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Poetry Prizes: the Apotheosis of Buggins

Tuesday, 19 January 2010 at 19:05

His winter of discontent

When I had my first collection published in 1979 there were prizes for collections of poetry. I think there the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the Hawthornden, the Alice Hunt Bartlett, the Cholomondely, the Eric Gregory Awards (was there a Whitbread?) and the Poetry Book Society had its quarterly choice with one and only one Recommendation. If you got one of these it meant something and usually you could be fairly sure that it was a sign of merit. However, I recall Ian Hamilton having a go at the poetry business in an article roundabout this time and implying that the Cholomondely might be an award for 'good and faithful servants' of poetry.

In 1978 the first National Poetry Competition of Great Britain was inaugurated,won, I believe by Michael Hulse. It was also the first example of attempted media hype; "the biggest prize for a single poem in the world" andthis attracted a rumoured 15,000 entries. I won an Eric Gregory Award in 1978 along with Ciaran Carson, Martyn Ford and Christopher Reid. Maybe there was another person, but I can’t call him or her to mind. My award wasn't so big,possibly because I made the mistake of telling the panel of judges that I could survive perfectly well without the money. I was also embarrassed by a question from John Fuller on my influences. In 1978 I could not possible say in front of all those people, "Actually your Dad's New Poems in 1968, really loosened up my diction and attitude to all sorts of things such as metre and rhyme and getting down what is passing through your mind as opposed to what you think ought to be passing through your mind." Nowadays I understand young up-and-coming poets are quite shameless about such matters and may even engage a panel with anecdotes: "and not only do X's poems really knock my socks off but that poem of X's about M/Abel on the kitchen table, that was me after a workshop and for good measure I was the kitchen table as well."

There wasn't a hoohah about the prizes. A cheque presented to winners at New Zealand House. A ruddy-faced RS Thomas was there to get the Cholomondely. (Was there only one awarded every year?), Marvin Cohen was there because it looked like a party. Christopher Reid went to do what ever Christopher Reid does at these things. I went with a pretty woman I wished to impress. Two glasses of wineand a thank you very much for the cheque and the honour and everybody home to supper or stammered declarations over another two glasses of wine.

Nowadays a prize, a prestigious literary award, is tied in to other benefits. I didn't know, until I investigated, that not only is there a shortlist (a rather long short list) but the short-listed poets get read on the media and reviewed. Thirty years ago a small group of judges got together, chose a winner and stood by their guns. There may have been collections that came close and the unlucky poets might be tipped off that they came close or better their publishers were tipped off. The PBS Choices weren't lined up for a further prize, increased sales being regarded as sufficient benefit.

And here things get murky. PBS Choices are now automatically short-listed for the Eliot Prize. Readings onthe media is determined by the fact that poems are potentially “prize-winning”,not the result of the taste of a producer. In 1979 if you wanted to be read on the radio you sent poems to George Macbeth and he usually replied “not quite”and occasionally “I’ll take that” and one’s poem or poems would be read after an introduction with Macbeth’s Winchester “arw” to the fore, and which was both critically expert and engaging. Later in the 1980’sthere was “The Living Poet” where Roberta Berke and Piers Plowright gave relatively obscure poets, such as myself, a whole half hour programme to read and talk about their work. Today one’s work is read if a committee approves;the PBS selectors and then the selectors again, bolstered with other judges,just in case they’ve made a mistake. Individual taste and judgment are smoothed out by compromise. The Macbeths and Berkes have been cast aside as eccentric,flawed in judgment, probably promoting their friends and generally abusing their ‘power.’ Even if this was true, and mostly it wasn’t, at least one had a sense that an act of judgment and taste had taken place. Anyway only very strange and ingratiating people are agreeable to a whole committee.

The committee practice dominates. The Forward Prize is exemplary of this courage of other people’s convictions. Its prizes are awarded to published work in magazines and to prizewinners in competitions such as the Bridport. When you consider that magazines such as, Magma, select in committee and that the Bridport competition short-lists for its headline judge you have a situation of committees selecting from what other committees have selected. The National Poetry Competition in which I won a prize five times between 1982 and 1989 (Iswear I didn’t enter in 1984 and 1985 due to writer’s block) has reverted to the short-listing system. I have entered most years since 1989 and haven’t won a thing. I try not to smell a large disease-bearing rodent. It seems the shortlist prepared by “experts” who whittle down some thousands to hundreds and they are passed on to the judges. Who are these experts? The last time I went into the Poetry Society, which, with its scruffy notices pinned to the wall, had the appearance of an NGO active in supporting sufferers from some obscure sociopathic disorder, I was served coffee by some fat youth whose trousers were half way down his buttocks. So when he bent over to divvy up my muffin and large expresso I was treated to something in which I could park a mountain bike. Was he one of the experts? There’s no transparency for competitors so he may well have been co-opted that year.

What’s the end result of this committee work? Poor Man’s Soup or Buggin's Choice, that good and faithful servant, something vaguely nourishing for all, disagreeable to none, where salt and pepper have been kept to a minimum so the ‘outcomes’, (and outcomes are what you get from committee work,) lack bite, lack strong feeling, perception, cater to a common denominator, and leave potential readers feeling they’re going to get more out of X Factor than they’ll ever get in any slim volume.

Give me eccentricity, unfairness, So-so’s pick-ups, give me strong preferences, give me Professor Bonkers and his Geoffrey-Hill-over-my-dead-body even it’s cosmically wrong-headed. What we need is a John Peel for poetry, strong in preferences, always looking for the new, somebody who can take the needy personae of poets with a pinch of salt,somebody who can write, somebody who gives no quarter in argument, somebody who can make one take notice of an unpopular art, not somebody who thinks poetry should be a popular art. That latter is one of the roads that has led to the current crappy state of affairs.

Next week I’ll have more brickbats (not bottles, Mr Lumsden) to throw.

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