Review: T S Eliot Prize Shortlist 2012

Pamela Johnson reviews the 2012 T S Eliot Prize shortlist and finds overlapping themes and preoccupations among the ten collections.

From hundreds of books published this year here are eight voices from all around the UK and two from America. These books prove that contemporary poetry has never been more diverse or daring. You'll find traditional forms, and forms that break the mould. Though themes recur - nature, love, loss, childhood, war - in each poet's hands the universal is made fresh and particular.

Gillian Clarke, Kathleen Jamie and Sean Borodale all track the seasons to explore time, memory and our relationship with nature.

Gillian Clarke's work is rooted in Wales, in that country's landscape, rivers, mines. The poems in Ice have the musicality of Welsh-English and include Welsh words. Clarke observes the season of winter and, now in her mid-seventies, of later life. Ice becomes a metaphor for finding clarity and giving solidity to histories that might otherwise evaporate.

The poems that open Ice reflect on the severe winter of 2009/10 when, "frost has got its knives out", and "miles of silence deepen to the coast ..." Stilled and housebound, the world blanketed, the poet calls up others who have inhabited her landscape with poems about her great-grandparents, millers at Nant Mill.

There are childhood memories of the harsh winter of 1947 when "on doorsteps bottled milk stood stunned", and, under the cover of snow, dark crimes were committed, "a girl on the road from school was stolen, her breath/a frozen rose..." Clarke sets this against a recent murder in ‘Freeze 2010'. Several poems move into the wider world, reflecting on mining disasters and, still further out, the Haitian earthquake. But at the end of the book Clarke returns to winter as a way of looking forward, "every leaf-scar is a bud / expecting a future".

Scots poet Kathleen Jamie, in The Overhaul, is also taking note of the coming spring "... mid-February / those first days arrive / when the sun rises / higher than the Black / Hill at last". Her poems can appear deceptively simple, straightforward studies of nature - May blossom, the beach after a storm, a deer in the woods - but there are subtle undertows.

Writing these poems in her late forties, there is a sense of Jamie taking stock, moving on to the next phase - her children growing up, the body more vulnerable. The title poem appears, fittingly, at the mid-point of the book. Ostensibly a poem addressed to a beached boat in need of repair, in the final stanza we find: "it's a time of life thing, / it's a waiting game - / patience, patience".

Jamie's language is refreshingly uncluttered - the music of plain speaking. These minimal poems are built from clear-eyed observation, "grey clouds passing like peasant folk". Jamie positions herself in, not apart from, the natural world, often writing herself as a part of nature: "what form I take / I scarcely know myself / adrift in a wood / in wintertime at dusk".

She goes even further, inhabiting the viewpoint of a spider: "... had you never considered / how the world sustains? / The ants by day / clearing, clearing, / the spiders mending endlessly -"

Sean Borodale's remarkable debut takes us into the world of bees. In Bee Journal, he records his bee-keeping through the seasons, writing in the heat of things, at the hive, "bees batting this pen and poem's paper". There is an intensity of verbs and nouns, no time for every pronoun or article, this is documentary note-taking as poetry.

Sounds are foregrounded: on the journey home with the newly-acquired box of bees, "It is alive ... / small, small, small sounds composing one". A few days later: "The box is flooding with arrivals; / a weight measurable by thickenings of sound". Further on he records hive noises in order to transcribe into music, curious to discover, "what makes your orchestration, dialect, anima".

There are intriguing facts: dusting with icing sugar is a preventative against the deadly verroa mite. As he sprinkles the hive he notes the bees, "shaking the blizzard off with football stadium boos".

The telegraphic urgency of these note-poems creates a narrative drive: the excitement of collecting the bees, the anxiety of waiting to see the queen, tasting the first honey: "...dark stuff; mud tang /...The woods are in it". Will the bees survive winter?

From poems of the natural world, to poems of the body in books by Deryn Rees Jones, Sharon Olds, and Julia Copus. These collections explore loss, whether from untimely death, divorce or failed IVF treatment.

Deryn Rees Jones's husband, the poet Michael Murphy, died aged 43 of a brain tumour in 2009. In Burying the Wren she records the process of bereavement, from first raw grief to the gaining of some perspective. There are also poems that celebrate their life together, including the birth of their children.

