To a seat in the rear stalls at the Royal Festival Hall last night, for the T S Eliot Prize readings. This was the hot ticket on a very cold Sunday night. Nearly 2,000 in the audience. Eight shortlisted poets reading for 10 minutes each (give or take a rambling digression or two). Compered by the ever affable Ian McMillan. The stage bare apart from a lonely lectern and a discreet-ish promotional banner; centre back a large screen for the benefit of us punters squinting from the rear stalls. And in order of appearance:
Daljit Nagra – bouncy, boyish, infectious and inventive! I’ve read his collection Tippoo Sultan’s Incredible Man-Eating Tiger Toy-Machine!!! and it’s very good!!
Bernard O’Donoghue – the name was not unfamiliar but the poetry was. A touch of humour. Seemingly effortless but also moving. I like his themes – family, loss, exile. What lies beneath the ordinary. He ended with a finely judged elegy for a friend.
Esther Morgan – understated, cool poems. “It looks simple” one of her lines starts in the poem Grace, and these are poems (as all poems should be) to go back to, to mull over, to give them space to work on you.
David Harsent – mysterious, slightly withheld. Writing at the height of his powers, according to our compere. The last poem he read, Blood Alley, ‘about’ playing marbles as a child, and so much more; the twist of the last line sharp as a bully’s pinch.
[Interval. Scramble a plastic goblet of red wine. Exchange impressions with fellow poet Joolz Sparkes. Spot a few known culprits from the London poetry circuit.]
John Burnside – he’s funny, good at the banter between poems. And his poems aren’t bad either. In fact, I rather like them. Rich imagery, and beautiful precision. I close my eyes to listen better. He’s on my list.
Leontia Flynn – witty and self-deprecating and contemporary and engagingly discursive. After reading an extract from a long poem, she ended with an elegy for her father, who had Alzheimer’s. As she read the poem I realised I had read it before and been struck and moved by it.
Sean O’Brien – restrained anger, a powerful voice. And another elegy, this time for his mother (how many ways there are to be moved, how different and yet how close each individual’s loss).
And last but not least, Carol Ann Duffy – assured, razor-sharp, generous. Finishing with an elegy for her mother, Premonitions, and as she read this poem again it revealed itself to me as a poem I’d read and tucked away inside, the movement and feeling of the poem reverberating in me.
And the winner was announced tonight…
…John Burnside, in case you hadn’t heard.