to find myself in the company of nearly 3000 poetry-lovers, and such an eclectic mix. (I heard both Russian and French spoken in adjacent rows)
The winner was announced at the Award Ceremony at Haberdashers’ Hall the next day, and although I was convinced Sean O’Brien would triumph, John Burnside took the honours with Black Cat Bone. Here is a poem from the collection.
I come by chance. A train slows in the fog
and stands a while
and, when it leaves, there’s one more soul aboard,
sung from the quiet, passing from car to car,
like an angel of God;
or, north of here, in some old lumber town,
the church clock stops, the wind dies in the trees
and I lie squalling in a slick of blood
and moonlight, seventh son
to some man’s seventh son.
No gifts for me, no angel in the rafters
caught like a bird in the updraft from the stove,
only the words of an old curse scratched on the wall,
and the warmth of my mother
fading, as lights go out
in house after house, from here
to the edge of the world,
her slack mouth, then the darkness in her eyes
the first thing I see
when the midwife returns with a candle.