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Poetry Prize Culture and the Aberdeen Angus.

By Peter Riley.

IN JANUARY THE poet John Burnside won the T.S. Eliot Prize with his book Black Cat Bone1 Three months earlier he won the Forward Prize with the same book. These are the two most prestigious and financially rewarding poetry prizes in the country. Burnside has now gained twelve literary prizes (of which four are for books of prose) since his first collection won the Scottish Arts Council Book Award in 1988. That’s not counting short-listing. But short-listing for prizes like these does count: it is added to the honours list and furthers all aspects of the career. The total of Burnside’s awards including these is nineteen. This is what poetry prizes are like in U.K. – they tend to come in convoys.

Burnside is a good writer of a strong, impressionistic poetry centred on the declaration of personal experience and attitude, often cloaked in a sombre, nebulous kind of symbolical tissue. The poems are rich in linguistic resource and rhythmically and phonetically alert; he is clearly expert at what he chooses to do. So it would be good to be able to say that Burnside deserves all his prizes. The trouble is that I don’t think anybody does.

It’s a question of disproportion – not of whether some poets are better than others (of course they are) but of whether a very small number of poets (less than a dozen) are really about a thousand times better than all the rest, and so should pick up all the prizes, for such is the structure that prize culture creates. And anyway the word ‘better’ is not used: the elected poets are invariably ‘best’. The back cover of Rain by Don Paterson,2 another multiple prize-winner, bears a blurb by Colm Tóibín proclaiming him ‘One of the greatest poets now writing anywhere’.3 What in that case could possibly make you think twice about buying it, except perhaps doubt as to whether Mr Tóibín has in fact read the works of all the living poets in the world? It is a culture of the superlative exclusively.

SUPPOSE WE PICTURE the reward status of your average successful poet late in his or her career, who has had several books published by specialist mid-scale publishers such as Carcanet or Bloodaxe, gained a reliable if not vast following of readers, is invited from time to time to give readings in the UK and occasionally abroad, is moderately in demand from anthology and magazine editors, is interviewed once or twice a year, is perhaps sometimes asked to judge a minor poetry competition – such a poet does not expect to gain any money worth mentioning from poetry in his or her entire life, nor to gain any academic or cultural appointments as a direct result of the poetry, nor necessarily to gain access to cultural journalism because of it. Such a poet has nothing to complain about – this is simply how poets, including probably most of our worthiest, normally go through their careers these days.

By comparison the increment of the big prize-winners in financial terms alone is incalculable. A multiple of 1,000 is a conservative guess. But as suggested, the rewards are not only financial: for most of them the big prize is an opening to an entirely different career from that of the vast majority of successful poets. Since socialistic credentials are very common among them perhaps they would not like to be called members of an élite but the word might be quite difficult to avoid. Indeed, the resemblances between the reward structures in poetry and those in operation generally in the west, especially among the ‘financial community’, have not gone unnoticed.

For inevitably the big prize structure has met with a lot of resentment, and therefore attack, including accusations of favouritism, corruption and narrowness. Most of this is undoubtedly sour grapes, though some of it is ideological. However there is always a ready answer enshrined in the little word ‘best’, which is a mighty fortress against all accusations. You can’t complain about narrowness or exclusivity or anything. It is all down to the simple fact that these are the best. And when you’re busy identifying and promoting the best there is no other priority. If most of the winners are published by the same handful of larger-scale publishers, well that’s because those publishers have been shown to publish the best and as long as they continue to there’s really nothing we can do about it. (PS – We decide).

WHAT IS HAPPENING is of course that success creates success and prizes create prizes. To be published as a young poet by Faber and Faber is in itself very like winning your first prize, and with luck the rest of them will follow, especially if the judges are themselves published by Faber or one of the other favoured houses. Another theory is that some of the people involved in judging poetry competitions couldn’t tell a good poem from a decayed kipper and they know it, so they reckon if it’s already won several prizes somebody must like it. In any event, the word ‘simply’ joined to ‘the best’ sweeps aside all possible objection in one powerful marketing slogan (which has been in use in this context for at least half a century; I remember Seamus Heaney being offered as ‘simply the best’ in the late 1960s.) The ‘simply’ is very important. As well as rendering it unnecessary actually to say anything about the poetry, this innocent word offers to relieve the poor worried purchaser who doesn’t know what to do about all these poets, of all personal choice and responsibility, the whole fraught matter simplified into a kind of brand loyalty. ‘You know you’re getting the best.’ While poetry remains economically insignificant (Andrew Crozier compared it to hill farming4), the award structure openly mimics commercialism. Like the festivals, it is a promotional machine which creates a star system in order to market a few products as exceptional. Compared with fiction, all poetry sales are peanuts: only some dozen poets, at the most, reach sales figures beyond a few thousand; after that there is an immense plunge into the hundreds which is where poetry belongs. The upper thousands are of course the big prize winners.

