TS Eliot, thingamabob and tonal conformity

There's much to enjoy in the dark, sparse and occasionally bizarre collections on the shortlist for the 2008 TS Eliot poetry prize. But do poets have a responsibility to engage with the world in which they live?

Jay Bernard

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The TS Eliot Prize is one of Britain’s most prestigious – and richest – literary awards. Next to the Forward Prize, it is the one most poets would like to win, not only because of the financial reward, but because it places the writer’s vision at the forefront of British poetry. Of the authors selected for the 2008 short list, I doubt many would volunteer themselves as literary leaders. Nonetheless, it is their books that are being promoted and their ideas, perspectives and messages (however implicit) that are being discussed.

Having read most of the shortlisted collections – encountering many of the authors for the first time – a much-discussed question arose: do poets have an obligation to tackle the political preoccupations of their day? Not necessarily – but I would argue that technical devices are as much a distinguishing feature as subject. Therefore, by looking at the overall tone of a collection – its bank of images, its form and its lexicon – we can begin to decipher what the poet is saying, or not saying, and how he or she is reacting to the modern world. Although the onus is on politicians to manage day-to-day politics, the responsibility of distilling the real world and re-distributing it as potent language and compelling stories is very much on the shoulders of writers.

However, reading the shortlist for 2008, I couldn’t help but notice that the level of engagement necessary for this sort of dialogue or process seems to be missing. It wasn’t that the poets failed to move me, or that there was a lack of philosophical depth or height. But with the exception of a few, most of the collections drifted towards the same tonal and ideological centre. Robert Potts’ observation about the prize in 2006 is still the case in some collections: ‘A number of books on this year’s shortlist, despite blurbs suggesting their rare qualities, are barely distinguishable examples of orthodoxy… The larger world in which these books were written barely penetrates.’ (1)

Black Moon by Matthew Sweeney features a poem entitled ‘The Thing’: ‘The thing is we don’t know a thing / about the thing that’s going on / over there, in thingamabob’s hideout / where he’s holed up with thingy.’ When placed next to poems such as ‘What Size?’ (which appears to be a parody of ‘The Listeners’) or images of unsuccessful fishing trips to the Black Sea, one begins to question what Sweeney is thinking. Is Black Moon ridiculous? Is he taking the piss? Is he referring to the ‘war on terror’ when he says ‘…this whole thing / we can’t tell you anything about / … / and as things stand we wouldn’t / be able to do a single thing about it’?

There appears to be some kind of war going on, and some displeasure at some state’s foreign policy – yet though it is hinted at, it is never spelled out. ‘Thingy’ is a euphemism for what is unsayable – that much is obvious – but the tone of the poem, the repetition of ‘thingy’ and the use of ‘thingamabob’, defeats the object. Sweeney muddies his own poem and rather than it being a reflection on contemporary double-speak, or the caprice of our leaders, which is what it hints at, it merely evades making a point at all. Any ambition towards clever wordplay, incisive metaphor or arresting imagery is just not there – so what was Sweeney trying to do?

In contrast, Edwin Morgan’s collection A Book of Lives begins on the point of Scottish nationalism. In fact the first poem is entitled ‘For the Opening of the Scottish Parliament, 9 October 2004’. Later in the book there is ‘Planet Wave’, a sequence which charts the history of the earth – and a curious narrator – from 20 billion BC to 2300 CE. We meet Copernicus, Rimbaud and in particular there is the beautiful ‘Sputnik’s Tale’: ‘”I have nothing to give you”, I said / “but truth. You have three months to live / in this orbit, and then you are cinder.” / He darkened. “You may well be right.” / … / “We’ll see. Beep. We’ll see. Beep. We’ll see.”’ There is something tender and prescient about telling a sentient robot that it will die, and this straightforward lucidity is peppered throughout A Book of Lives. ‘Gorgo and Beau’, for example, is a dialogue between a cancerous cell and a healthy one. It is at times prosaic, but it is a welcome perspective on a subject – health and disease – that pervades our culture. By using dialogue, Morgan alludes to early philosophers and so there is an initial seriousness – and a refreshing sense of Morgan looking out instead of in – inherent in the form.

