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T. S. Eliot Prize 2016
Welcome to the fourth of our eleven weekly T. S. Eliot Prize newsletters where we’ll have more about the ten shortlisted poets - some of their poetry, reviews of their collections and a range of wonderful poetry events.

This Year’s Judges

Our judges this year are, as always, poets, and they come from a wide spectrum.

The Chair, Ruth Padel, writes poetry and non-fiction and will publish her latest, Tidings, in December. It has already been reviewed by Stylist: ‘A gorgeous Christmas poem... This poem, meant to be read aloud, explores what Christmas might mean to us today – not just a time of celebration but also of conflict and loneliness… Lyrically beautiful, and accompanied by gorgeous illustrations by Sarah Young.’ In the tradition of Charles Dickens and Dylan Thomas, Tidings takes us on a journey into the heart of Christmas, showing us celebrations down the ages and across the globe as dawn sweeps west from East Australia across India and Iran to Bethlehem and Rome, from London to the Statue of Liberty in New York.

Ruth Padel has published nine poetry collections, a novel, and eight books of non-fiction including two much-loved books on reading contemporary poetry, 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem and The Poem and the Journey. Four of her Chatto & Windus collections, Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth, Rembrandt Would Have Loved You (both Poetry Book Society Choices), The Soho Leopard and Voodoo Shop (a Poetry Book Society Recommendation) have been shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize. Her mixed-genre book The Mara Crossing is a poems-and-prose exploration of migration and immigration; her Darwin – A Life in Poems is a much-acclaimed biography in verse of Charles Darwin, her great-great-grandfather. She has won the National Poetry Competition, is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and teaches poetry at King’s College London.
Her website is
Julia Copus is one of our distinguished younger poets and as well as three poetry collections, she has also branched out into children’s writing and has published three books for children.
Julia Copus was born in London, near the Young Vic theatre, and now lives in Somerset. All three of her collections were Poetry Book Society Recommendations, and the most recent of them, The World’s Two Smallest Humans (Faber), was shortlisted for both the T. S. Eliot Prize and the Costa Poetry Award. She has won First Prize in the National Poetry Competition and the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem (2010). Julia Copus also writes for radio: a sequence of poems for radio, entitled Ghost Lines, was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in December 2011 and shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry. Her first play, Eenie Meenie Macka Racka, was awarded the BBC's Alfred Bradley prize. She is the author of three children’s books, also published by Faber.
Alan Gillis teaches at the University of Edinburgh and was selected as one of the 20 Next Generation 2014 poets. He is from Belfast and now lives in Scotland, where he teaches English at The University of Edinburgh. He has published four poetry collections with The Gallery Press: Scapegoat (2014), Here Comes the Night (2010), Hawks and Doves (2007) and Somebody, Somewhere (2004), which won the Strong Award for Best First Collection in Ireland. He has also been shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize, and for the Irish Times Poetry Now Award. In 2014 he was selected as a ‘Next Generation Poet’ by the Poetry Book Society. As a critic he is author of Irish Poetry of the 1930s (2005), and co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish Poetry (2012), both published by Oxford University Press. From 2010-2015 he was editor of Edinburgh Review.

Focus on Shortlisted Poet - Ian Duhig

Ian Duhig is known as a champion of younger poets and he writes with an erudition and a sense of political and social conscience which is uniquely his own. The starting point for a number of poems in his richly varied new collection is Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, but its presiding genius is the great eighteenth century civil engineer and polymath Blind Jack Metcalf.

Ian Duhig worked with homeless people for fifteen years before devoting himself to writing activities full-time. He has won the Forward Best Poem Prize once and the National Poetry Competition twice. Two books with Picador, The Lammas Hireling (2003) and The Speed of Dark (2007), were both PBS Choices and shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize, and he has published eight poetry collections in all. His most recent short story appeared in The New Uncanny, winner of the Shirley Jackson Best Anthology Award for 2008, and his most recent musical collaboration, with the Clerks early music consort, on their CD Don't Talk - Just Listen! (Signum, 2009). He lives in Leeds.
Reviews of The Blind Roadmaker

“As a dictionary plunderer who knows a lot about a lot of things, Ian Duhig’s eclectic enthusiasms and often laugh-out-loud wit make him poetry’s answer to Stephen Fry. Popular but complex, comic yet serious, no one could accuse his verse of being dull or predictable. “My experience of poetic ideas is that they don’t stand there waiting calmly until you’re ready to receive them,” Duhig once said, “you have to rush out and welcome them immediately.”…

The presiding spirit of The Blind Roadmaker, his seventh book of poems, arrives in “The Ballad of Blind Jack Metcalf”, a hymn to the 18th-century Yorkshire civil engineer, blind from childhood, who learned to read by “feeling headstone faces”. Metcalf ends up figuring as a kind of alternative self to Duhig, having built the Leeds road on which the poet now lives. He is a man born in darkness who operates with remarkable determination and conviction, while the poet, in Duhig’s own words, “stumbles about in the light”, trying to make sense of an often chaotic world in apparently plain sight. Stood, as one poem has it, “In His Shadow”, Duhig demonstrates a refreshing and self-effacing respect for this almost folkloric figure: “Testing stones to bed his roads’ black tongues, / I heard how Jack rolled them around his mouth / ‘like new words’. But I wouldn’t know about that.”…

Elsewhere in the collection, Duhig himself lays himself open to being accused of such abstruse meanderings through dense cultural, historical and geographical references. But it is his sense of humour, self-awareness and democratising attitude that steer his poetry clear of pretension. As he writes of a poetry workshop he once ran with old soldiers at Age Concern, “They’d lost that battle with the word, / believing too much better left unsaid”. Encouraging them to let it out “into words they feared betrayed it”, Duhig ends on a stark and humble note: “And I learned why they were right”. The Blind Roadmaker is a generous, smart and big-hearted book of poems, from a writer who truly values the whole of life as it is variously lived.

