The T S Eliot Prize for Poetry 2012

10th Jan 2013

The T S Eliot prize for poetry

The next winner of the T S Eliot Prize for Poetry 2012 will be announced on Monday, with women taking six of this year’s ten shortlist spots, alongside Sean Borodale, Simon Armitage, Paul Farley and Jacob Polley.

The prestigious prize was inaugurated in 1993 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Poetry Book Society (PBS), with the £15,000 prize money donated by Valerie Eliot.

Before the panel of judges (Carol Ann Duffy, Michael Longley and David Morley) make their announcement, here’s For Books’ Sake’s reminder of some of the strongest women contenders – a mixture of well-established poets, and some less familiar names.

The National Poet of Wales (and former prize judge herself), Gillian Clarke, has been nominated for Ice, her anthology of the bleak and biting winters of 2009 and 2010. Julia CopusThe World’s Two Smallest Humans is also in the running, as is Jorie Graham’s 12th collection, P L A C E (which has already been awarded the Forward Prize).

Kathleen Jamie’s The Overhaul, which won the Costa Poetry Award last week, is a moon-washed, littoral collection. Like Clarke, Jamie concentrates on her environment and its inhabitants, gulls and whales and sheep, before noting the interplay between these observations and her own identity in ‘Hawk and Shadow’:

I watched a hawk
glide low across a hill,
her own dark shape
in her talons like a kill.


Being out of sorts
with my so-called soul,
part unhooked hawk,
part shadow on parole

Then, in ‘The Spider’, Jamie chronicles our reliance on smaller, insect neighbours:

You, staring in horror
– have you never considered
how the world sustains?
The ants by day
clearing, clearing,
the spiders mending endlessly –

Deryn Rees-Jones also takes a small and unsung muse – Burying the Wren is an elegy for the poet’s late husband, by way of a ‘small brown bird’. The collection is a synaesthesic response to art: she compares a field of poppies to ‘a pointillist’s dream’ and composes an extended homage to Paula Rego’s painting series, ‘Dog Woman’. In Rees-Jones’ version, entitled ‘Dogwoman’, the space between the words collapses and the metamorphosis is more thorough, more complete than in its visual namesake.

Sharon Olds has a similarly personal, mournful focus: Stag’s Leap, published 15 years after Olds’ divorce, is a valedictory salute to a long-gone marriage. Admitting her relative good fortune,

Such far worse happens,
this seems it should be a toy lament,
a doll’s dressmaker’s dummy’s song

Olds writes an aching account of the ‘left wife’ and ponders the effect of what she has described as a ‘family poet’:

And when I wrote about him, did he
feel he had to walk around
carrying my books on his head like a stack of
posture volumes, or the rack of horns […]

As the collection comes to a close, Olds enumerates her own talents, set against those of her medical ex-husband:

and yet you seemed to know everything
I did not know, which was everything
except the gift of the gab – and oh well
dirty dancing and how to apologise.

All six women are strong contenders, and with such talent to choose amongst, we don’t envy the judges. But if you want to read more, and decide who’d get your vote, The Poetry Book Society provides free downloadable samples of the shortlisted works, including a biography, reading group notes and three poems from each shortlisted poet.

Eve Lacey