Halfway through the readings of the shortlisted poets for the T. S. Eliot prize at the Royal Festival Hall last night, I became convinced that someone had set the poets all the task of reading Freud’s famous collection Totem and Taboo (1913), and the whole night was the product of a rather over-extended homework task. We had poems about loving your parents but eating them (Victoria Kennefick, Eat or We Both Starve), the morning after pill becoming the totem meal of a communion wafer (Joelle Taylor, C+nto), and a terrifying image of fifteen babies preparing to absolutely decimate their father’s life (Jack Underwood, A Year in the New Life). So far, so Sigmund.
But whereas contemporary culture has grown to be able to mock our hallowed forefather of psychoanalysis, it would have been difficult to mock any of the poets and make it out of the Southbank Centre alive — such was the air of earnestness.
Is this all an experiment in necromancy?
The T. S Eliot Prize is the most valuable prize in British poetry — the winner is given £25,000 — and also the most prestigious. Ted Hughes’ heart-breaking, brilliantly eviscerating Birthday Letters won in 1998, and Anne Carson and Seamus Heaney have also been recipients. More recently, Hannah Sullivan’s masterful Three Poems won in 2018, and Roger Robinson’s Portable Paradise was deservedly crowned in 2019.
But, for the 2021 prize, it is difficult to imagine any of the shortlisted collections rivalling the likes of Alice Oswald’s Dart (2002) or John Burnside’s Black Cat Bone (2011). Rather, the shortlist seems to have been designed to anger the prize’s namesake T. S. Eliot. Perhaps the thought is that if his spirit is riled up enough, a ghost will appear. Is this all an experiment in necromancy?
Take Joelle Taylor’s collection C+nto as an example. The poems are prefaced by seven pages of introduction and glossary that explains what the book is, what the poems are, and what the words mean. One wonders if we might turn the page to find a guide to the alphabet. When asked to explain his verse drama Sweeney Agonistes (1933), T. S Eliot famously declared “explanations of poetry are meaningless, because a poem will never mean to the reader what it did to the author”. Thomas Stearns, oh how innocent you were.
The purpose of Taylor’s preface and glossary is to ensure the poem means exactly the same to the reader as it does to the author — it is more political manifesto than poetry. To be fair to Taylor, it is an inspiring manifesto: a call to butch, “funny walking women” everywhere and for lesbian empowerment. Indeed, Taylor was the most impressive performer of the night — she has a background in spoken word and founded SLAMbassadors, a youth slam poetry competition. But, the fact remains that Keats’ delight in the unknown possibilities of “negative capability” has been replaced with certainties, definitions, and political talking-points.
There is, of course, the case to be made that this isn’t new: what does poetry become if it fails to engage with the world around it? Political poetry has long-since struggled to balance aesthetic concerns with points of policy and radicalism. Shelley’s early epic Queen Mab makes a strong point for a Godwinian society, but you would be hard pressed to find a literary critic who unironically defended its poetic talent. And, later in his career, Auden insisted upon removing his poem on the Spanish Civil War “Spain 1937” from collected editions of his work as he thought its politics were “dishonest”.
But, as you read on in the shortlist, you may find yourself quickly wishing you were back in the politicised world of Joelle Taylor’s gay bars and lesbian communities. If modern poetry began with T.S. Eliot’s line from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock “like a patient etherised upon a table”, it surely must have died the moment someone deigned to believe the phrase “stress-eating granola” counted as verse. Jack Underwood’s A Year in the Life is marked by some brilliant poems on the trials and tribulations of fatherhood, but it is also peppered with allusions to middle-class life — “an avocado / withholding its stone” — that any reader is not quite sure if they are allowed to laugh at.
There are, of course, some diamonds amongst the papery rough: Raymond Antrobus’s All The Names Given is a sometimes-playful, sometimes-devastating exploration of the ways in which poetry can be experienced both on the page and in the ear. And Selima Hill is a master of Wendy Cope-ish witticisms such as “Eating cake is all very well / but what we need to think about is money”.
But, regardless, at the end of two and a half hours sitting in the Southbank Centre — and a considerable number of vodka sodas — my only thought was to agree with Marianne Moore: “Poetry. I too, dislike it.”
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