[this article first appeared in The Poetry Review]
If the poetry world generated enough revenue to afford water-coolers and the grey-dappled institutional carpets for a space to gather, then the major poetry prizes would provide a perhaps discomfortingly large proportion of the chatter that surrounded them. One bubble in the easy flow of that conversation this year, though, would have concerned Fiona Moore’s blog-post on the share of the places on the shortlists for the Eliot and Forward prizes for best collection which are taken by poets from the ‘Big Five’: Faber, Carcanet, Bloodaxe, Cape and Picador. If we add in the largest Welsh and Irish presses Gallery and Seren, as well as subsidiaries of huge publishers, such as Chatto & Windus, then the figures are striking: 93% of the Eliot shortlist and 84% of Forward shortlist are made up of poets from these ‘major’ publishers. Given that these isles contain safely upwards of eighty poetry presses, need we be alarmed by the possibility of such statistics undermining the genuineness of the claim of our prizegiving establishment to recognise the year’s ‘best collection’? The italics are mine.
Answering that question, we are faced with several possible responses. The first is to assent that this is a fair reflection of our publishing culture – the Eliot prize is right to conclude that in every year after its first, the best book of poetry in English has been published by one of five publishers. This is a difficult conclusion to come to for anyone wishing to attest to the vitality and variety of the poetry happening in the UK and Ireland at the moment.
The second, voiced often and loudly, is that these prizes represent a closed system, with judges being drawn from the lists of big publishers, and selecting in turn the work of their friends and colleagues; poetry being such a small world, it’s easy to imagine that those very involved in poetry would be more familiar with the work of those they know and work alongside (and familiarity can go a long way in the appreciation of poetry: if you understand the rules of a game, it’s much easier to know when someone’s scored). Can we realistically expect those working in poetry – and possessing the profession’s curious blend of insularity and empathy – to pass over books by those they know well? We needn’t make any claim of corruption; aside from the familiarity and empathy for books by associates, judges are neither expected nor remunerated sufficiently to read every book of poetry published in a year. There’s also the possibility that such ostensibly compromising links between judges and winners could well be often reflective of, rather than causal to, an admiration of a writer’s work; people are friends (or colleagues, or supporters, or lovers) partly because they like the poetry of the other.
Despite these arguments, though, reading Private Eye’s 2002 dredging up of the sheer amount of links between judges and winners of the Forward Prize – the criticism at the time centred around a group of Picador poets, reviews in the Sunday Times, and a shared agent, as well as social ties – is at the very least uncomfortable. There’s an enormous amount of anecdotal evidence (unpublishably off-the-record, and quite often suspect) which won’t go far in actually making accusations of cronyism, but which does nonetheless reflect a less than complete confidence in the pure impartiality of our judging processes. This concern is widespread: in conducting a survey of the editors of around 25 of the country’s independent poetry presses, the average score in rating the success of the Eliot and the Forward prizes in recognising the ‘best’ poetry collections came out at only just above four out of ten.
But a third possibility was put forward several times by those surveyed: that the poetry prizes aren’t seriously intended to reflect the ‘best’ poetry being published. Rather, they’re the one chance the poetry world has of attracting the notice of the mainstream media; an opportunity to bang the drum for contemporary verse, and to win new readers into the fold. It would seem that, as a corollary of this, the prizes become unable to honour strange or unusual work: genuinely original art cannot, by definition, be fully appreciated by the prevailing taste of the culture from which it emerges as original. Additionally, both the Forward and Eliot prizes employ a system in which the judges must agree on the winner, so that all-too-often – unanimity being a decidedly scarce resource in the evaluation of poetry – a collection which is nobody’s favourite gets chosen. It’s easy to see how the safe option, to which there is no overly vociferous objection, all too often receives the prize.
There would seem to be, though, a certain pyrrhicism in the victory of winning readers to poetry if the work they discover upon their arrival is competent but unambitious verse lauded as the best our art-form has to offer. Indeed, it’s the very competence of this kind of work which is its most dangerous feature; that is, being resolutely unobjectionable, claims of flawlessness can be levelled, and the valuable attributes of ambition, scope, originality and risk-taking become marginalised. Would readers newly initiated into such an art-form stick around? A counter-argument to all of this, of course, could be mounted by mutely pointing at recent winners: think of the fluid eco-phenomenology of Jorie Graham, or the endlessly surprising balance of delicacy and roughness by which Jen Hadfield confronts the natural world. Further, we might recall, and perhaps pay more attention to, the significant number of smaller prizes – often non-London based – which do tend to examine and celebrate a much wider range of work.
The infuriating habit the world has of refusing a simple solution to such questions will suggest that the case is, as usual, a mixture of the proposed factors; the big publishers do publish many fine books, and poets tend to move across to those publishers as their work becomes more regarded (although this is by no means always the case). The poetry world does need its outside representation, and sometimes the friendly recognisable face of mainstream poetry might stand us in better stead with the as-yet unpoetried public. And, doubtless, as with the case Private Eye made disturbingly compelling in 2002, there are elements of (likely unintentional) favouritism and cronyism in the distribution of the prizes. It seems worth considering, further, that if we are to attempt to recognise something like the best – that most poetry-retardant of terms – the ‘best’ new work, then we have to accept that a certain set of criteria will be used in the ascertainment of such; and one enormous influence on such criteria will be the most visible and widely-read books of the time. That is, the books published by the major publishers.
Even if we don’t buy the ‘closed-shop’ argument, then we nonetheless need to do what we can to defuse the criticism of our major prizes, and to ensure a credibility which can only reflect better on these prizes and their winners in the future. It seems natural at this point to steer the chatter around the water-coolers of the poetry world towards what might be done to disarm those who allege a bias in the prizegiving culture, and to heal what is undeniably a divide in the art-form’s practitioners. More transparency would be a start – research of the kind this article required involved the kind of timely trawling of archived internet pages that should for most be spent more happily reading poems.
Perhaps more transparency would lead to a widening of the pool from which judges are drawn. It is undeniable that the shortlisted poets and those of the judges that are publishing poets are drawn from the same circle, defined by the range of poetry presses around which they congregate. Going back ten years, of the Forward Prize judges currently publishing poetry, 83% are published by major publishers – eerily close to the figure of the 86% of shortlisted books originating with those presses. A case in point might found in John Burnside, published by Cape (and previous winner of the Eliot, the Forward, and the Costa, with several other shortlistings), who stepped down as a selector for the PBS just in time to be selected as its Spring 2014 choice – meaning a place on the shortlist of next year’s Eliot prize – and who will now step to the plate a selector of the next three seasons’ choices. Only one of the forty PBS choices in the last ten years has come from a non-major publisher.
Even once this pool has been widened – the puddle at the foot of a water-cooler swelled to a mere with its shores far beyond the major publishing houses of London – the prizes could evidently do a great deal for their credibility by inventing and implementing a code of practice for their judges. Why not allow for declarations of interest, both of the judges in the shortlisted collections, and of those selecting the panels of judges? Why not lay barer the process by which these judges are chosen, and the shortlists assembled? Whether or not we agree that there are political and social undercurrents in the allocation of the Eliot and the Forward, it’s clear that a little restoration work is needed on the faith of the poetic community in their major prizes.