A poem exploring the fleeting flashes of anger we direct at our family, and the shame that it brings, has been chosen from more than 12,000 entries for one of the UK’s most prestigious poetry prizes.

Eric Berlin’s poem Night Errand was named winner of the Poetry Society’s 38th national poetry competition, a prize which each year rewards unpublished single poems from a colossal number of entries.

Berlin, a freelance editor and teacher who lives near Syracuse, New York, follows in the considerable footsteps of previous winners including the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, Helen Dunmore, Jo Shapcott, Tony Harrison and Ruth Padel.

Night Errand was one of more than 12,000 poems from 73 countries entered for the prize. All the poems were read by a judging panel of three poets Sarah Howe, Esther Morgan and David Wheatley, who had no idea of the authorship.

Howe said Night Errand was “one of those poems that wouldn’t let you move on, but demanded a pause to dwell and recoup, followed by the compulsion to read it again … Its initial grip gave way to a sort of haunting”.

Night Errand seems to be about one sleep-deprived father’s trip to a depressing shopping mall in upstate New York. By the end, it is about him shouting at his partner. “I did it again -/ I screamed at the woman I love, and in front/ of our one-year-old son, who covered his ears.”

Howe praised the poem’s subtlety and complexity. “Through its artful control of sound and line, its powers of image and perception, Night Errand dramatises a cry of pain at the damage we’re capable of doing to others.”

Berlin, who teaches courses such as Ear Training for Poets at the Downtown Writers’ Centre in New York State, receives £5,000 for his winning poem.

David Hawkins was runner-up for Long Distance Relationship with a Mountain.

David Morley
David Morley. Photograph: Graeme Oxby

The Poetry Society’s other big prize was the Ted Hughes award for new work in poetry; that was given to David Morley for his collection The Invisible Gift: Selected Poems.

Morley is a former ecologist and now professor of writing, whose name will be familiar to many aspirant authors. He wrote the 2007 textbook The Cambridge Introduction to Creative Writing and has made podcasts that have proved to be among the most popular creative writing downloads on iTunes.

As well as his published poetry collections – The Gypsy and the Poet, The Invisible Kings, and Scientific Papers – Morley has been a deputy chair of the Poetry Society and helped found the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden, London.

The judges of the Ted Hughes award, Jackie Kay, Andrew McMillan and Ali Smith, praised the ambition of Morley’s new book: “The Invisible Gift is the perfect title for this collection as it was simply a gift to read. Like opening a box of fireworks; something theatrical happens when you open its pages and a curtain is raised on a tradition that has been overlooked.”

The collection includes poems which explore the voices of Romany culture. The judges said: “Ted Hughes wrote about the natural magical and mythical world. The Invisible Gift is a natural successor, as Morley has found a way to give a voice to the Romani people who live in that natural world. A lifetime’s work gathered into one [volume], it becomes a cohesive new form in which old poems transform into something new.”

The £5,000 Ted Hughes prize was established in 2009 by Duffy, using moneyarising from her annual poet laureate honorarium. Previous winners included Andrew Motion, Maggie Sawkins and Kate Tempest.

Night Errand by Eric Berlin

O, Great Northern Mall, you dwindling oracle

of upstate New York, your colossal lot

of frost-heaved spaces so vacant I could cut

straight through while blinking and keep my eyes

shut, I’ve come like the flies that give up the ghost

at the papered fronts of your defunct stores,

through the food court where napkins, unused

to touch, are packed too tight to be dispensed,

past the pimpled kid manning the register

who stares at the buttons and wipes his palms.

If I press my eyes until checkers rise

from the dark – that’s how the overheads glower

in home essentials as I roam through Sears,

seeking assistance. I know you’re here.

For this window crank I brought, you show me

a muted wall of TVs where Jeff Goldblum

picks his way through the splintered remains

of a dinosaur crate. There must be fifty

of him, hunching over mud to inspect

the three-toed prints. I almost didn’t

come in here at all, driving the opposite

of victory laps, and waiting as I hoped

for the red to leave my eyes, but my urgency

smacked of your nothingness. I did it again –

I screamed at the woman I love, and in front

of our one-year-old, who covered his ears.

The Invisible Gift by David Morley

John Clare weaves English words into a nest

and in the cup he stipples rhyme, like mud,

to clutch the shape of something he can hold

but not yet hear; and in the hollow of his hearing,

he feathers a space with a down of verbs

and nouns heads-up. There. Clare lays it down

and nestles over its forming sound: taps and lilts,

the steady knocking of the nib on his hand until

it hatches softly beneath him. And when he peers

below his palm, he spies its eyes, hears its peeps,

but does not yet know what to think. He strokes

its tottering yolk-wet crown; feels a nip against

his thumb, buds of muscle springy at the wing, and all

the hungers of the world to come for this small singing.


Mark Brown

The GuardianTramp

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