T. S. Eliot Prize and the Art of Restriction

Jacob Polley has recently been announced as the winner of the 2016 TS Eliot Prize for his collection, Jackself. Established in 1993 in celebration of the Poetry Book Society’s 40th birthday and in honour of its founding poet, The TS Eliot Foundation took over the running of the Prize in 2016 after the closing of the Society.

Here’s a list of every winner since its inception. Notice anything?

Jacob Polley – Jackself (Picador, 2016)
Sarah Howe – Loop of Jade (Chatto & Windus, 2015)
David Harsent – Fire Songs (Faber & Faber, 2014)
Sinéad Morrissey – Parallax (Carcanet Press, 2013)
Sharon Olds – Stag’s Leap (Jonathan Cape, 2012)
John Burnside – Black Cat Bone (Jonathan Cape, 2011)
Derek Walcott – White Egrets (Faber & Faber, 2010)
Philip Gross – The Water Table (Bloodaxe, 2009)
Jen Hadfield – Nigh-No-Place (Bloodaxe, 2008)
Sean O’Brien – The Drowned Book (Picador, 2007)
Seamus Heaney – District and Circle (Faber & Faber, 2006)
Carol Ann Duffy – Rapture (Picador, 2005)
George Szirtes – Reel (Bloodaxe, 2004)
Don Paterson – Landing Light (Faber & Faber, 2003)
Alice Oswald – Dart (Faber & Faber, 2002)
Anne Carson – The Beauty of the Husband (Jonathan Cape, 2001)
Michael Longley – The Weather in Japan (Jonathan Cape, 2000)
Hugo Williams – Billy’s Rain (Faber & Faber, 1999)
Ted Hughes – Birthday Letters (Faber & Faber, 1998)
Don Paterson – God’s Gift to Women (Faber & Faber, 1997)
Les Murray – Subhuman Redneck Poems (Carcanet Press, 1996)
Mark Doty – My Alexandria (Jonathan Cape, 1995)
Paul Muldoon – The Annals of Chile (Faber & Faber, 1994)
Ciarán Carson – First Language: Poems (Gallery, 1993)

While not taking anything away from the individual winners or the work they produce, but it is worrying to see the winners have come from a narrow range of seven UK and Irish publishers, only one of which can be classed as a small press (Gallery).

Faber & Faber: 9
Jonathan Cape: 5
Bloodaxe: 3
Picador: 3
Carcanet Press: 2
Chatto & Windus: 1
Gallery: 1

The 2016 shortlist of ten included five titles alone from Picador, selected by judges Ruth Padel (Chair), Julia Copus and Alan Gillis. Not faulting the quality of poetry published by Picador, but what message does this send out to the smaller presses and the poets published by them? Is it a reality, or a mere by-product, that the message being given out here to independent presses is “don’t bother”?

Ruth Padel, in her speech at the award ceremony, mentioned that 138 books were read by the panel, and that the shortlist “does not reflect the brilliant range of new poetry publishers”; sadly, this is very true. Perhaps the Prize Committee could cast their net a little wider in who they consider; although small presses also need to be proactive and make sure to submit their authors.

Here are some responses to the above statistics:

Amos Greig, Lapwing Publications
“Not all small publishers can afford the costs of submitting to these prizes. They have to print and post the books those costs are lost and in the case of a small publisher they end up making a loss. That’s one of the reasons why Lapwing stopped sending books to competitions.”

Angela Topping
“Two things about these prizes: 1) It is a way of sharing a very little pot of money; 2) Such things are a way of promoting poetry books. There’s two reasons why it’s limited: there’s not much money to go around; and bookshops are rubbish at stocking poetry, unless they are independent ones.
+++“I never worry my head about not being included any more, as it’s not just about quality. The frustrating thing is that the poets who win these prizes are much more likely to be given readings and festival bookings, which further compounds the money situation. Promoters and organisers can open their views more, get out to poetry events and see who they would like to book, instead of lazily relying on prize lists.”

Patrick Cotter
“This is the way of the world – unless you have a book published by one of those seven publishers it’s assumed in many quarters that you are in the second or third division.”

Jim Hyde
“What interests me is the unspoken idea that this is the ‘main/best/etc.’ type of poetry. Like any artform, it’s just one area, representing what some bits of society prefer. There’s still room for all the other styles written. I do feel that there is a particularly British range of what poetry at this level looks like, different to what’s published in Ireland. The media report certain awards in a way that presents them as representing the entire artform. I’m not sure that it does. I was always struck, in the 1990s when I worked in publishing, by the staggering difference in sales between most poetry book sales and those of Pam Ayres.”

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