TS Eliot prize unveils 'unsettling, captivating' shortlist

Judges say the 10 poetry collections nominated for £25,000 award are ‘as urgent as they are artful’

The prestigious TS Eliot prize has revealed a shortlist that shows that poetry is “the most resilient, potent, capacious and universal art we have”.

Announcing the 10 titles in the running for the £25,000 award for the year’s best collection, the most valuable prize in British poetry, the poet and chair of judges, Lavinia Greenlaw, said the jury had been “unsettled, captivated and compelled” by the books they chose.

“When the pandemic hit, certain concerns of ours began to seem rather trivial,” said Greenlaw, who together with the poets Mona Arshi and Andrew McMillan read 153 collections to come up with the shortlist. “We had to be convinced by them as relevant in a profoundly changed world, which meant that we had to be able to connect with them at the level of essential human experience, which is where I believe poetry is really produced, and poetry is really received.”

JO Morgan was shortlisted for The Martian’s Regress, which explores what becomes of humans when they lose their humanity, as a colonist journeys back from Mars to abandoned Earth. “Waking from his nightmare / The pressing blackness of the air / Failed to hide the martian from himself. / The nightmare too had woken,” writes Morgan.

Will Harris was chosen for his first collection RENDANG, which draws on his Anglo-Indonesian heritage to explore issues including race, culture, memory and identity. Two other first collections also make the cut: Ella Frears’s intimate Shine, Darling, and Daisy Lafarge’s Life Without Air, which investigates suffocating relationships and toxic environments.

Natalie Diaz – already shortlisted for the Forward prize – was chosen for her look at desire, environmental destruction and Native American culture, Postcolonial Love Poem, while Sasha Dugdale was chosen for Deformations, which puts Homer’s Odyssey alongside the life and work of the controversial English artist Eric Gill.

Poetry has been “under pressure to adapt and respond to a rapidly changing world”, Greenlaw said, “but also to a world in which there is a great deal of silencing and under-representation. And now is a particularly exciting time because we have these voices emerging that are as urgent and new as they are artful.”

Greenlaw said there was an assumption of a “divide between poetry as literary, and poetry that is culturally or politically engaged”.

“It is hard to write good, powerful poetry that is explicitly politically engaged,” she said. “But these poets are all political. And they’re all artful.”

The shortlist for the prize, which is run by the TS Eliot Foundation, is completed with How the Hell Are You, the new collection from Glyn Maxwell, Shane McCrae’s Sometimes I Never Suffered, Bhanu Kapil’s How to Wash a Heart, in which Kapil explores the relationship between an immigrant guest and a citizen host, and Wayne Holloway-Smith’s Love Minus Love.

“People talk about the obscurity and difficulty of poetry, and yet when we are in extremis, we write and read poems, even if we’ve never written or read them before,” Greenlaw said. The collections had been written in the world before Covid-19, she added, but the “urgency and vitality of the 10 books on this shortlist commanded our attention nonetheless … Poetry is the most resilient, potent, capacious and universal art we have.”

Last year’s award was won by Roger Robinson’s A Portable Paradise, which judges praised for “finding in the bitterness of everyday experience continuing evidence of ‘sweet, sweet life’”. This year’s winner will be unveiled in January.

The shortlist in full:

Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz (Faber & Faber)
Deformations by Sasha Dugdale (Carcanet Press)
Shine, Darling by Ella Frears (Offord Road Books)
RENDANG by Will Harris (Granta Poetry)
Love Minus Love by Wayne Holloway-Smith (Bloodaxe Books)
How to Wash a Heart by Bhanu Kapil (Pavilion Poetry)
Life Without Air by Daisy Lafarge (Granta Poetry)
How the Hell Are You by Glyn Maxwell (Picador Poetry)
Sometimes I Never Suffered by Shane McCrae (Corsair Poetry)
The Martian’s Regress by JO Morgan (Cape Poetry)


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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