Gillian Clarke, Chair of the Judges for the 2011 T S Eliot Prize, has kindly allowed us to reproduce her thoughts on the very strong shortlist.
Starting with the eventual winner, John Burnside's Black Cat Bone, which she describes as having "levels of meaning that continue turning pages in the reader's mind when the book is closed", Gillian quickly reaches the heart of each shortlisted collection. Her clear and incisive thoughts on each book remind us why these eight poets are well worthy of their place on the shortlist.
Black Cat Bone is a book of great beauty, musical and vividly visual. It moves with faultless cadence in and over a heart-beat of iambic pentameter. The detail is so right it makes us gasp. We see a bracelet settling through ice, the italics of wind-blown water. This is mysterious but not obscure poetry, powered by love, fear, childhood memory, human longing and loneliness. It's private, but it lets the reader in. Scriptural, religious and mythic references leave levels of meaning that continue turning pages in the reader's mind when the book is closed, all the more thrilling for not being too easily fathomed.
Carol Ann Duffy
Some poems in The Bees are familiar, written for national and world events since Carol Ann became Poet Laureate. ‘Last Post', for the deaths of the last surviving veterans of World War 1, ‘Achilles', for David Beckham's heel, ‘Atlas', a plea for the planet, ‘Premonitions', the heartbreaking elegy for her mother, which, with ‘Water' and ‘Cold', one of my fellow judges thought the finest in any collection this year. Between bee poems and public poems are songs, spells and rhymes, and tone-perfect gems like ‘Snow', and ‘Gesture'. The book is political, witty, innovative, full of bold sound patterns that come from her interest in Welsh poetry. She is probably the first poet to bring traditional Welsh sound-patterns into English poetry since Dylan Thomas. A beautiful, daring, dazzling, many-registered collection.
Profit and Loss finds poetry in those rooms we're forced to live in when we leave home, haunted by other lives and marked by the melancholy of neglect. There are childhood's rooms, her parents' home, and rented rooms lonely with other people's ‘things', scuffed surfaces, rusted locks, an old cooker, ending with ‘A Room in April', where ‘the hour is at hand' for her to give birth to her daughter. ‘Letter to Friends' is a long poem of news and reflection, like a journal - in 32 x 10 line verses of iambic pentameter and rhyme, the momentum never lets up. The collection closes with four tender personal poems, and the last verse of all is one of the loveliest in the book.
Night is alert to movement and stillness, the real and imagined sounds of the dark in the voice of an insomniac night walker troubled by memory and regret. It opens with poems about a garden, its loneliness, its ghosts. A woman, unaware she is watched, is seen from the garden's darkness, we, the readers, complicit voyeurs. These details deepen the isolation and self-questioning. The poetry is meditative, male. Women weep in rooms, are bright mannequins in shop windows, stone statues in gardens. The ambitious long last poem, ‘Elsewhere', is a kind of Pilgrims Progress, a night walk through the city to the sea, with a symbolic stray whippet like a conscience in tow. This is a tour de force of flowing, muscular syntax, exciting vocabulary, internal chime and rhyme so natural it sounds like a tune you know.
We speak of ‘the poet's voice', a phrase which comes to mind when considering what's special about Grace: the consistency and perfect pitch of the ‘voice'. Open any page, pick any poem, and the reader hears poetry that sings without use of a single poetic device of sound or form. That's not easy to get right. It too is a book of rooms, interiors, sensed presences and absences, noted detail, the graceful and the slovenly - white plates on a kitchen table, a slipware bowl, the year-old jar of nails and flies. It's a quiet book, full of grace, like a painting by Vermeer, and, like the work of Vermeer, each work of art inhabits the same house. This collection doesn't strike a single false note.
Tippoo Sultan's Incredible White-Man Eating Tiger-Toy Machine!!! with three exclamation marks, is NOT a quiet book. About displacement rather than place. About eaves-dropping, rather than silent reading. About hearing out loud in your head, not following words on a page If you're not an Asian from Sheffield via London, preferably a lapsed Sikh, you'll have to unbutton your own Britishness to hear the music, the wit, the humour, the love, the unease of these poems. No poetry should be required to sit down quietly on a page. It's music, it's sound, and this collection needs you to get up, sing out, enjoy the razzle-dazzle, and be touched by its humanity.
November is a powerful, impressive book. The elegies, for his father, friends, places, railway lines are moving and finely written. ‘Michael', ‘The Landing-Stage', and later, ‘The River on the Terrace', and ‘Narbonne', are especially beautiful poems. There are phrases I won't forget - ‘the ruined church of steam' in ‘Sunday in a Station of the Metro'. I almost have ‘Josie' by heart. This is the only collection before us today where every line begins with a capital letter. Most lines are also strongly iambic, the prevailing beat pentameter. The beat is thus stressed, making the line louder than the sentence and the syntax. I struggled with this - but it was worth it. The rewards are great.
Farmers Cross is all about place, loving and leaving it, keeping it in the very marrow of your bones. It's a quiet book about a place of talk, of song, of names and naming and neighbours, like Jer Mac, the greatest breaker of horses; about migration, loving and leaving an old home, and carrying it everywhere with you. These are deceptively simple poems about exile, Irish migration, being raised inside Irish culture but outside its geography. The sound is characteristically Irish, the muscle and music of Irish poetry in English, deepened by reference to myth and history, and finest of all the poems, ‘Man of my Time', where the first killing foretells all war, to this day.
Gillian Clarke was born in Cardiff, and now lives with her family on a smallholding in Ceredigion. Her collections of poetry include Letting in the Rumour (1989); The King of Britain's Daughter (1993); and Five Fields (1998), all published by Carcanet. She has also written for stage, television and radio, several radio plays and poems being broadcast by the BBC. Gillian Clarke's most recent poetry collection is A Recipe for Water (Carcanet, 2009). In 2008 she was named as National Poet of Wales. In 2010 she was awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry.