Last night I went to the Forward Prize party at Somerset House in London, to see John Burnside win Best Collection for Black Cat Bone (Cape) and Rachael Boast the Best First Collection for Sidereal (Picador). No one could quite agree how to pronounce that one: Cider-real? Sigh-DEAR-re-ul? Sidder-real? So I asked Boast. Then promptly forgot what she’d told me. However you say it, it’s an excellent collection. I had a brief conversation with the waifish poet in her stylish hat, trying to explain what appealed to me about her work. ‘Yes, a lot of people like the poems about lying around on hillsides, drinking,’ she observed.
One of the judges, Lady Antonia Fraser, was hunting round the room for Andrew Wyeth, author of a poem (it’s in the Forward Book of Poetry 2012) entitled ‘Pinter’s Pause’. I’m not sure she ever found him, but she did track down Leeds poet John Whale, whose collection Waterloo Teeth (Carcanet), shortlisted for best debut, had a poem about Marie Antoinette. I loved this book, clever and cultured and steeped in the era of the Romantics, with pieces about Mary Wollstonecraft and Tom Paine, and the grisly title poem: ‘we fell upon the rain-soaked bodies of the dead /… From the rosy cheeks of English plough-boys / we pulled two hundred sets of perfect teeth.’
Then it was off for a grand dinner under the painted eyes of Horatio Nelson, to celebrate two decades of the Forward Prizes. The supremely generous and dedicated founder William Sieghart recollected that an early ‘best collection’ winner was Thom Gunn with The Man With Night Sweats, a rapid poetic response to Aids that bore out Sieghart’s contention that poetry tackles issues more quickly than other art forms. My seat was marked ‘Don Paterson OBE’ (he’d had to go), which tickled me. Andrew Motion, chair of the judges, whose speech was read in absentia, remarked on the poetry scene’s internecine warfare this year. Judith Palmer and Fiona Sampson of the imploding Poetry Society seemed to be grimly avoiding one another. Let’s hope it’s all calming down now.
I recently reviewed five new anthologies for the Independent on Sunday, including the Forward Prize volumes (including Poems of the Decade), two from Salt Publishing, The Salt Book of Younger Poets and The Best British Poetry 2011, and Michael Hulse and Simon Rae’s massive undertaking, The 20th Century in Poetry, 800 pages and over 400 poems.
One major theme of the Hulse/Rae volume is war. It was experienced at first hand by the poets of WWI but as the century marches on, there’s a significant cultural shift with great implications for poetry. ‘John Forbes,’ they say, ‘observes the Gulf War of 1991 from the perspective most of us now share, that of the television viewer.’ Forbes’s ‘Love Poem’ is a rather subtle and clever piece; however, this phrase sent me into flashback mode. At the Independent on Sunday, I regularly used to get poems from readers, usually with an urgent note to say that as they were topical, could I ensure they got into the very next issue? One writer took compliance so for granted that he added testily: ‘I expect to be paid your normal rate.’ With a sinking heart, I would read the poems. They were usually from ‘the perspective most of us now share’.
A paraphrase might go something like this:
I am in my kitchen, kneading dough, thinking how good it will taste when baked, and how much my family enjoy eating my home-made bread. I cover it and leave it to rise and start watching the one o’clock news.
Oh no! I see scenes of carnage in a market somewhere in the middle east! Terrorists have blown up lots of women who were queueing for … bread. That’s ironic, isn’t it? I feel quite sad about my bread now. Why should I bother baking it (writing poems) in a world where that happens? What’s the point of it all? I really feel very depressed.
And then I think – I WILL bake bread (write poems) after all. I will bake it in defiance of the terrorists. I will bake it for all the women who can’t bake bread (or write poems), all over the world. I will do it in solidarity with them. Slice by slice, the world will become a slightly better place. My family really are going to enjoy this lovely home-baked bread…
My little paraphrase sounds mocking – actually some of these poems were rather good. They were just eerily unoriginal, and their authors were sublimely unaware of it. Perhaps it’s because poetry’s antennae operate so sensitively that they can pick up virtually the same vibration in several different places at once. I wonder whether these strange little news-item poems are still being written? After all, it’s what the Poet Laureate’s for…