Rees Jones lays bare the struggle from dumbstruck shock back into language: "When the months that were left could be held in our hands / I wanted to speak, but I could no". In a compelling sequence she responds to painter Paula Rego's Dogwoman series. Identifying with Rego's character allows her to inhabit the physicality of anguish "... where words will neither cure nor reason / dog's here, fur-matted, nose wet. Lap dog, dog of the dead".

In the potent sexuality of the pre-illness ‘Truffles', there is a pleasure in language, "More pungent, then, than mountain goats / whose cheese we daub on rounds of bread". This contrasts starkly with the directness of a later poem where, "On the funeral day, I came again: / your lips were cold, your eyelids stitched".

The last poem, the title poem, is a direct address to her dead husband: "sending you in the longboat of your body / where worlds and words collide, was not / the end of love. Yet love/you've been with me enough / so I must let you be".

In 1997, after thirty years of marriage, Sharon Olds's husband left her for another woman. In Stag's Leap, Olds creates a narrative of the emotional fall-out. She recalls a moment before the split when, having found a photo of the other woman in his running shorts, "... surprise trout / of wash day," the husband denies its significance: "... I had not / known he knew how to lie..."

It's not all about blame. In the title poem Olds admits, "I am half on the side of the leaver". Olds describes herself as a "family poet". It is from her family's emotional life - good times, but often the bad - that she forges poetry. She comes to empathise with her husband's having to carry, " books on his head like a stack of / posture volumes..."

The form of Olds's poems rarely varies; with no stanzas, the lines follow the rhythm of speech or thought process. Her tone is direct, conversational, with moments of lyric intensity; her gaze, unflinching. Many poems focus on the body. As her husband tells her he's leaving, Olds notes, "his deep navel, and the cindery lichen / skin between the male breasts". A year after the divorce she writes of her own breasts: "they are waiting for him, my / Christ they are dumb..."

These poems began as notes written in the crisis of 1997, which gives them an honesty and apparent accuracy. Olds waited for her children to become adults before publishing.

Julia Copus's The World's Two Smallest Humans is a collection in four parts, the final section dealing with the inability to have children. In the first section, elegant lines of complex, flowing syntax burrow back in time revealing stories of childhood, teenage disaffection and the end of a relationship.

Copus inhabits characters and voices with ease, offering affecting portraits of Raymond, obsessed with London buses and retired teacher Miss Jenkins who, "In the dim, sugar-paper blur of light / while boiling the kettle or kneeling" over weeds recalls the work that "had defined her".

It is the final section of this book, ‘Ghost', which stands out; a poignant sequence that records IVF treatment that ultimately failed. Here the writing is pared back, minimal, the voice direct, detached, even. Objects become imbued with potency; in the treatment room the instruments form an unsparing list: "overshoes that crackle", "a stool / white plastic" and "one purple treatment chair". On the telephone waiting for results, "She leans her head against it, listening hard, / the way the Indians in the films of her childhood / would press an ear to the ground..."

The book's title comes from a line in ‘Egg' where the embryologist arrives looking like a girl in a bakery with her cap and gloves, "except instead of iced buns she is carrying / the world's two smallest humans, deftly clinging / to the edge of her pipette".

Paul Farley and Jacob Polley, preoccupied with darkness and light, are poets of peripheral vision, illuminating their childhoods from the edges, giving a fresh angle on the world around us.

The opening poem in Paul Farley's Dark Film is a call to the imagination: "...Picture a seaside town / in your head ... raise the lid of the world to change the light... / go as far as you want...Now look around your tiny room / and tell me that you haven't got the power".

Beyond cinema the word ‘film' has other connotations: memory images that flicker in the mind, a coating on the world that mists or blurs our view. Farley lights up the urban landscape of "civic twilight" and "the substation humming its old song".

There are dazzling shifts of viewpoint - a child's perception of adults, "l'd look up to them looming on street corners", or zooming down via Google earth: "all the world's a drop zone of the mind". The coloured wrappers of Quality Street become "gels and tints" allowing kids to "turn themselves into a camera".

Nostalgia is a trap Farley edges towards at the "...Milk Nostalgia Head Office...where every bottled note left out is filed /... lost literature / writ in last-thing-at-night's forgotten hand..." But he subverts it in a poem that enacts a life lived backwards, "...I'm one week in / and I never want to see a raindrop run / up a windowpane again".

For Farley the apparently ordinary can be rendered lyric through a deft handling of form and rhyme. In ‘Cloaca Maxima' he moves from suburban childhood "sewer-jumping" into a meditation on the roll-call of the dispossessed, trapped through history: "The millions of mixed shades / are still running beneath our surfaces / and visible to those who just step sideways".

