Friday, 20 January 2012
John Burnside wins the TSE...
Scottish poet's Black Cat Bone beats strong shortlist in contest mired in protest over City funding
Monday 16 January 2012
The Scottish poet John Burnside has won the most controversial TS Eliot poetry prize in years, for a collection described as "haunting", after two of the original shortlisted poets dropped out in protest over funding from the hedge fund Aurum.
Burnside, a former winner of the Whitbread poetry prize, took the £15,000 prize for his 11th collection, Black Cat Bone. He beat a notably strong surviving list, including the poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy; Sean O'Brien, for his first collection since winning both the TS Eliot and the Forward prizes in 2008; and David Harsent, also a previous Forward winner.
The Welsh poet Gillian Clarke, chair of the judges, said: "Amongst an unprecedentedly strong and unusually well-received shortlist, John Burnside's Black Cat Bone is a haunting book of great beauty, powered by love, childhood memory, human longing and loneliness. In an exceptional year, it is an outstanding book, one which the judges felt grew with every reading."
Burnside was presented with the cheque by Valerie Eliot, widow of the poet, at a ceremony in London. She has funded the prize itself since it was launched 18 years ago but the Poetry Book Society, which organises the competition, will lose all its Arts Council grant this year, and its search for replacement funding proved bitterly divisive.
The three-year sponsorship deal from Aurum was announced at the same time as the shortlist – at the height of the Occupy London protests, when protests were also swelling about the Tate and other major museums and galleries accepting sponsorship from the oil group BP.
Alice Oswald, nominated for Memorial, a retelling of the Iliad, promptly pulled out, saying: "Poetry should be questioning not endorsing such institutions." She was followed by the Australian poet John Kinsella, nominated for Armour, describing himself as an anarchist, pacifist and anti-capitalist, "and hedge funds are at the very pointy end of capitalism".
Poets being notably contrarian, the arts world was agog for further walkouts, but the remaining eight stayed put.
Clarke staunchly defended the prize, the Poetry Book Society and the sponsorship, pointing out that Valerie Eliot remains the biggest funder, and blaming the Arts Council cut – "for no apparent justifiable reason" – for forcing the society to seek sponsorship from the City. "Take it from the rich, give it to a poet and reader," she wrote. "The TS Eliot prize cleans the money."
Burnside, born in 1955, has worked as a factory hand, a gardener and a computer systems designer, before returning in 1995 to his native Scotland, where he teaches at the University of St Andrews. He is acclaimed both as a poet and novelist, and in 2000 The Asylum Dance, which won the Whitbread, was nominated for both the Forward and TS Eliot prizes.
Siôn Hamilton, manager of Foyle's Bookshop, said: "His profound appreciation for the stylistic possibilities of language is married to haunting and almost dream-like imagery, resulting in an elegant collection of poems that greatly reward re-reading."
In his Guardian review, M Wynn Thomas, professor of Welsh writing in English at Swansea, called the collection "a tour de force of liminal expression", and "an engrossing collection".