The Meanest Flower by Mimi Khalvati is less rewarding. Her use of the Ghazal – an oriental form in which the same rhyme is repeated – felt staged. The point of repetition and rhyme is emphasis but many of the lines repeated were not especially strong and only made sense once I’d read the notes at the back of the book. Even when I read the poems aloud, there was something forced and insubstantial about them. Her poem on the death of insects, ‘Al Fresco’, pales in comparison to Sweeney’s ‘Vanessa Atlanta’. Though her tribute to the late Michael Donaghy, ‘Mediterranean of the Mind’, has the gravity of being composed in the place he last read, Khalvati seems to be gazing at her major themes – death, loss, motherhood, childhood, nature – from the window of her oft-referred to study room; there are beautiful images – a horse’s ‘fingerprint’ eyes and ‘I saw the sun as one green light / like a green persimmon’ – but the glass makes everything flat and in the end The Meanest Flower is not convincing.

Ian Duhig’s The Speed of Dark, which also commemorates Michael Donaghy, is muscular and energetic; he reworks the text of ‘Le Roman de Fauvel’, a two-part medieval French work of dubious authorship and uses it to comment upon contemporary issues: ‘right now, America’s our Rome / My rival-stable God’s new home /… / now your naval empire’s wrecked / Your tongue one Yankee dialect / Your politics a Trojan horse / or fig leaf for her naked force.’ The Speed of Dark is as bizarre and colourful as the illuminated manuscript of ‘Le Roman de Fauvel’ (Google it: it’s beautiful!) but the poem that interested me most was ‘Communion’; here, Duhig tells of a young nun who screens a disturbing film about a boy whose arm is amputated by a machine and whose mother is too poor to buy him a white suit for his first communion. The poem seems to be a brief meditation on what it is to be educated: the young Duhig is fascinated and profoundly affected by the film, but also by the strange young nun who, after some complaints ‘…one day without a word … was gone.’

There are 10 collections on the shortlist. The Drowned Book by Sean O’Brien inhabits a similar – though more lyrical – darkness to Matthew Sweeney. In Fiona Sampson’s Common Prayer, the poems fling themselves across the page and incorporate modern speech in to startling images: ‘slim as a nun, I lie along / the margin of a borrowed bed / whose springs are texting through my bones / abandon hope.’

There is Sarah Maguire and her extraordinary treatment of transience, as in ‘A fistful of Foramnifera’, as hinted by the title, which refers to the once great orchards of Afghanistan. The poems linger on devastation abroad, but the rotten heart of London also pervades the atmosphere of The Pomegranates of Kandahar. Also on the shortlist are Alan Gillis’ Hawks and Doves and Sophie Hannah’s relationship poems in Pessimism for Beginners.

But I would like to end with Public Dream by Frances Leviston. It addresses most candidly the point made at the start: that there is some tonal conformity towards which many of the poets drift. Leviston is guilty in some respects: old age is treated with sparse terror in ‘What will it be to be old?’ and ‘Incubus’ is at times cumbersome to read, but it is also the only poem I have come across that begins to treat the current debate about rape and conviction rates. ‘Unthinkable’ – a description of the sort of people one meets in tower blocks – is clichéd, and then again quite true: ‘the mean-lipped girls shaking gold charms / and blitz-blonde hair.’

Most importantly is the sense that, although she is not fully there, Leviston can tell stories; she can use the intensity of her dark, half-imagined city and, as in the ‘Fortune Teller’, evoke a familiar London image of strange women who purport to read your palm; take us behind the bead curtain and its ‘rosary click’; take us thousands of years backwards to the Greeks; forward again to the precise moment that the visitor leaves, then further forward, to an uncertain future: ‘And though home lies in a fixed direction / I see them look around, and hesitate / Feeling their pockets for something lost / which up to now they hadn’t even missed.’ Leviston is deserving of the praise she has received so far; my hopes are on her… or maybe Duhig’s The Speed of Dark.

Jay Bernard is a poet who lives and works in London. She won the London Respect Slam in 2004 and the Foyle’s Young Poetry competition in 2005. Her first collection, Your Sign is Cuckoo, Girl, is published by Tall Lighthouse (available from the publishers here).

(1) Where have all the poets gone?, Observer, 15 January 2006

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