IT IS NOT true that the prize-winners all write the same kind of poetry and that it is all conventional and belongs within one concept of the canon. But neither is it true that there is no favoured concept of poetical writing. There is one and it can be defined, though no one poet will show all its traits. We can turn again to John Burnside’s winning book Black Cat Bone to recognise how the poems are, as it were, integrally set up for prize-winning and success in general in the ‘big’ poetry world, which is not to imply any cynicism on his part.

Here the first-person singular is very prominent as mediator between the poem’s material and the reader. All poems of course are mediated through the author, but the ‘I’ figure of Burnside is something you are constantly aware of, directly or fictively, normally seeking to elicit sympathy. Everything passes through this self-figure on its way to the reader; the poetry is basically subjective and the process at work is, typically, one of internalisation. Equally significant are certain technical habits such as an insistent metaphorism, sometimes remote but generally clever or arty (‘the Sanskrit of rain’, ‘the rollright in the mind’, ‘the Hundertwasser sky’); and the preference for fully discursive and explanatory sentences unfolding a situation or position.

Such features as these would to some define Burnside as ‘mainstream’, a term I normally try to avoid because the implication of conformism is largely unjustified. One key ‘mainstream’ trait which he only indulges occasionally in blatant form is the device of initial obliquity, teasing the reader with an almost riddle-like opening which is later solved: ‘It never lasts / but for a while at least / I forget … ? and watch…’ ‘It’ turns out to be snow. It’s possible too that a kind of gloomy pessimism to which he is prone adds to his appeal, a tone reminiscent of earlier Eliot, and a good dose of nature mysticism reminiscent of Ted Hughes – nature red in tooth and claw, terrestrial space coldly isolating and threatening. There is also a toying with religious imagery without commitment to belief; he is happy to use biblical and doctrinal terms (soul, God) within metaphors and similes but not in open statement. To opponents of this kind of writing, the indulgence in a hinted mystery of natural process – with magical or fantasy auras – never openly divulged as belief but part of the figurative decor attached to the authorial self, is highly diagnostic of ‘mainstream’ allegiance, typically flirting with the transcendental without espousing it.

His success must also owe something to negative aspects: the avoidance of idiolect or dialect, as too of disrupted syntax, neologisms, references beyond the cultural sphere, and avoidance indeed of any serious degree of abstract thought: it is all immediate and sensory. But there are some common ‘winning’ traits he doesn’t indulge in, such as heavy end-rhyming, argumentation, or flashy displays of street-wise contemporaneity (quite the reverse in fact: gloomy wanderings in snowy waste lands and mediaeval forests). However much all these characteristics may seem to key him into the circuits of success, I have to emphasise that they remain held securely in the integrity of his writing and in the accumulative sense of the book’s mission. He says, at his most winning, ‘I live in a separate country, white as snow / on rooftops and stained glass’ – as he is perfectly entitled to do.

THERE IS SOME exception to the evidence of a favoured manner for prize-winners in the recent and unexpected awarding of prestigious prizes to poets such as R. F. Langley (Forward Poem of the Year 2011) and Michael Haslam (Cholmondeley Award 2011), which may indicate not so much cracks in the barriers of exclusivity as a more general realisation that the modernist vs. traditional dichotomy which has haunted British poetry since the times of the Anglo-American modernist monsters is wearing thin.

There are hundreds of poetry prizes each year but the big prizes are in their own class. They are financed from above, through investment or legacy (two poets, Alice Oswald and John Kinsella, withdrew from the Eliot Prize shortlist this year on ethical grounds: the prize is sponsored by the investment firm Aurum Funds who manage hedge funds). Poets do not enter themselves personally nor pay a fee – their publishers submit them. Many of the lesser prizes are either business ventures aiming to make a small profit, or quasi-philanthropic exercises done for the vanity or prestige of the person in charge. It is unusual for a poet’s career to begin with small prizes and work its way up towards the top; mostly those who are going to reach the top begin there, or at least in the upper-middle ground. A great deal of happiness and self congratulation from both contestants and officers seems to characterise these awards, and there is a sense of significance attached to them which is rarely justified in a poet’s subsequent career, for all the talk of ‘prestige’. Most of them by far are never heard from again. (This is partly true too of the special first book award which is part of the Forward Prize package).

