Poetry prizes

I was watching a YouTube video of a rather frothy interview with John Ashbery in which he says that while he doesn’t like poetry readings very much, if they help spread the word of poetry and recruit readers, then they can only be a positive thing in his book. I wish I could say my stance on poetry prizes was the same… Today’s blog is on the relatively recent phenomenon of poetry prizes and whether or not they are a good thing. But how do I write this in such a way that it doesn’t all seem like a bunch of sour grapes?

I will be 30 next month. I started writing poetry ‘in earnest’ at university in my early 20s and this personal decade, soon to be at its close, has seen me publish lots of poems in magazines, online, two poetry pamphlets and a collection. I’ve also studied poetry and Scottish literature and just this year was awarded my PhD in Scottish literature from The University of Glasgow. I write poetry and write about poetry – from reviews to peer-reviewed articles. This is not my boiled-down CV – just a means of showing my complete commitment to the art.

Why is turning 30 important at all? Well, as I’m sure many poets will know, it marks the closing of a window of opportunity and a label that will hover over you from now on. I failed, despite repeated attempts and best efforts, to win an Eric Gregory Award. The opprobrium will follow me all my days. Sure, I was shortlisted for it a couple of times and I even used to mention it on my author bio for magazines – ‘shortlisted for an Eric Gregory’ – until I realised how desperate it sounded.

The Eric Gregory Award is the traditional (since its inception in 1960) marker of distinction for poets under the age of 30. Many past recipients of the award have gone on to become famous names in the poetry world, others have not. In my typical spirit of perversity, I often genuinely prefer the poetry of some of the lesser well-known Gregory alumni, like James Aitchison, who I think is a remarkable poet. It is certainly true that having the award gives you instant cachet over your peers and perhaps makes it a little easier to gain access to places. My friend, Marcus Cumberlege, won the award in 1967 but has said it made little or no difference to him – and he now lives and writes happily and prolifically in Bruges, where he self-publishes his poetry for private circulation to a very appreciative audience. Monetarily speaking, the award is not one of the richest, though a couple thousand pounds of a windfall is not to be sniffed at. But when you put it alongside a full scholarship to do a PhD – which is probably worth nearly £100,000 all in, it does not represent a huge boost to your circumstances.

The more recent Edwin Morgan Poetry Award for young Scottish poets is a much more lucrative prospect, with the winner walking away with £20,000 from the late Edwin Morgan’s estate as a prize. I feel no shame in admitting I entered this prize on both occasions and never even got a look in. Yet many of my friends and contemporaries have received these awards and if you have not won it, there is the sinking feeling that you are falling behind, or some kind of ‘also-ran’.

Now, I want to stress again that this blog is not some sort of elaborate, self-indulgent sulk. That said, the all-pervasive prize culture that now surrounds poetry is, I think, creating harmful stratification. There are so many prizes you can barely keep track of them all and when someone announces on Facebook that they have just won ‘x prize’, I often have to search for it on Google to find out what it is. I am not talking about poetry competitions – they are a whole different subject of their own. I don’t like competitions or the kind of poem they typically champion, but if someone is paying their entrance fee, they deserve their chance, as with all bets. No, I mean the prizes that single out and divide poets – the first collection prizes, the Gregorys, the Eliots, going ever onward and upwards. I like the idea of a reader’s prize – that readers vote for a poem or book they like, that’s fine, because it brings with it a semblance of democracy. I imagine some people might scoff at this, thinking that I am advocating a culture of mediocrity and mutual back-slapping, where all prizes are abolished and no-one can criticise poetry – I am definitely not. I think a good critical culture is one of the most needed aspects of the poetry world.

I began by mentioning Ashbery who, while disliking poetry readings, thinks they are a good thing if they spread the work of poetry and recruit new readers. I don’t think a prize culture does this at all – it promotes rivalry and division and if anything, puts new readers off. It might help sell a few more Faber collections in Waterstones, but that is ultimately built upon generations of poets feeling left out and looked down upon. Poetry is saturated with ideas of democracy – ‘freedom is a noble thing’ ‘whiskey an’ freedom gang thegither’, ‘come all ye at hame wi’ freedom’ etc. etc., even at its most elitist, and often the intention is to challenge the reader, expand the horizon – yet poetry prizes are deeply anti-democratic. It is all about promoting a name like a household product, more than it is about promoting good poetry. The judges of such prizes are usually small cadres of very established poets holding a lot of the power, deciding the fates of the many. I don’t think this promotes poetry in the slightest.

I read a collection of academic essays recently and I was struck by how, time and time again, the writers kept mentioning the same five or so prize-winning names. This volume claimed to represent a century of poetry – a rich, diverse century – yet these same few names kept cropping up. Having studied 20th century poetry closely myself, I thought it gave a rather misleading and disproportionate picture. That is what I think the hierarchies set up by poetry prizes do – shine the light on the few and obscure the rest.

I began this blog by saying that I write, write about and review poetry – I am utterly committed to it, I love it and take it very seriously indeed. I spend a lot of my time trying to bring forgotten poets, who often did not win prizes, back into the spotlight because I feel poetry is about opening up avenues and finding readers, not about heaping glory on the few. We need to promote poetry, not ourselves.

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