‘TO TELL YOUR NAME THE LIVELONG DAY’: THE PARADOX OF THE POETRY PRIZE
FOR MORE THAN TWO DECADES British poetry has been pulled into an increasingly worrying economy, and one which arguably has greater interior effect for its community than outside impact: prize culture. So great is this interior effect that I proceed with a degree of trepidation, not to mention an explicit concern that I might be read as perfidious in all respects, since I have personally benefitted from prize culture and all that such notice brings with it. Even stating such biographical detail in this context places one in the curious position of being simultaneously both humblebrag and turncoat. But perhaps those of us in the poetry mainstream are all somehow the children of prize culture now, whether or not we are beneficiaries of the privileges it confers. By the time I emerged as a debutant in 2004, and, well prior to this, set about achieving a toe-hold in the smaller magazines, prize culture was already ingrained in the poetry community’s consciousness. The T. S. Eliot Prize and Forward Prizes, established in the early 1990s, had, by then, and over a remarkably short period of time, become powerful indicators in the career hierarchy. Winning and shortlisted poets’ individual merits—or lack thereof—were the subject of hot debate, post-workshop, over pub tables across the land. Envy was a given. Prizes had become powerful in promoting performance anxiety—bitterness and cruelty, too, even from unexpected sources.
Yet prizes originated from a desire to do good; of course they did. And they were almost certainly never intended to preoccupy the poets more than the civilians. Prizes were an opportunity for redress, a laudable attempt to reposition contemporary poetry—on the cultural ropes—as lively, relevant and essential for a mainstream literary readership. Attempting to emulate the kudos and glamour of major literary prizes for fiction, they would distance poetry from the stubborn whiff of damp tweed. Prizes would also provide a welcome opportunity to financially reward the purveyors of an art form who typically went largely unremunerated for their efforts. Even those outside of prize notice would benefit eventually, it was reasoned, since this was trickle-down poetry economics. Civilians stimulated by prize coverage to buy shortlisted or winning collections would then go on to buy more contemporary poetry books generally.
Except that, of course, prizes do not deal in trickle-down benefits, however much we would wish them to. Literary prizes, by their very nature, promote certain titles and their authors and thus, logically, demote everything—and everyone—else. The consequences of prize notice in any given year seem fairly obvious, in spite of the sincere and positive intentions of those who administer awards: rendering certain practitioners more visible at the cost of the wider community. But prize notice outlives the annual Guardian feature or the congratulatory posts on social media, since it also encourages a longer term readerly confirmation bias as to excellence regarding a poet’s subsequent collections. Prizes lobby for selectivity, and the effect on an individual poetic reputation is incremental over time, boosting status and even attracting further prize notice, since everyone is potentially vulnerable to confirmation bias—including judges. If a poet has been so brilliant as to have secured the T. S. Eliot Prize, he cannot, with another collection, be so very bad—can he? But how can we even be sure that the garlanded poet was regarded as so unequivocally brilliant in the first place, even if everyone in the community agrees that the judging process seems to have been unimpeachable?
Poetry prizes, as with all cultural prizes requiring the assent of more than one person, are awarded according to the principle of consensus. The best judging panels are assembled from across a spectrum of aesthetic inclination and influence, priorities, interests, and allegiances, and will demonstrate a fine balance of ethnicity, provenance and gender. Indeed, most often, when howls of foul play or exclusion are sounded out on Facebook or Twitter, these are the thorny matters which, quite rightly, concern the poetry community. But even the most positive efforts of representation and openness, apparently free from any evident conflict of interest, cannot quite defeat the essential pragmatism of consensus. Consensus means very often giving away what you really, really want in order to secure that which most people on a panel will accept and feel broadly happy with. Consensus limits individual passions in favour of general acceptance. Of course, no one really wishes to highlight this essential point, since it undermines the very nature of what a prize is intended to signal in order to achieve credibility: emphatic belief on the part of the whole panel as to superlative merit. And yet. It is in the nature of things that a great deal of truly significant artistic enterprise will have strong flavour, tending to divide, rather than conquer. Innovation can be very alienating to the more conservative. Standing outside of fashion can make a poet appear—at least superficially—irrelevant in certain quarters. Of course, it is perfectly possible that in a happy, given year, judges coincide in their views if not entirely, then largely: every shortlisted poet is one whom each judge would probably agree represented a best pick; the winner is a result of clear unanimity. But it is also perfectly possible for a number of poets to be omitted from a shortlist, despite the championing of certain judges, since those judges are subject to the competing view of their fellow judges and whom they wish to see represented— or quite particularly do not. Such bargaining becomes even more difficult for the judges for the T. S. Eliot Prize. They have to negotiate their selections against the fact that four of the ten available places for the prize are already occupied by the PBS Choices of that year which were not selected by them at all and may not necessarily reflect their views in any way. Of course, none of this offers comfort to those who will never know how close they came. But what it does tell us is that very often lists are actually a statement of compromise and that the eventual winner triumphs in that very important context.