- Ben Wilkinson in the Guardian

“His work is extraordinarily diverse linguistically, ranging far and wide amongst world literatures, cultures and history – although predominantly, of course, British and Irish. Allied to this inherent diversity is his satirical bawdy wit, a subversive view of political authorities, religious orthodoxies and cultural chauvinism of all kinds. His poems are intellectually challenging, at times arcane, though often written in populist forms such as ballads, folksongs or rhyming quatrains. What has emerged over the course of his five collections to date, from The Bradford Count (1991) to The Speed of Dark (2007), is a much-acclaimed body of work animated by its joy in language, a truly irreverent comic spirit - and its own creative contradictions. While he is not a spectacular performer in public, his frequent readings – and off-the-cuff asides or explanations – are highly entertaining.”

- The British Council’s Critical Perspective

Poetry from The Blind Roadmaker

Void Studies
Bridled Vows
I will be faithful to you, I do vow,
but not until the seas have all run dry
et cetera. Although I mean it now
I’m not a prophet and I will not lie.
To be your perfect wife, I could not swear;
I’ll love, yes; honour (maybe); won’t obey,
but will co-operate if you will care
 as much as you are seeming to today.
I’ll do my best to be your better half,
but I don’t have the patience of a saint
and at you, not with you, I’ll sometimes laugh,
and snap too, though I’ll try to show restraint.
We might work out. No blame if we do not.
With all my heart, I think it’s worth a shot.

John Field Reviews the Shortlist: Ian Duhig

For the 2016 Prize, we’ve asked poetry blogger John Field to review the shortlisted titles again and he concludes on The Blind Roadmaker : “It’s a treat to read verse with this kind of agility, scale and sense of social purpose.”
Who does a society decide to memorialise and who does it shuffle to the margins of its history? Duhig’s titular blind road-maker, the remarkable Blind Jack Metcalf, was born blind but, nevertheless, worked as a successful musician, tour guide and, in later years, as a civil engineer. In The Blind Roadmaker, Duhig memorialises a range of figures: from Metcalf and the fifteenth century prophetess, Mother Shipton, both almost obliterated from history, to canonical figures like Laurence Sterne and William Langland.

In ‘The Ballad of Blind Jack Metcalf’, Duhig writes in that most proletarian of poetic forms: ballad – the form of the road as it brought news from place-to-place, to the ordinary and perhaps illiterate. Duhig describes Metcalf as ‘a soldier, smuggler, fiddler, guide’. That middle ‘fiddler’ disrupts the alliterative neatness of the list with a little jolt – another of Jack’s forays on the wrong side of the law, perhaps, but also a nod to an early position as a musician at the Queen’s Head, Harrogate. Without knowing his history, he can be misconstrued and Duhig helps us to enjoy this as we catch up on Wikipedia.

Here, as elsewhere in the collection, Duhig validates his subjects with cross-cultural comparisons, describing Metcalf as ‘our Daedalus of roads’. (In ‘Mother Shipton’ the prophetess is ‘our Yorkshire Sibyl’, and the first person plural pronoun adds a sense of proud collective ownership.) The ballad leaves the reader at the sit-by-me statue of Metcalf in Knaresborough where Jack’s ‘secret tale’s picked out in Braille / and what it says is that…’ It’s a great ending – the waywiser wheel (pedometer) beside him points to the homing circularity of our journeys and the poem’s circular structure too completes its own revolution but, rather beautifully, the ellipsis transforms into Braille, bringing the reader physically close to the statue.

The collection also engages with questions of aesthetics. ‘The Marbled Page’ considers a page from Sterne’s experimental novel, Tristram Shandy, unique to each copy, hand-marbled and which the eponymous hero describes as ‘the motly emblem of my work’. Duhig’s poem opens: ‘For Aristotle, marble’s motley / trapped gobs of first matter / from the moment of Creation / when Fortune mothered God’. Aristotle and marble locate the poem within a Classical context, pushing us, therefore, to read ‘gobs’ as a dialect word for mass, or lump. Marble, the building material of choice for the Classical world, is placed at the centre of creation and, for a moment, Duhig permits his reader to imagine Sterne located there too as the marbling begins to ‘multiply like spiral galaxies’ as ‘the author priest watches over / the reproduction of his design’. Again, Duhig’s economical writing is playful as, at one level, the author becomes the celebrant of a sacred rite and, of course, Sterne was a vicar. When he ‘looks away. / The book-maker clears his throat / and gobs into the marbling trough’ and why, we wonder, do we enjoy the whirls and whorls of marble, but not those of a well-cleared throat? High culture is taken down a peg or two as a nameless bystander weaves his DNA into literary history.

If you enjoy this collection, check out the Leeds poet and classicist, Tony Harrison. In his work, pop and high culture, rich and poor, the proletariat and their oppressors collide. These poems doff their cap. In ‘Blockbusters’ the ‘locals speak blank verse (says Harrison)’ and Duhig’s remarkable poem reminds us of Harrison’s ‘Durham’. It’s a treat to read verse with this kind of agility, scale and sense of social purpose.

Other Poetry News

Woodstock Poetry Festival: shortlisted poet Alice Oswald reading from Falling Awake and recent work on Friday 11 November
Poet in the City Africa: Words Across the Diaspora - Sunday 20 November in the British Museum
Apples & Snakes: Spokes Amaze in Exeter Sunday 13 November - starting a new series of spectacular spoken word solo shows with a warm up quick fire slam, featuring: Melody by Jemima Foxtrot & Unholy Mess.
Penned in the Margins: Hannah Silva’s Schlock! from 8 – 26 November at the Rosemary Branch Theatre in London
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