While Farley is something of a social historian, Jacob Polley in The Havocs illuminates the darker reaches of the psyche and contemporary life, balancing this with short poems that take us back outside to the light of the natural world, "The early autumn moon / more brightly lit and fuller grown".

Several poems return to the "kingdom of childhood". Polley opens "the cupboard of my childhood", finding it filled with fears and freedoms - night terrors, a doll's house and a game of hide and seek. As the poem lists where the child wasn't hiding it accumulates to a litany of things both fearful and fascinating: "Grandma Dolly's beige plastic leg", "the heap of severed heads", "the slurry pit".

The poems have a timeless, uncanny quality; the address is often oblique. Polley borrows traditional forms - cautionary tale, riddle, ballad - to further de-familiarise.'Langley Lane' is a ballad that jogs along, telling a seemingly timeless tale until we get to "They grabbed my phone".

In the title poem Polley riffs on the word havoc, shifting it from noun to verb, "I havoc quietly at home". It's a strategy that allows him to range wide, producing a litany of the destruction, chaos and confusion in contemporary society: "Havoc is committed to care for the elderly, education for all". Having delved into the dark, the final short poem of the book ends: "All night the mind had dreamed itself clean".

Simon Armitage
and Jorie Graham also examine the dark side of human nature. Their books seem worlds apart - 600-year-old storytelling, 21st Century philosophising - yet beneath the differences lie similar ethical questions.

The Death of King Arthur
is a page-turner. Simon Armitage has refreshed this historic tale of abuse of power, making it accessible to contemporary readers.

Huddersfield-born Armitage worked from the Alliterative Morte Arthure; the manuscript being a copy made c1400 by Yorkshireman Robert Thornton of an even earlier text. The author of the lost text is also believed to hail from the north. One senses the overlapping northern voices, at ease with the four-beat line and the music of consonants.

The tale of a mythical king this may be, but vivid images take us time-travelling to the Mediaeval banquet, "plump swans presented on silver plates /...bakings of bitterns and barnacle geese", and the realism of the battlefield "...with the sound of rivets / and burnished metal and bright chain-mail".

The title reveals the story's end, yet the alliterative lines compel us at a gallop, along with Arthur's knights, to discover why he falls. Having settled a legitimate territorial dispute in Europe - featuring the defeat of the King of Libya - Arthur rampages on, prosecuting his own land-grab, "we shall be overlord of all that exists on earth!" It is mission creep that seals Arthur's fate. With no United Nations, Lady Fortune steps in, "You have loitered in privilege and pleasure too long."

In the 21st Century worldview of Jorie Graham's P L A C E there is no Lady Fortune, only the individual, her shifting self, seeking location in a complex, fragmented world.

War is still with us. The collection begins and ends with poems that find Graham meditating at sites of past conflict - Omaha beach and Armagh. In between she explores what it means to live and love today, knowing what atrocities we are capable of.

These expansive, discursive poems often begin with a particular image or sound - a dog killed by a car, a herd of cows, spring bulbs. A sensory perception acts as both anchor in the present and trigger for a train of thought that might travel far - either back through memories or, by contemplating ethical and spiritual questions, envisioning a future.

In ‘End (November 21, 2010)' Graham starts out noticing the season shift, "End of autumn. Deep fog. There are chains in it, and sounds of / hinges. No that was / birds. A bird and a gate". The poem continues to gather in sounds from a muffled world - hammering, boots on soil, the moans of cattle, a hinge swinging, the clinking links of a chain; " is just the farmer at work", the listener tries to stay in the present, to distinguish her inner world from the troubling outer world. But the sounds set off associations, other connotations of chains and moans, and lead to a contemplation of the nature of time, the "trap" of eternity.

Graham's digressions can't be held within short lyrics. Instead, she creates lines and patterns from the cadences of her spooling-out thoughts-in-process. Long lines are ranged to the left of the page, while short lines are ranged down the centre, suggesting thoughts shuttling back and forth, a mind trying to centre itself in an uncertain world. This makes for a challenging read but the reward makes the effort worthwhile.

Poetry is best read slowly, line by line, savouring the words and sounds. There is something on this list for all tastes.

Pamela Johnson
, novelist and poet, is Associate Tutor on the MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. She blogs at:


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