Andrew McMillan kicked off the Liverpool leg of the T S Eliot Prize Anniversary Tour by launching straight into a poem in celebration of Liverpool, where he has lived since January. He followed this with ‘Leda to her daughters’, a poem written after a visit to Tate Liverpool, where a painting of Leda compelled him, in a mood of ‘youthful exuberance’, to write something in spite of the benchmark set by W B Yeats. This was an apt precursor to the next poem, which McMillan introduced by means of a question he often asks himself: namely “who has permission” to tell certain stories. The poem, a moving exploration of someone else’s bereavement, had something to say about writing as empathy (where the stories of others are not used carelessly but as a way of trying to understand what another person is going through).
Maura Dooley started with a poem from her book Explaining Magnetism entitled ‘A small shaking of my picture of the Kingdom’ followed by a number of poems written at the time in which she lived in the North of England, as well as poems written after she moved to London (including ‘Letters from Yorkshire’ which recalls a correspondence with a friend that made Dooley miss the North). Dooley then treated the audience to some new poems including a poem written to celebrate the work of Thom Gunn and beautiful poem entitled ‘A Parting Glass’ about the intimacies and silences within families. Dooley finished by reading ‘The Source’, a poem plaited now and again with borrowed lines, from The Bible or Alice in Wonderland, building to a poem that flow and coheres in the manner of the substance it describes.
Sam Willetts began by reading ‘Caravaggio’ a poem of doomed love that Willetts told the audience he had opened with in order to ‘get the cheerful mood going’. Though this was a tongue-in-cheek remark, this poem did set the tone for those that followed. Among these poems ‘The Lovely Damage’, ‘The Bemusement Arcade’ and ‘The 1970s’ gave the audience an acute sense of what is at stake in a Willetts poem. The poems were particularly evocative because they don’t try to represent the poetic ‘I’ in the best light but rather opt for a staggeringly honest disclosure. Hearing the poems in the poet’s voice only served to deepen this further.
George Szirtes began his final appearance of the tour by reading the title poem from his T S Eliot Prize shortlisted collection Bad Machine. The poem’s canzone form is so intricately structured that hearing the poem again placed emphasis on parts that I had missed when I first heard it at the Portsmouth event. This was followed by a poem from a series Szirtes wrote in collaboration with a visual artist who sent him a number of postcards with most of the words erased. The poem, ‘Joke Shop’ was an excellent example of the scope of Szirtes’s creativity. The poem that followed, ‘Children of Albion’ was an object lesson in writing in response to news events, in this case the riots of 2011, without veering into hyperbole or sentimentality. The final poem ‘Say So’ was an appropriately musical way of asking whether it is possible to write an abstract poem.
- T S Eliot Prize Tour recap – Portsmouth, 17th September 2013 (poetrybooksoc.wordpress.com)