This review is taken from Stand 237, 21(1) April - June 2023.

Review: The T.S. Eliot Prize

The annual T. S. Eliot Prize has been mutating. A decade ago, the shortlist would have been dominated by established poets with many collections to their name. This year, half of the ten collections shortlisted are debuts. Whether the change is desirable must depend on the quality of the new poets vis-à-vis those they have presumably displaced. The T. S. Eliot describes itself as ‘the most prestigious poetry prize in the world’ and this year’s Chair of judges, Jean Sprackland, praised the shortlist in the following terms: ‘The English of these books is supple and shapeshifting, inflected with Yoruba, Newry street dialect, and the rhythms of Caribbean speech. These are books that thrilled, surprised, and struck us to the heart.’

Overall, the shortlisted collections seem to endorse an ideal which is egalitarian, although of course the Prize is intrinsically competitive, with the winner taking most of the prize money on offer. From shortlist and prize-winner one may infer what the judges are indeed prizing. High on the list would be perceived political and cultural relevance, human interest, emotional drama, accessibility, marketability, and ‘innovative’ use of form. There is little premium on canonical allusion or ambiguity. The stage is set for a poetry of personality as well as its commodification. This generates something of a paradox in that the Prize is of course named after a poet-critic who famously advocated ‘impersonality’ in verse, and who called (at the end of Tradition and the Individual Talent) for ‘significant ...
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image