Forward poetry prize avoids Nobel laureate clash

Shortlist for this year's best poetry collection prize includes Seamus Heaney but overlooks Derek Walcott

An expected clash between Nobel laureates Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott on the shortlist for this year's Forward prize for best poetry collection has been averted, after Walcott's latest collection failed to make the cut.

The St Lucian poet's meditation on the passage of time, White Egrets, missed out to a strong lineup for one of the UK's top poetry prizes, including former winners Robin Robertson, shortlisted for his mythology-soaked The Wrecking Light, and Jo Shapcott, picked for her collection Of Mutability, written after her breast cancer diagnosis.

"It was extraordinarily hard to choose," said judge Hugo Williams, himself an award-winning poet. "Walcott seems to have dropped off [the list]; this was not his best thing. I read his first book when I was 18. I thought it a bit florid, and I've stayed with that."

After winning the TS Eliot prize in 2006 for his last collection, District and Circle, Heaney is shortlisted for the Forward for Human Chain, a look at the links between past and present, parent and child, husband and wife. Despite having won awards including the Nobel prize and the Whitbread, the Irish poet has yet to take the Forward. According to Williams, however, a win this year is far from guaranteed. "It's a brave effort," said the judge. "It's not his finest hour but nevertheless he's there."

Instead, Williams tipped Lachlan Mackinnon's Small Hours, which includes a prose poem inspired by the early death of a friend. "I rather fancy Lachlan Mackinnon," Williams said. "I got the most enjoyment out of his prose, the eye skims over it pretty easily ... You hear his voice, a very distinctive voice, and it's not quite like prose, it's got that spontaneous thing about it."

Also in the running for the £10,000 best collection award are Sinéad Morrissey's exploration of childhood, Through the Square Window, and Fiona Sampson's Rough Music, in which the poet uses music to look at themes of violence and loss.

Poet and author Ruth Padel, who chairs this year's judging panel, hailed the lineup's "unusually wide range". "We spent eight hours reading poems aloud to each other: beautiful lyrics, prose poems, daring modernists and some very funny surrealists," she said.

"It was tough, whittling a rainbow down to a shortlist, and giving up many books we really loved, which in other years certainly would have been on the shortlist. But what we have got represents the quality and brilliant variety of poetry, and poetry publishing, in Britain today."

Padel and fellow judges Williams, performance poet Dreadlockalien, journalist and broadcaster Alex Clark, and actress and director Fiona Shaw, considered 147 collections for this year's prizes – a number that Williams, for one, felt was too high.

"The books were all laid out on a table and I looked at the covers and the titles and thought how carefully each had been chosen ... the ambition and the beauty and the sensitivity," he said. "But an awful lot of them seemed to be published just because they existed, really. That's too big a number of books in one year in one country to put

out. I think it's something to do with the democratisation of everything – that everyone's got a right to get a book out ... I've got the feeling that sometimes it's more about desire than worth."

The judges picked Christian Campbell's Running the Dusk, Hilary Menos's Berg, Abegail Morley's How to Pour Madness into a Teacup, Helen Oswald's Learning Gravity, Steve Spence's A Curious Shipwreck and Sam Willetts's New Light for the Old Dark for the shortlist for the £5,000 award for best first collection.

The best single poem award, worth £1,000, pits Kate Bingham's On Highgate Hill against Julia Copus's An Easy Passage, Lydia Fulleylove's Night Drive, Chris Jones's Sentences, Ian Pindar's Mrs Beltinska in the Bath, and Lee Sands's The Reach.

The Forward prizes, founded in 1992, are intended to raise the profile of contemporary poetry. Last year's best collection award was won by Scottish poet Don Paterson, for Rain, and this year's winners will be announced on 6 October in London.


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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