TS Eliot Prize: not just the same old same Olds

Okay, it’s gone midnight and I’m just beginning to feel like myself again… By now anyone who remotely cares knows that Sharon Olds has won the TS Eliot Prize for her book Stag’s Leap. (I’m so remiss. Blame the free wine and canapés. And I was going to live-tweet it, but at the crucial moment I found that my phone had gone from 25% to NIL battery in about 15 minutes…)

I think there was a moment in Sunday night’s reading where, following all the others, Sharon Olds came on and beamed this dazzling, joyous smile at the audience – surprising and disarming if you’ve only ever read her work, with its kind of brutal raw emotion – when it was just obvious that she had totally owned the space. She read only two poems, in a clear, deliberate, musically conversational voice; flashed that happy, happy smile again, like a kid (unbelievably, she is 70); and left the stage.

Taking a little bit of the light with her.

I just didn’t know what she was going to be like. People either love Sharon Olds – with an uncritical devotion, I’ve tended to notice – or they find her very hard to take. I find her hard to take, but she is consummate* at what she does. As with the stage, she owns it: her signature line breaks, signature tune as it were, her ‘propulsive line’ with its emphases and disjunctures, her in-your-face confessionalism (lazy word, I know), and ‘emotional honesty’.  Everyone who teaches poetry in any form, I’m sure, teaches a Sharon Olds poem at least occasionally (and probably mainly the same one).

My taste has always leaned toward a little more emotional distance, a bit more room to get a vantage point, more paradox, more surface, more intellectual play. You know. I’ve always found something a little deadening, I think, about so much emotional baggage thrown at you on the page; it’s like the endless battles in the Lord of the Rings film, never a breather, never the neutral ordinary in which to recover or to  contemplate the exceptional experience… you just go a bit numb. I never had that teenage girl Sexton/Plath phase; I’ve never read The Bell Jar; at that age I was reading archaeological books on the historical Arthur, Russian constructivist poetry, Pound, and Yeats. (A friend, hearing all this, has told me I’m secretly a man… Some mistake, shurely!)

But reading Stag’s Leap to prepare for my workshop on the shortlist, I was surprised. Several times. First I was surprised by what feels like a new tone – something more measured than a lot of her work that I’ve read, something nuanced. Olds’ children are grown up now and there are no poems about their genitalia, which is a relief. No unsparing teeth in jars, blood and sputum. The book tells the story of her divorce, when her husband left her for someone else, at 55, and its aftermath. The book is about healing, ultimately, so maybe that explains the seraphic smile – and her life has moved on, with a new partner, which has to help. So although the book is flooded with what one might call self-pity, or might call uncompromising honesty, it is also a sort of hymn to (hard-won) happiness.

I was surprised by words. Here’s one example, in a poem called ‘Material Ode':

O tulle, O taffeta, O grosgrain –
I call upon you  now, girls,
of fabrics and the woman I sing…

…O silk,
O slub, O cocoon stolen. It is something
our species does, isn’t it,
we take what we can…

Like so many of the poems in the book, like the collection as a whole, it’s a story. Her husband goes to the ball without her. It has a killer ending, after progressive lists of fabrics up the stakes. Cleverly and effectively done.

‘Tiny Siren’ tells the story of where it all began – with a surprising central image that keeps going round in my mind.

‘Unspeakable’ is indeed a painfully accurate depiction of a nasty conversation, ‘all… courtesy and horror’.

There is magic, sleight of hand, in the title poem, which sparked a long and interesting conversation in my workshop. (We also read Kathleen Jamie’s poem, ‘The Stags’, and ultimately the class preferred it: ‘It’s about stags.’ ‘Not just about her.’ What the two poems share, though, is a sort of transmutation. The wine label stag in the Olds poem comes to startling life.)

I know people are finding comfort in this book as they go through their divorces, and certainly I can remember a time when it might have given me a focus or a sense of not being the only one. I’m sure this is one use of poetry, a major one. I’m not sure that, even then, I’d have felt that comfortable being inside her bra, though. And however validating ‘Left-Wife Goose’ or ‘Known to be Left’ might be, I’m sorry to say there’s a possibly slightly snivelling tone – belied by that smile – that is the thing that drives me nuts. And the in-your-face. The first poem she read at the reading was ‘To My Breasts’, and I think I cringed visibly. (A friend afterwards said, ‘It’s a flat-chested woman’s poem.’ Discuss…) It’s a relief to go from this slightly claustrophobic self-obsession to work that lifts its eyes to the rest of the world a bit more…

Other readers were great too but none bought and owned the space like Sharon. Sean Borodale read with great lyric beauty, not really like the sort of forensic flatness of the poems on the page – I loved getting to hear him. Just as I love that forensic flatness. (I mean, Sharon Olds is pretty forensic too. But in a different way. And I’m not sure I think writing to make people feel exposed is really my thing.)  I still find Bee Journal really exciting, in its attention, its strangeness, it’s cumulativeness, its partialness, its crazy scale – and it too reads like a story. Not lifting his eyes out to the world, so much as drilling them in to the hive. Gripping as a thriller.