Of course, we know, if we are poets, that the process of judging is not without significant flaws, regardless of who occupies a panel. Yet we cannot quite shake our preoccupation with prize culture—or our desire to see ourselves positively represented in the poetry ‘economy’. There is no commercial market or a bold, ranging broadsheet critical culture which might justify a poet’s creative project within society; couple this with the attendant low self-esteem yet hungry ego to which poets are particularly prone, and prizes seem to matter a great deal. Admission into prize notice can seem like joining an elite club, an academy of the laurelled—notice how the Forward Prizes term their shortlisted and winning poets alumni. Once upon a time, in an age which cannot be missed by many, there were just a handful of publishers with any distribution to speak of available to the serious and talented. Back then, the prize was simply to be published in the first place. I do not need to write an encomium here to the democratization of poetry since those largely male, white, Oxbridge days—as a female poet, from Wales, publishing outside of the commercial presses, my position should be clear. But even so, I recognize that it makes pecking orders for a now much broader spectrum of poets and publishers seem all the more confusing, particularly for those outside of the major commercial presses: where do we—where do I—stand, exactly? Offering at least part of the answer to this question, we now have poetry Top Gun style: the best of the best. The new order of prize culture co-opts us, governing us by the fear of our essential irrelevance and by the dangerous seduction of status—and encouraging our tacit acceptance. Since prize culture is something most people wish to be a part of rather than not, ambitious and canny operators who see themselves as potential players will be keeping their own counsel.
For the lucky ones who gain entry to this private members’ club of prize culture, privilege goes well beyond the welcome ego massage. Practical benefits are conferred, and I speak from experience. Offers of readings, festivals, judging and teaching will arrive via the inbox with regularity, because biographical data now has the sprinkle of stardust. For a time, at least, such lucky poets are the go-to people, who reinforce or lend establishment credibility and marketing to a variety of poetry-community enterprises. Reach may be increased, if only slightly, then nonetheless significantly, because this is poetry, after all. The Guardian or The Times may publish a review long after hope was given up of any notice. Poetry magazines may well reassess their position and afford a review to a title which would otherwise have escaped notice. The Forward and Eliot Prizes usually correspond to some uptake in sales, often more proportionally dramatic for those titles from smaller publishers. The poet’s success also validates the publisher in the process and, particularly in the case of smaller publishers, stimulates increased interest in them from poets yet to publish a first book—a mainstreaming phenomenon which prompted me, in no small part, to wish to join the Seren list. This all seems, on the face of it, entirely to the good. Who would seek to deny the poet and publisher—largely unappreciated in their endeavours and precarious in their position—such affirmation and economic potential? But it can feel very different from the outside, looking in, as individual interests trump the solidarity of a community. And the effects of prize culture on the dignity and enterprise of new poets particularly trouble me.
Somewhere, outside of the language of blurbspeak, we know that few poets emerge fully formed. There’s a reason many debuts concern themselves quite explicitly with an excavation of selfhood, roots, and the past. The debut is an attempt to come to terms with everything—in life and art—which has brought the poet to this courageous point of public utterance. In a curious sense, the debut is an ending of sorts for the poet, which may well account for the postfirst-collection tristesse so many of us experience. It’s a messy process, usually, even if evincing apparent technical flair on occasion. The debutant’s influences may well be evident to the reader, even as the poet felt they were already slipping away with each word set down on the page. Intellectual and aesthetic cul-desacs are cheerfully explored. Recklessness is a vital component in breakthroughs. Outright failure is a lesson for the future, to reflect on fondly with age. And this is what we should expect from any serious journeyman. The pressure to perform in prize culture at such a level of relatively early emergence seems to me—for all the reasons above—to be profoundly unhealthy. Should new poets be judged in this way, at this particular point?
