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January 03, 2013

'My Eyes and Ears are Still Full': Judging the 2012 T.S.Eliot Prize

This piece first appeared in a shortened version inThe Guardian.

Judging the T.S. Eliot Prize has become no less of an undertaking than the Man Booker. Prose may be longer but poetry is denser. This year saw 131 poetry collections arrive in early September, some as marked-up proofs bearing the handwritten corrections of poets. How their precisely perfect notations reminded you that every one of these manuscripts was the labour of years – and the labour of tears. I arranged my world around reading them, and I read every single one. My life was put aside for two months; certainly any thought of writing poetry was removed. It has been the strange and compelling time. The process of submitting myself to this huge whirl of words has been self-annihilating. I was not myself. I became all eye and ear.

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What do you hold on to? It helped that I had already reviewed over 40 of the submitted books this year during a manic reviewing programme for Poetry Review under the editorships of George Szirtes, Charles Boyle and Bernardine Evaristo. I already knew, for example, how much I liked a lot of the stuff coming out this year from Salt Publications, Nine Arches Press, Seren, and the brilliantly-named Knives, Forks and Spoons Press. I was disposed to read harder into the volumes of some of the more fugitive presses. I don’t care if a collection is from Picador or Waterloo Press or Two Rivers Press. I stood to attention and gave every poetry book its due.

I subjected each book to a series of physical and aural tests. Listening in on a poem, I read aloud (sometimes to myself or to Warwick University students); or I read in total silence; and sometimes I read against silence. I placed headphones on my ears and filled my mind with other music – Mahler, bird calls, The Beatles – and then I read a poetry book at the same time to test which music sang more strongly. I also took the poems into the fields and read them while I was walking. If they could make me stop walking they were doing very well (that test goes for people too). In these ways, and several others, the number of books was reduced to around 20. A whirlpool of words rang in my mind.

Which books did I love but which failed to win through to the shortlist? My personal favourites included Abi Curtis' The Glass Delusion, Jon Stone’s School of Forgery, Lesley Saunders’ Cloud Camera, Richard Price's Small World, Maria Taylor’s Melanchrini, Andrew Motion’s The Custom House and – all three judges loved this one - William Letford’s astonishing debut Bevel. And what of the shortlist? You have to remember that of the 10 books there are 4 that are already pre-chosen, the Poetry Book Society Choices from Simon Armitage, Paul Farley, Jorie Graham and Sharon Olds. What we were selecting were 6 books by 6 poets. I am proud of them all. Stand to attention, Sean Borodale, Gillian Clarke, Julia Copus, Kathleen Jamie, Jacob Polley and Deryn Rees-Jones! I salute you all. I agree with Michael Longley in saying there's nothing clichéd about our list, that we went with the words on the page. But we also went with the sounds, and my ears and eyes are still full of them.


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