Jacob Polley was the only poet to get clapped for a particular poem in the middle of the set – his ballad, ‘Langley Lane’ (such a painful poem I had not even read it to the end). I hoped he’d make the flourish and read his title poem, ‘The Havocs’ – it’s long and dazzling and playful and, well, full of havoc. But no. But that’s all right.

Armitage gave a beautiful reading from his Death of King Arthur.  Most people discussing his reading are talking about the jokes he made in between the poem bits, but I got lost in the mounting power of his reading of Gawain’s death, and was very moved. The death of Gawain is always a tragedy. One thing he said in his reading was that this book – this particular Arthur, the Alliterative Morte Arthure – is Britain’s Iliad. A big thing to say. And I think, though I’d never thought of it in those terms, correct.

In my workshop I gave a page of the original Middle English, too, and we talked about how, even in 1400, the poet was writing in a 400-year-old form; about Anglo-Saxon vocabulary still in use, as opposed to Latinate or French terms; about differences of meaning, as in ‘ful knightly he raised his arm and struck’ – I’m paraphrasing there – where we see ‘knightly’ as meaning chivalrous and ‘gentil’ and the poet will have seen it as being strong and even brutal in fight. They went away determined to look it up and read more.

Julia Copus in her amazing red dress, confident and assured. Paul Farley with his ‘Queen’ poem – I do think the pay-off is a big slight for what could have been quite a hard-hitting & topical, funny poem, but it’s a great riff and made a great end to his set. I’d have liked to hear him read ‘The Circuit’. (Last time I saw him was a few years ago, unbelievably, at a Donut Press event where he read from his Donut book of commissioned poems. Time doesn’t just fly, it’s doing something else scarier now.)

Deryn Rees-Jones read all of her bravura ‘Dogwoman’, a several-page-long poem in sections, based on the paintings by Paula Rego. Her soft voice felt a little at odds with the strength of the lines as I’d experienced them on the page: an interesting example of a poem seeming different in performance and in writing; I liked both versions. Last night at the awards do there were a couple of conversations about this poem; people responded, as with Olds, in different ways. Rees-Jones’ Burying the Wren is a gorgeous book, though: subtle, realised, grown up, glinting from its depths.

Gillian Clarke had a big silver disc of a necklace on, like an ancient shield, and gratified me by reading both the poems from her book that feature an amazing magic polar bear. Ice. It’s a sort of thrilling book, which I just reviewed for the next issue of Magma: a synaesthesiac’s book, which I don’t say in the review. It glints with colour everywhere so that reading it appears to be a vast glittering explosion of coldness and sparkle, and it’s about how things become strange.

Jorie Graham couldn’t be there and was read instead by her publisher, Michael Schmidt. The poems are very structural on the page – ‘the master of the long sentence’ with a sort of double-margined concrete style; like Olds, she is manipulating the pace. I thought Schmidt did very well and bravely. A few people who didn’t know the poems on the page thought he did less so, but of course the disjuncture is all there in the text.

Kathleeen Jamie gave a very strong reading. I think I was very sensitive to voices, maybe more so as I knew the books; I had attention free for the timbre and qualities. She was authoritative and musical and read ‘The Stags’ with a lovely emphasis on the penultimate word (‘almost’), about which my students had made perceptive and appreciative remarks.

Aside from that, Ian McMillan compered the event for the third year, and did a magnificent job. Perfect. And so many people there, both nights, that there was no way you could say even hello to everyone you wanted to talk to.

So, congratulations to everybody: to Sharon Olds for a fine book, and the prize; to all the other poets, because we all know that if you’re shortlisted, you’ve won; and to the Poetry Book Society for putting on two amazing events.

And, by the way. The TS Eliot Prize reading on Sunday night was huuuge, with 2,000 people in the audience. It’s nothing like the old days in the Bloomsbury Theatre, where even packed out like a rush hour tube train it was still only a quarter of that. This tells you What Can Be Done. It doesn’t seem likely that it can be done only by the Poetry Book Society (and very impressively, too, with a tiny staff); it’s a truism that poets are used to reading for audiences you can measure on your hands and those of a friend, in pubs or libraries or dreary halls. But if you look at the audiences poetry gets the minute it’s put into a proper space – eg Snape Maltings for the Aldeburgh Festival, or here – you have to think maybe poetry is selling itself short! Why do we think no one likes it? We’re like the guy slobbing round in a baggy old soup-stained jumper, complaining he can’t get a date. But we scrub up pretty good.

* And please. The SECOND syllable takes the stress when it’s an adjective.