'A star is born': TS Eliot prize goes to Hannah Sullivan's debut

Poet’s ‘absolutely exhilarating’ first collection Three Poems takes £25,000 prize

Poet Hannah Sullivan has won the prestigious and lucrative TS Eliot prize for her first collection Three Poems – just the third debut to land the award in its 25-year history, and a sign that the poetry world is hunting for a new generation of voices.

Sullivan, a 39-year-old Londoner who won the £25,000 prize on Monday night, is the third first time poet to take the prize, with all three winning in the last five years: Vietnamese-American Ocean Vuong in 2017 and Chinese-British Sarah Howe in 2015. Before then, the prize had tended to be awarded to more established poets a few collections into their careers, among them Derek Walcott, Carol Ann Duffy, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney.

Sullivan, who studied at Cambridge and Harvard, worked as an assistant professor at Stanford, and is now associate professor of English at New College, Oxford. She is unusual in that she had not been widely published in the lead-up to her debut.

“A star is born. Where has she come from?” said chair of judges, poet and previous winner Sinéad Morrissey. “I don’t know her personally, I hadn’t read her in magazines or anywhere else before. She has not come through the usual creative-writing, pamphlet route. She has just arrived, and it is breathtaking. I couldn’t be more delighted if I had won it myself.”

Sullivan’s debut is made up of three lengthy poems: You, Very Young in New York, which explores the lives of various young people, all united by their cynicism and their uncertainty, making their way through unfulfilling relationships and work in the city; Repeat Until Time is an exploration of revision in art and form, Sullivan’s PhD subject; the third, The Sandpit After Rain explores connections between the birth of her baby and the death of her father.

Morrissey said the decision to award Sullivan the prize was unanimous. “Our relationship with her work only deepened on each subsequent rereading,” she said. “It is not just the formal mastery, but how that formal mastery is so well-handled as to be almost invisible. That is the height of praise. You almost don’t notice the architecture underneath because you are so compelled by what is being said.”

She called Three Poems hugely ambitious: “It is taking on perennial themes such as our mortality, our sexuality, our gender and our movement through time and place, and doing it in such a fresh and observant way. It is an absolutely exhilarating collection and it is all the more surprising that it is a debut.”

Sullivan was one of five new voices on a 10-book shortlist described as “intensely political” by judge and poet Clare Pollard. More established names included the US poet Terrance Hayes, nominated for his collection American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, an exploration of the modern news cycle written in immediate response to the first 200 days of Donald Trump’s presidency; the current US poet laureate Tracy K Smith for Wade in the Water, a collection that touches on slavery and black American history; former winner Sean O’Brien’s Europa, which considers the relationship between the UK and Europe; and Nick Laird’s Feel Free, which explores recent news events including Grenfell Tower and the refugee crisis.

Morrissey said the presence of so many new voices was exciting. “There is such tremendous energy coming from people writing their first books right now. So many of the debuts were not only accomplished, but testing the boundaries of their fields. It is a really exciting moment for poetry, because it feels like publishers are taking more chances, and we’re now reading a more diverse and experimental field.”


Sian Cain

The GuardianTramp

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