Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Prizes | Poetry | The Silkies

“Contemporary poets, alas, have prizes instead of readers. The number of poetry prizes in the land is astonishing… Such is their plentitude that one is almost inclined to think contemporary poetry less an art than a charity in need of constant donations.”
– Joseph Epstein

“It’s scary… Who’s number one? Who’s number one?”
– John Berryman upon hearing of Robert Frost’s death.

In literature, prizes have always been of great importance, especially in poetry. There are several reasons for this; an indication of quality in a medium with no apparent rules, a source of financial support for practitioners of a non-lucrative profession, a source of encouragement for up-and-comings, a means for boosting the prestige of a publishing house or company and encouraging big names to submit.

The reason for literary prizes that I want to pay closer attention to however, is ‘encouragement’.  In Tradition and the Individual Talent, T.S. Eliot seems to draw a line between the young poetaster and ‘any-one who would continue to be a poet beyond his 25th year’. Eliot distinguishes between these camps because:

“The mind of the mature poet differs from the immature one not precisely in any valuation of “personality”, not necessarily more interesting, or having “more to say”, but rather by being a more finely perfected medium in which special, or very varied, feelings are at liberty to enter into new combinations.”

Whilst I agree that there is a distinction to be made between the ‘mature’ and ‘immature’ in poetry, it can be very difficult sometimes to see why one would ever put in the hours and effort to graduate to ‘poetic maturity’. Society is all too aware that, in the hunter/gatherer sense, we do not need poets, just as with actors, footballers, journalists and musicians. Whilst we poets do not share the salaries that some of these other professions enjoy, we do share their preoccupation with prizes.

Whilst there is invariably money attached directly and indirectly to the Oscars, the F.A. Cup, the Grammys and the T.S. Eliot Prize, the real importance is their role in the community. These prizes send out a clear message to the winners, the runners-up, the fans and general public alike – ‘our pursuit has a tradition and it matters’.

To this end, I have elected myself judge and jury for the first season of what I hope will become the most coveted poetry award in the country – ‘The Silkies’. In order to win one of these awards you must fulfil one vital criteria only – you must appear on my bookshelf. I am accepting entries from all origins and eras, but will aim to keep my main focus on contemporary poetry.

All (living) winners of this most prestigious award are entitled to one free drink up to the value of £5.20 should you spot me at any literary event, or indeed anywhere. Proof of identification required.

Best Title of a Collection

This was perhaps the easiest decision to make of all the awards. The award for best title must undoubtedly go to Matthew Welton’s audacious 101 word title –

‘We needed coffee but we’d got ourselves convinced that the later we left it the better it would taste, and, as the country grew flatter and the roads became quiet and dusk began to colour the sky, you could guess from the way we retuned the radio and unfolded the map or commented on the view that the tang of determination had overtaken our thoughts, and when, fidgety and untalkative but almost home, we drew up outside the all-night restaurant, it felt like we might just stay in the car, listening to the engine and the gentle sound of the wind’

Best Title for an Individual Poem

This award was a closely-fought battle between Robert Sheppard’s “Fucking Time: six songs for the Earl of Rochester” (from Complete Twentieth Century Blues) and the eventual winner. In the end however, I went with this one from Roddy Lumsden’s last collection, Third Wish Wasted:

‘Between the Penny Dropping and the Penny Landing’

Best Cover Illustration

Horrific and beautiful, Tabatha Vevers’ depiction of the mermaid, Europa, having been literally raped in half and left for dead on a rock is one of the most harrowing things to ever catch my eye in Foyles. An interesting fact about this collection is that the poem ‘Mermaid’, which is one of Alvi’s best, was only written and included after the poet had seen the illustration above. Thankfully, this collection is just as emotionally beguiling and powerful as the cover suggests.

Best Press Photo

Handsome, urban, serious with messy hair and an upturned collar. One of the finest modern writers to have written extensively about London.

 “What are you writing about Tobias?”

“What have you got?”

Tobias Hill – Salt Publishing

Best Name of  Poet

It was almost impossible to choose this one. A large part of me wanted W.D. Snodgrass, or Toby Martinez de las Rivas, Ryan Van Winkle or Tom Pow. Whilst all of these writers display what are inarguably superb names, the award for this category must surely go to this Irish poet. I am particularly fond of how the three acute accents make the name look as though it is facing a strong Westerly wind:

Eiléan Ní Chulleanáin

Best Use of Box Brackets

When I am marking the writing of my pupils, one of the things that the curriculum tells me to look out for is ‘inventive use of punctuation’. What exactly this means can be a somewhat obtuse idea until facing an example such as this from the excellent poem ‘Observations of a Neanderthal Colony’ by Sam Riviere:

“She kept singing as they knuckled her to the ground.
The [children] continued to sleep as both [men] began to [rape]
her, their scruts bobbing an instinctive, pneumatic rhythm.”

Best Use of Public Transport in a Poem

Very tempting to bring in our good friend Tobias Hill again on this one, but in the end, Lachlan Mackinnon reigns victorious with this line from Riders on the Storm, which appears in the collection The Jupiter Collisions:

“The trams run all night, their opening and closing doors
the city’s gills.”

Best Dig at a Famous Spouse

Really nearly went with a bit of Hughes here, but in the end this one has to go to Nick Laird. OK, so there’s every chance these poems are entirely hypothetical or about other people but they still leave me with a clear memory of the time I wrote a poem about how bad my girlfriend’s Pocahontas costume looked one Halloween and she didn’t speak to me for days. This extract is taken from Nick Laird’s ‘Waging War’ from the collection ‘On Purpose’

“This evening at dinner your very existence
was enough to disprove Darwin.
I outhitlered Hitler.

These nightly show-trials are
becoming tiresome and factious,
each decree absolute and absurdly revanchist.”

Best Use of Poem-Shape

This award really goes to the entire of Anne Carson’s collection ‘Decreation’, which is a favourite of mine for many reasons – not least of all the beautiful and bizarre shapes that her poems take on in this collection. I provide below one short example:


In a house at dusk a mother’s final lesson
ruins the west and seals up all that trade.
Look in the windows at night you will see people standing.
That’s us, we had an excuse to be inside.
Day came, we cut the fruit (we cut
the tree). Now we’re out.
Here is a debt


Thank you one and all for tuning into this inaugural presentation of The Silkies. We look forward to seeing you soon for another round of this highlight in the literary calendar.

Phil Brown
Poetry Editor


  1. Surely David Morley's 'On Not Rushing at Waterfalls' gets an honourable mention for best shape poems.

  2. An honourable mention it certainly deserves, sir. I actually used that exact poem with a Year 7 class a coulpe of weeks ago when I was doing a calligram exercise with them. They loved it.

  3. Hmph. A few issues with some of your 'winners' here, Brown. I think I'll send a 'submission' of my own into your website.

    Donald - Voice of the Everyman.