T S Eliot Prize Tour recap – The Finale, Sheffield, 15 October

Helen Mort

Helen Mort reads in Sheffield’s Millennium Library as part of the T S Eliot Prize Tour

Helen Mort opened the final event of the T S Eliot Prize Anniversary Tour with a poem entitled ‘Other People’s Dreams’ which makes a case for the validity of the imagined worlds we enter in our sleep. This was followed by ‘Twenty-Two Words for Snow’ the first in a number of poems that explored the power of a place to define a person’s identity. The poem that followed ‘Blonde Joke’ drew on Mort’s talent for politically engaged poems that make their arguments through beguiling rather than hectoring the reader/listener. This was evident in the manner in which the audience vacillated between laughter and contemplation in the space of a line or clause. Mort rounded off her set with ‘Lowedges’, a poem named for a district in Sheffield ‘where the city/smooths its skirt down in the name of modesty’.

Paul Farley reads at Sheffield's Millennium Library

Paul Farley reads at Sheffield’s Millennium Library

Paul Farley must be applauded for reading in spite of feeling ill and doing so with such aplomb. It was wonderful to see him enlivened by the responses of the audience. He began with ‘From a Weekend First’ a poem that riffs on the guilt of those who have more opportunities than their predecessors. He followed this with ‘Treacle’, a poem that united the audience in the shared intimacy that comes of Farley’s careful rendering of precise details. ‘Relic’ was an appropriate poem to follow since it is a found poem made up of Farley’s dental records. Farley finished by reading two new poems (one that explores a recent preoccupation with Jack Frost and one that focused on our increasing dependence on consumer electronics and gadgetry).

Esther Morgan reads at Sheffield's Millennium Library

Esther Morgan reads at Sheffield’s Millennium Library

Esther Morgan grounded her reading in the language of The Bible, an organizing principle she explained by talking about the formative experience of going to church every week as a child. This process, she said, fixed language ‘as a special set-aside thing’ in her life. Morgan began with ‘Grace’ a moving reappraisal of the significance of the stock phrases used to ‘say Grace’ before a meal (which, perhaps, can begin to lose meaning when used often). This was followed by a poem on The Annunciation that imagined an alternate version of the tale in which the angel called on Mary and she wasn’t there. The next poem ‘Short hold’ focused on the decrease in property ownership as a result of inflated housing prices. This segued neatly into the poems about motherhood that Morgan finished with and the process of looking forward and back that attends parenting.

Sean O'Brien reads at Sheffield's Millennium Library

Sean O’Brien reads at Sheffield’s Millennium Library

Sean O’Brien brought the tour home with a tour-de-force reading. O’Brien’s first poem ‘Dinner at Archie’s’ took an unsentimental approach to elegy and, in so doing, spoke to the magnitude of the loss (since, as O’Brien mentioned in passing after the reading, we only bother to make fun of people we care about). There is something beautiful about a spontaneous applause, a moment of accord when the audience responds collectively, and this is what that poem inspired in the room. O’Brien followed this with poems recollecting early memories as well as addressing his own personal muse figure and the, occasional, difficulties of teaching creative writing. This flowed into a poem dedicated to the librarians at the library where he first began to read poetry seriously and closed with a hilarious poem from the perspective of a retired deity. The poem ‘Another Country’ was an appropriate note on which to conclude since it spoke directly to the history of Sheffield, in particular, but also the country as a whole.

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