After the initial pleasure of being shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection sank in for me—what outrageous fortune is this?—the lasting feeling was one of relief. That’s a strange emotion to connect with being shortlisted for a prize, isn’t it? Prizes should be fun, shouldn’t they? I didn’t feel I deserved the nod then, and I still don’t now, despite my enormous respect for the judges who selected me. Grappling with self-belief in writing simply doesn’t work that way. If only it did. But I nonetheless knew that I had, somehow, come through, even without the advantages of a commercial publisher, and I was supremely grateful. My little book would not, after all, disappear. Not yet. Fast forward a decade, and a young, gifted debutant, who had received no prize notice on any lists, recently spoke sadly to their future on a Facebook thread: There is no prize for best second collection. It seemed to me to be a terrible indictment of the hostile environment prize culture has unwittingly created for new poets who should still be thinking of their art in terms of play and exploration and, through this, travelling ever more closely towards the poet they are yet to become. But, seemingly, the sandpit is no more. Instead, there is, ludicrous as it may seem, a soul-destroying corporate ladder. Of course, I was sorely tempted to release my flood of platitudes: Move on! It doesn’t matter. The work’s the thing. You’re talented. But the young, gifted debutant felt that they had failed—how could they think otherwise? The judgment was passed, after all, by the legislators of the poetry community. The debutant had not failed artistically, of course, but they had in all probability lost their chance at the highest profile prizes they were most likely to gain list notice for during their career. By the time a second collection eventually arrives and is placed within the economy, it is competing with works by the most senior—and, yes, often prizewinning or regularly shortlisted—members of our tribe: the alpha poets. There is no prize for best second collection.
Teaching poetry and as a former editor of a literary magazine, I’ve witnessed another, perhaps unsurprising, development: the degree to which many aspiring poets—pre-first collection—seem to be focused on prize culture. Administrators of prizes would probably consider this helpful to poetry’s cause in practical terms. Prize culture offers a gateway into contemporary poetry. It’s another aspect of that theory of trickle-down poetry economics, which reasons that prize culture necessarily leads the learner-poet onwards, to discover other poets unrecognized by the system. But this has not been my experience. Most such unrecognized poets—particularly those from smaller presses, such as the frequently brilliant Nine Arches—generally require a significant amount of championing by workshop tutors. It is not a natural follow-on from prize culture, to the benefit of all; it’s a result of dedicated poet-tutors, such as Roddy Lumsden, staging an intervention, passionately urging wider engagement, and presenting the possibility of an alternative narrative of achievement, including one which is not limited to the UK scene. And then there’s the problem of homogeneity. As an editor, I could often clearly detect the influence Forward Prize for Best First Collection winners were exerting on new poets; one winner’s approach, in particular, seemed to prove very popular indeed. Unfortunately, I saw less and less evidence of canonical contact with each passing month, and I became convinced that, if anything, the pool of talent new poets were drawing from for influence was becoming that much smaller and that much more recent. It’s only logical, of course, that new poets are interested in prize-culture success. After all, prize culture seems to offer a helping hand in guiding them to what may often be very good work, practically speaking. And since new poets want to do well, then of course they wish to become acquainted with the kind of work that is well received. In a world without such exacting reference points, the whole endeavour of becoming a fine poet exposed to wide-ranging approaches, subject matter, and even variable quality is that much more difficult and time-consuming, yet infinitely more exciting and constructive. In the end, if you really want to be unique, read as much and as many as you possibly can—and ignore the canon at your peril.
Even beyond the effects prize culture may be having on new poets, I wonder whether it may also be contributing to a gradual neutralization of the critical culture for poets at large. Clare Pollard, a fine poet and an equally fine and brave critic, reflected recently on the perils of being a poetry reviewer for New Walk Magazine. She rightly noted the predicament for reviewers in considering collections by figures in the poetry establishment who also happen to frequently take up roles on judging panels. One of poetry’s problems, after all, is that its critical assembly is largely occupied by poets. In reviewing a book, the poet-reviewer is confronted with negotiating the politics of poetry’s small community with their candid response to text and the ensuing fall-out from an unhappy reading experience faithfully expressed. Before prizes even come into it, there is the contemplation of potential offence to a powerful gatekeeper, to the friend of a powerful gatekeeper, or to someone who simply has a lot of friends. The existence of prize culture, however, seems only to increase the perceived—or actual—personal risk to a poetic career. This is not to suggest that most reviewers misrepresent collections, but it is simply to emphasize that the diplomatic solution of softening reviews can and almost certainly does happen, even as it is entirely human and understandable. This of course matters in critical terms, because criticism is not about diplomacy or vested interests; it is not about keeping or winning friends. It’s about honest and explicit judgment without personal agenda. It seems unlikely to me that the future of poetry criticism will uncover a host of critics—our very own Mark Kermodes and Peter Bradshaws, let’s say—who, as non-practitioners of poetry, will be entirely liberated from community baggage. Therefore we cannot be casual about any encroachment on our critical freedoms, however subtle they may seem. Further, in a devilishly complicated economy, the importance of a thoroughly candid critical culture also matters in relation to prizes, since reviews can encourage another kind of confirmation bias within the community regarding supposed merit, which may affect the level of attention afforded to certain collections by a judging panel. Confused yet? If poetry prizes must exist, why on earth should they be judged by poets?
