Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Poetry's pool of prize money is a limited one - annually, the Forward and TS Eliot awards are the big gains, worth £10,000 and £15,000 respectively. In the absence of significant arts council funding to poets, they are significant. When one book scoops both awards, as Sean O'Brien's The Drowned Book, has just done, there's a good deal of scurrying around and questioning.

O'Brien regularly wins prizes, as does his fellow big hitter, Don Paterson. It seems that once a poet's on that shortlist and prize winning trail there's no stopping them. The massive exposure they receive ensures they are read, that their work is known, that any new work is stamped with the authority that comes with fame and consequently, reputation. Prizes bring jobs, too, more offers of work, commissions, invitations to read and so on.

Those on the shortlists fix their smiles afterwards - the confident and the generous praise the winner's success, the drunk say things they hope won't be repeated, the permanently insecure are confirmed in their insecurity. Those left off the shortlists altogether exchange consoling e mails or postcards.

There were some significant poets on this year's TS Eliot shortlist - notably Edwin Morgan, Matthew Sweeney, Sarah Maguire and Mimi Khalvati. Just one, Alan Gillis, came from a smaller publisher, Gallery. And all the books on the list deserve to be read, to be given time and respect.

But can we hope, too, that those who have made the big league will consider what they can do for poets whose work doesn't make headlines? I don't mean ensuring a smooth path for young successors, appointing newcomers who you believe are deserving - I mean that they will look around and read the books that were born around the same time.

.....Get to know them, as you know your neighbours, bring them together and enjoy their diversity, the new routes they offer, the different ways of using language and metaphor. Read them with the respect you wish your work to be given and be generous, responsible with the power you've been handed......

I was once told a story about a famous poet who was complaining about the number of other poets writing. His listener replied that without all those others around, his status would be meaningless.

We celebrate diversity in plant life, insect life. We speculate about what cures may be waiting to be discovered. I think it's time to take stock, as poets, of the fantastic range of work being published and make it our responsibility to celebrate that range rather than insist there is only one way. Surely we have the imaginations to do that.

Edwin Morgan www.edwinmorgan.com
Matthew Sweeney http://www.contemporarywriters.com/authors/?p=auth102
Mimi Khalvati http://www.mimikhalvati.co.uk/
Sarah Maguire http://www.contemporarywriters.com/authors/?p=auth02d11k170512627509