A fellow-poet who wishes to remain anonymous has sent me this report on the atmosphere of the award ceremony at one of the middling-rich prizes, which he won:

…there existed an atmosphere of a school prize-giving at which good honest effort had been rewarded by the staff and the prefects, who smilingly stood by and handed us our badges and record tokens…and perorated with skull-numbingly dull readings, at great length, of their own poetry which showed how it was done by the professionals.

THIS BRINGS US to the big questions about all these guarantors of success: what are the social and intellectual implications? If in writing poetry you are involved in ‘the society of the poem’, what do you want that society to be? To the accusers, the poetry hierarchies erect a simulacrum of some near-eastern state in which a band of hereditary potentates live in immense luxury in a fortified palace and everyone else endures grinding poverty in the fields. Such an accusation is certainly unfair in view of the absolute levels of reward, working life-styles and commitments of almost all the ‘best’ poets this system produces. Socialism and democracy, ecology and gay rights are very strong among them, and indeed a significant number of them are of working-class origin, including the two most successful poets in the land, Simon Armitage (Millennium Poet 1999) and Carol Ann Duffy (the current Poet Laureate). And it is integral to their work.

What remains is the underlying assumption of the whole structure of poetry prize-giving – that however much we and our poetry may protest and campaign, however much the cultural sphere may be at odds with the administration, it is itself settled and satisfactory and in perfect working order. Merit will inevitably be recognised and rewarded, thus encouraging the progress of the art. It is all clear and continual. Awkward questions about the unrecognised are mute, as they are about the former unrecognised, such as Gerard Manley Hopkins or Emily Dickinson. No, no, there may have been aberrations in the past but fundamentally we know what is happening, we know what is important, nothing escapes us, we find it and we give it the prize. But it does escape, of course, it must. And while some of what escapes is no doubt raving lunacy, hippie smoke-dreams or revolutionary idiocy, some of it is not. Some of it belongs to entirely separate and unacknowledged categories of poetry (such as rap and dub); some of it is simply different, or even more simply similar but unnoticed. The judging criteria, being tied to a system of familiarity and recurrence, are inevitably subjective and inevitably self-propagating. What chance is there of objectivity in an art where there is no common agreement as to what constitutes its qualities?

If at a county show you are one of the judges in the section for Aberdeen Angus cattle, you will have a comprehensive list of points which must be fulfilled. There is the carriage of the creature’s head, with even teeth and broad muzzle. It should have a long body and strong legs with the joints well set. The back should be straight with a slight dip at one end. It should be well and evenly muscled with not too much fat. Viewed from behind the rump should be rounded, the legs straight and the hooves correctly positioned. When it walks its hind hoofs should enter the marks of its front hoofs without overstepping or understepping. If it is a cow its udder should not be pendulous and the teats should be of the right size and placement. If it is a bull the testicles should be large and the sheaf firmly attached and not pendulous. But all these distinctions should be weighed against the proportions of the whole animal and the aim is to assure that both it and its progeny should fulfil their commercial function. If all these boxes are ticked, you have your winner.

Surely some version of this schemata could be devised for judging poetry competitions, rather than, as one suspects, relying on pronouncements like ‘It made the hair on my neck stand on end’. I leave it to others to work out what these definitive points of excellence may be for poet or poem, which will by means of a truly objective procedure end all the bickering about merit and favour. The alternative is to admit that we don’t know and never shall, and then the best procedure is to relish finding our own paths through it all. Meanwhile I look forward to seeing our ‘best’ poets walking around with enormous rosettes attached to their chests.


Peter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former co-editor of The English Intelligencer, the former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry – and some of prose. His latest book is The Glacial Stairway (Carcanet, 2011). He lives in Cambridge.

· More ‘Poetry Notes‘ in The Fortnightly Review.


  1. Chatto 2011, £10.00.
  2. Faber 2009.
  3. Observer, 22 November 2009.
  4. In his essay “Resting on Laurels” (2000) reprinted in An Andrew Crozier Reader, Carcanet 2012.


  1. wrote:

    Return in 50-75 years, and we will know who was ‘best’.

    I also propose all such descriptors be changed to ‘better’. ‘Better poems of 2012’ would suit.

    Wednesday, 6 June 2012 at 10:52 | Permalink
  2. wrote:

    I have long had the fantasy that when winning the £5000 pound National Poetry prize (or similar) I would stand on the podium and declare that there is no way in any heaven or earth that my one poem could be worth £4500 (or whatever) more than the one in second place, particularly as, given another year, with another judge, mine may not have met the inevitably subjective criteria of the judge and might not even have made the short list! How could one poem ever be that much ‘better’ than another? I’ll admit I have yet to be tested on this… Thank you for this article – says very articulately what I’ve long thought..

    Friday, 25 April 2014 at 19:03 | Permalink

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