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'The Tallest Oak': The Forward Prizes 2019


In mid-October, once all the Booker Prizes have been handed out, the literary columnists of this country crack their knuckles, sit up straight at their desks for the first time in a month, and with an audible crick of the neck turn their gaze to the world of poetry.

It feels right for there to be a single award for the year’s best novel. A novel is a sustained and singular act of imagination. Poetry collections tend to be scattered, various things. There can be huge fluctuations in quality from one poem to the next, as well as changes in style, tone and world view. Whereas novels endure as single monoliths, an individual poem can happily slip its initial context to enter the collective memory. There are hundreds of anthologies called things like ‘The Nation’s Favourite Poems’. There are none called ‘The Nation’s Favourite Poetry Collections’.

What’s more, poetry can take decades – centuries even – to find its fit audience. A great poem can come from anyone, at any given time, quite unexpectedly, and our anthologies are full of one- or two-hit wonders. The only consolation for us readers is that a truly good poem will find its way to the surface sooner or later: trying to keep good poetry down is like trying to hold a beachball underwater. The longer it stays hidden, the more vigorously it returns to view: just think of the extraordinary velocity with which John Donne re-entered the canon in the early twentieth century.

Judging a poetry prize, then, is a bit like looking at a group of acorns and placing bets on which will turn into the tallest oak. Perfectly good fun – but you’ll only know if you were right after seventy or eighty years. It’s in that spirit of total epistemological surrender that we should turn our attention to the nominees for this year’s Forward Prizes for Poetry.

The strongest contender for the Best Collection prize is Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, a miniature epic about a city in an unnamed, northern country, which comes under oppressive military rule. In Kaminsky’s conceit, the town feigns or perhaps becomes deaf, as a form of resistance. ‘Our country woke up next morning and refused to hear the soldiers.’

Kaminsky himself is hard of hearing, and his evocations of deafness in a time of violence are striking. When a young child is shot, the gunshot is recorded visually: ‘the sound we do not hear lifts the gulls off the water.’ Elsewhere, the love between two characters is evoked through reference to a private sign language: ‘trembling lips / meant come to bed [...] but parted lips / meant bite my parted lips.’ Most impressive of all is the directness and clarity of the poetic voice, and Deaf Republic feels like the arrival of a major talent.

Equally clear, equally beautiful are the poems in Niall Campbell’s Noctuary, a collection of lyrics about the night thoughts of a new father. In ‘Dream’, Campbell listens to his child crying whilst asleep:

learning the balance

That must be paid for his new hours:

son, it was always to be the case.

Who’d have known we’d know this so early?

Some of these poems are so quiet I can hardly hear them. The sleepless nights of young parents become a place for reflection on vulnerability, loss and grief. In turn, Campbell shows how the daily task of care – the work, the exhaustion, the endless bedtimes – become the rituals of a deep, enduring love. The collection’s final poem, ‘Good Night’, ends: ‘Good morning, here’s the brightness in the dawn; / good night, here’s love like a faint snowfall. Good night.’

Poets love night, and always have, mostly because it brings out the best in the moon, which poets love most of all. In Helen Tookey’s City of Departures, the speaker recalls the nights where something unnameable ‘drew you from the dreams / to pull back the curtains’ and see:

the moon’s bright diode, transmitting

it seemed straight to you, but the signal scrambled

by the flickering leaves of the chestnut tree,

reaching you as unreadable scatter, pulses of light

falling into the dark of the room; a code

you never learned to decipher.

Frost famously said poetry is what gets lost in translation; Tookey’s poems are often about the strangeness, the unreliableness of any transmission of meaning. In ‘Paper Birds’, a girl refuses to talk: ‘Maybe it’s the gap she’s afraid of, the split that opens / every time between the thought, the wish, and what is said’. Elegantly enjambed long lines are the keynote of Tookey’s style, but the collection finds time to burst into prose. ‘Skizzen’ is a long reflection on art, travel and personal identity: part-poem, part-essay, the author’s incessant questioning resolves itself to a quiet ambivalence about who she is: ‘For tonight, I am here – or at least someone is here ... her reflection blurred in the black glass of the night sky’. ‘If she can belong anywhere’ writes Tookey of this figure, ‘she can belong here; and if she can be anyone, she might as well be me.’

Let’s face it, it’s weird being anyone. But few writers have approached the question of personal identity with the generosity and subtlety of Vidyan Ravinthiran, whose book The Million-Petalled Flower of Being Here explores, in a series of over 100 sonnets, the contradictions and the beauties of race, class and love. The poems take place in a world we can recognise as our own, one that is flawed, awkward and often cheerful. At the dry cleaner’s the woman behind the counter struggles with Ravinthiran’s name: ‘I’ll need you to spell that out, pet!’.

Am I to believe this kindly Geordie is a bigot?

Her humour in this common circumstance

is as bright-shining a part of civilisation

as the David’s chiselled, white, not-quite fist

The collection’s title comes from Philip Larkin’s ‘The Old Fools’. Given Larkin’s notorious racism, the appropriation of this line for a collection that is so doggedly joyful feels like a . Although both Larkin and Ravinthiran write comprehensible poems that are set against the everyday background of British life, Ravinthiran feels like the anti-Larkin. Instead of disappointment, there is hope; instead of solitude, there is the deep happiness of romantic love. For Larkin, night made clear what day hid: ‘unresting death, a whole day nearer now’. For Ravinthiran, more often than not it heralds the approach of a happy dawn. ‘On waking, you draw the blossoms / of the plum tree to my attention’:

During the night, your pyjama bottoms

slipped down. Something to mention.

‘Isn’t it beautiful?’ is what you’re asking

‘Yes,’ is my reply to you forever

whether or not we’re looking at the same thing

or in the same direction.

Somewhat less loving than this are the sexual encounters in Fiona Benson’s Vertigo and Ghost, the first part of which explores the sex life – if you can call it that – of the God Zeus. Benson’s Zess is a serial rapist and his crimes are recounted in jagged, short lines. His dialogue is all caps, and the effect is to draw out the aggression that nestles within quietly misogynistic discourse: ‘SWEETHEART, / I’M HOME’.

The book’s second section finds Benson writing poems inspired by animals: termites, sparrows, seahorses and other creatures inspire reflections on hopelessness, motherhood, and the much-hoped-for possibility of some descending grace or restitution. In ‘Blue Heron’, Benson writes: 'should the blue heron lift / from the tightening shallows / there will be love, release'.

It’s a beautiful sentiment. And these are five beautiful books: how could you choose only one? And yet – nota bene, literary judges of the world – you do have to choose only one. If I had to bet, I would choose Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic. It has the kind of grand conceptual vision that invites accolades: the book feels prize-worthy. But so did Ducks, Newburyport, and that didn’t manage to win either of last week’s Booker Prizes.

And the question people always want to know with poetry – is any of it really good? Will any of these poems become classics, favourites of the nation?

I haven’t the foggiest. It will be obvious in seventy years. Ask me then.

Artwork by Alex Haveron Jones.


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