The Forward Prizes, of course, do have civilian representation on their panels, as well as poets. Do poets, though, present the authority on the Forward Prize panels, regardless of who is the chair? I can’t know, but would suspect that great weight is accorded to their opinion. But what if the poets disappeared from the panel altogether—and also disappeared from the T. S. Eliot Prize panel? What if judging panels reflected what poetry prizes are meant to emphasize to the audience it seeks to interest and reassure: that you don’t have to be a poet to approach poetry without reader-anxiety? What if the poetry community accepted that any perceptive, curious reader engaged with literature generally can have a legitimate, qualified response to the quality or otherwise of a given collection, without ever having written a single villanelle? Aren’t these the very arguments which come into play when we try to persuade the world of the enduring value of our place in the literary scheme? And what if the verdict on particular poets turned out to be very different, after all, from the received wisdom within the poetry community? For better or for worse, such a move might reveal some crucial intelligence regarding the disparity between what poets want and an audience demands. It would also enable us to dispense with at least some of the tiresome internecine troubles which divide our already seriously endangered community, as well as the gossip and assumptions which can taint individuals. Perhaps, too, it might encourage a healthier response to prizes and what they signify. How much less, well, personal would it feel to be excluded from prize notice when such exclusion was not committed at the hand of your poetic peers? Who knows—poet-free prize juries may even cause us, as a community, to lose a sizeable amount of interest in prize lists and look upon each other more gently. I rather suspect that they would.
However much prize culture concerns me, I recognize the need for marketing and promotion. The question is what form such marketing should take and the limits of what, in any case, it can realistically achieve. Having edited a poetry list at small Welsh indie press Parthian, without the heritage effect of a substantial and acclaimed back catalogue to hook readers, what I desired and missed most was a stronger marketing budget—over which I could have full autonomy. It seemed to me that what was needed was the opportunity for greater grassroots engagement across the UK: connecting with a perhaps small but potentially responsive audience and pooling resources with other publishers, particularly those outside of Wales, in order to make better things happen and the brand gradually more familiar in the process. Grand plans to create a wide readership for poetry through prize marketing are as essentially flawed as they are well-meaning. We are living in an age which hardly offers favourable conditions for an art form so dependent on readerly reflection. Reader habits tend to be established relatively early in life. My instinct is that the audience which responds to poetry prize culture has a pre-existing relationship with poetry. What happens, though, is that the audience is directed to certain poets and their titles, rather than converted to the cause. Prizes focus the attention on selected poets, with a number of these recognized on multiple occasions down the years. However unintentionally, the unfair flipside of this system is that a sort of underclass is being created and reinforced. Statistically speaking, we know that poets from the smallest publishers are more liable to escape any prize notice at all, outside of the first-collection lists. Thus the most vulnerable—yet extremely valuable—platforms in poetry tend to be subject to increased threat rather than benefit from prizes, despite the fact that these are the same platforms which most keenly require marketing in order to survive and also happen to be frequently publishing some of the most thrilling, diverse and idiosyncratic work on offer in the UK. It is not an easy matter.
Things will only get tougher over the next decade for small publishers looking to maintain or secure public funding—let alone those intent on ploughing on without subsidy in order to reserve complete editorial independence in their selections. Prize judges, in this climate, whether they be poets or civilians, will have to be more conscious of their social responsibility in sharing out privilege than ever before, because the risks are clear. Over time, the possibilities for what British poetry might eventually be and achieve will otherwise become radically attenuated, as publishers give up the ghost, are unreplaced, and important poets languish in the dark—our great unread.