Why the TS Eliot prize shortlist hails a return to the status quo

This year’s lineup may be deserving, but with just one collection by a BAME poet in an exceptionally strong year for poets of colour, it also seems naive

Over the past few years, challenges to British poetry’s lack of diversity have made it impossible to return to the status quo – or so we thought. This year’s TS Eliot prize shortlist, announced on Thursday, features just one collection (out of 10, including Michael Symmons Roberts and Leontia Flynn) by a poet of colour, the much-acclaimed Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong. For those who have championed crucial interventions in poetry publishing, reviewing and prizes, this nearly all-white shortlist cannot help but seem inexplicably naive and regressive.

This year was an exceptionally strong year for British poets of colour, and you would have reasonably expected to see Kayo Chingonyi, Richard Georges, André Naffis-Sahely, Nick Makoha, Nuar Alsadir, or Elizabeth-Jane Burnett here, among several others.

That is not to say that the books featured on the list are in any way undeserving. As one of five judges for the Forward prize for poetry this year, I know firsthand how hard it can be to reach a balanced consensus in spite of one’s own bloody-mindedness about what constitutes lasting literary value. No doubt this shortlist, whittled down by poets Helen Mort, James Lasdun and Bill Herbert from 154 books, was a struggle, and each judge is entitled to their taste. I believe poetry must rise to the collective challenge of our times, not merely be a curio of intimate experience. But in the absence of rigorous critical debate over what poetry must do in our era, we have come to expect rather more from prize judges than expressions of taste. Would, for instance, an ethnically diverse panel have returned a different list? When the markers of success do not reflect British poetry today – the unique challenges BAME voices bring to this cultural moment, to pressing questions of identity, our being in the world – all of us must speak up.

The 2017 TS Eliot prize shortlist

The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx by Tara Bergin (Carcanet)

In these Days of Prohibition by Caroline Bird (Carcanet)

The Noise of a Fly by Douglas Dunn (Faber & Faber)

The Radio by Leontia Flynn (Cape Poetry)

So Glad I’m Me by Roddy Lumsden (Bloodaxe)

Mancunia by Michael Symmons Roberts (Cape Poetry)

Diary of the Last Man by Robert Minhinnick (Carcanet)

The Abandoned Settlements by James Sheard (Cape Poetry)

All My Mad Mothers by Jacqueline Saphra (Nine Arches Press)

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong (Cape Poetry)


Sandeep Parmar

The GuardianTramp

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