Who Will Win the Eliot?

Posted by Expert Gadget Reviewer on Sunday, 13 January 2008

Tomorrow evening sees the judges’ final decision made, and Valerie Eliot, the widow of the great poet, will award this year’s TS Eliot Prize of £15,000 (what Andrew Motion has described as ‘the prize most poets want to win’) to the poet whose book is deemed most worthy.

Who’s for a little sweepstake, then? As Todd Swift noted on Eyewear, this year’s shortlist doesn’t quite seem to measure up to the vibrancy and variety of poetry published in the UK in 2007: neither Annie Freud’s wonderful debut The Best Man That Ever Was, Luke Kennard’s witty and funny The Harbour Beyond the Movie, nor Daljit Nagra’s dexterous and inventive Look We Have Coming to Dover! making it.

But then I’ve haven’t read some of the books on the shortlist, so perhaps it’s cast its net a bit wider than I first imagined. I’m not a big fan of Sophie Hannah’s work, though, even if the title of her latest, Pessimism for Beginners, is eye-catching and intriguing. Neither have I read Sarah Maguire or Edwin Morgan’s shortlisted collections, though I intend to get round to them. Though I’m particularly happy to see Alan Gillis’s Hawks and Doves make the listing: I appreciate the way his work combines good humour and sharp wit with gravitas and striking sincerity. As with his debut, this collection’s well worth investigating.

Elsewhere, and I think Matthew Sweeney’s Black Moon stands a good chance, as does editor of Poetry Review, Fiona Sampson’s Common Prayer. Sean O’Brien’s been shortlisted for the prize before, but having picked up his third Forward Prize for The Drowned Book, it seems unlikely that this collection will take the Eliot as well.

The rank outsider, of course, and the cause of much excitement for the media and publicity surrounding the award, is Frances Leviston, with her debut Picador collection Public Dream. For such a young poet to be shortlisted for the Eliot harks back to 2003 when Jacob Polley’s first, The Brink (another from Picador) was similarly shortlisted. But just as Polley lost out to a much more established poet (his editor, Don Paterson, who won his second Eliot with Landing Light), it seems likely that someone with a little more reputation than Leviston with take the prize this year. Not that Public Dream isn’t an impressive collection, of course, but as far as prizes go, that’s the way the cookie crumbles. Plus, things often tend to come around: I’ll be very surprised, for example, if she doesn’t take the 2008 Forward Prize for best first collection.

But for now, my money’s on Ian Duhig’s The Speed of Dark. Aside the fact that Duhig’s been shortlisted for an Eliot twice before (last in 2003, for the Lammas Hireling) and so in some ways the prize now seems overdue to him, the collection also plain deserves the recognition: taking the Middle Ages as a point from which to explore the problems of the present, post-9/11 world in creative and illuminating ways. For an insightful perspective on the collection, see Katy Evans-Bush’s review of it on The Poem, here. In the meantime, anybody else care to make a prediction?

The Speed of Dark by Ian Duhig (Picador)
Hawks and Doves by Alan Gillis (Gallery Press)
Pessimism for Beginners by Sophie Hannah (Carcanet)
The Meanest Flower by Mimi Khalvati (Carcanet)
Public Dream by Frances Leviston (Picador)
The Pomegranates of Kandahar by Sarah Maguire (Chatto & Windus)
A Book of Lives by Edwin Morgan (Carcanet)
The Drowned Book by Sean O'Brien (Picador)
Common Prayer by Fiona Sampson (Carcanet)
Black Moon by Matthew Sweeney (Jonathan Cape)