Husband's elegy for Jenny Diski wins Forward prize for best single poem

Ian Patterson’s The Plenty of Nothing, begun in the days leading up to her death, shares honours with best collection win for Sinéad Morrissey’s On Balance

Ian Patterson’s elegy for his late wife, the writer Jenny Diski, which he began writing in the days leading up to her death, has won the Forward prize for best single poem.

The Plenty of Nothing is dedicated in memoriam to Diski, who died in 2016 aged 68. Diski, who referred to her husband in her writing as “the Poet” and “soppy old radical versifier”, was the author of 18 books, including the memoir In Gratitude, which detailed her diagnosis with inoperable lung cancer. Patterson said he started writing the poem two days before she died and completed it in the days after that.

A complex and bold work, according to the chair of the judging panel, broadcaster Andrew Marr, The Plenty of Nothing offers a series of images of their lives together – “What was made by us is hanging about covered in ribbons and birdshit” and “am here am you we’re a monstrous pair of crows” – before concluding with a consideration of life’s end: “The words on one level condemn us to death / of the use of them as we must simply know the part in the whole / devoted to a singular being without being which there’s nothing left.”

“The Plenty of Nothing speaks to the reader with great force and skill. Both complex and bold, this is the kind of poetry that will inspire other poets to take greater risks,” said Marr, announcing Patterson, who is also a Cambridge academic, as winner of the £1,000 award.

Marr added that the judges had deliberated over whether the poem “was too difficult to win. Then in the end the consensus was that it is just such a good poem that, difficult or not, we wanted to put it in front of people.”

“It is a lament for a terrible death,” said Marr, saying that if a poet is going to take on the mystery of consciousness being extinguished, “then you will be at the edge of what language can do”.

“It jolts the reader. It’s a very difficult subject so it should be difficult. But then it’s also very tender, very moving, both complex and multilayered,” he said, urging readers to “please read it thrice – don’t read it once and put it aside. Because that’s the thing about poetry – it tends to be fewer words on a page, but if a poem is any good, it needs rereading.”

Poet Sinead Morrissey.
Emotionally charged … Sinéad Morrissey. Photograph: Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Patterson’s win was announced at the Royal Festival Hall in London on Thursday night. The £10,000 prize for best collection went to Sinéad Morrissey for On Balance, the acclaimed Northern Irish poet’s sixth collection which looks at states of balance and imbalance across history, from the Titanic to gender inequality.

Marr called Morrissey’s poems “beautifully written, emotionally charged and filled with a wonderful complexity … This is writing that successfully comes right up to the edge, again and again. We were taken by the openness, the capacity and the exuberance of this work. On Balance is a collection that readers will keep and go back to for a long time to come,” he said, praising Morrissey’s range – she covers history, culture, politics and feminist theory – as well as her “amazing technical skill”.

Past winners of the prestigious honour for best collection include Morrissey’s fellow Northern Irish poet Seamus Heaney, Claudia Rankine, and Ted Hughes. This year, Morrissey beat, among others, Michael Longley and the 2013 winner Emily Berry.

The award ceremony also saw Ocean Vuong win the £5,000 Felix Dennis prize for best first collection for Night Sky With Exit Wounds. Born in Vietnam, Vuong arrived in the US as a refugee aged two. His debut collection tackles everything from war to sexuality.

Vuong said that although he was the first in his immediate family to learn to read and write, he had “been around the oral tradition of poetry since I was born – particularly through my grandmother”.

“Even when I was in my mother’s womb, poems were spoken to me. And they were very complex, wild, and imaginative works, replete with rich musical and associative intricacies,” he said. “Through song and speech, they made a tangible personal and historical lineage that informed the way I think and write. I began to write in earnest after my grandmother passed away in 2008 – at first preserving her folk songs, before turning to the opposite page and giving my own hand a try right next to hers.”

Vuong is “a truly remarkable new voice” and Night Sky With Exit Wounds “an incredibly accomplished first collection by an extraordinary talent”, said Marr, who was joined on the judging panel by the poets Mona Arshi, Ian Duhig and Sandeep Parmar, as well as the former children’s laureate Chris Riddell.


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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