Poetry as a necessity and a joy

Katie Mennis celebrates new verse at the Forward Prize for Poetry 2016

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Poetry is not celebrated as a hangover cure. When National Poetry Day fell, as ever, mid-Freshers’ Week, it was likely a glass of water and the toilet bowl you were desperately reaching for to get you through the day, not a volume of contemporary poetry. You may also have missed the twenty-fifth awarding of the Forward Prizes last month: a celebration of poetry as a necessity and a joy. The poems honoured at the prize ceremony seemed so necessary—for not forgetting, for sharing strength and for re-drafting a depleted public language: poems that made me feel, for a moment, that everything hinged on their existence. But they also chimed perfectly with William Carlos Williams’ saying, “if it ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t a poem.” Perhaps not for hangovers, then—this poetry is strong stuff .

The judges shortlisted poems for Best Single Poem that “resonated…lingered…were fresh”. I think they’re better described by these lines from Sasha Dugdale’s winning poem, ‘Joy’: “All of them righter than the rightest calculation / And truer than any compass / Yet where they were right and true none could say / And how they were right and true none could guess”. The chosen poems were long: Rachel Hadas’s ‘Roosevelt Hospital Blues’, rhyming with such deceptively regular honesty; Melissa Lee-Haughton’s ‘i am very precious’, a poem so unfazed and preciously pronounced, about enjoying and fearing sex. Though near-impossible to compare, something about Dugdale’s poem stood out. Perhaps it was her obvious awareness that writing can be a matter of “tending” a poem, just as Catherine Blake – widow of William and the speaker of ‘Joy’ – says of their collaborative art, “I tended that light”.

Dugdale has said that “tending poetry is still harder for women, who are often juggling jobs and being carers”. Given that, what an astonishing year for women poets it’s been. Of the fifteen nominees, eleven were women, and all three winners female. Much of the evening’s memorable verse was concerned with Considering the Women—the title of Choman Hardi’s book, shortlisted for Best Collection. Ruby Robinson, in the running for First Collection, read ‘My Mother,’ about a woman who had missed out on so much because of damage done to her by others. I was rooting for Ron Carey, an Irish poet who made the shortlist for First Collection aged sixty-seven. Carey’s ‘Upstairs’ – also about a mother – felt so important when read aloud, but also had me desperate to follow the lines on the page: “So light. Oh! Sarah you are SO light. I carry her. / Up.” I wasn’t the only one crying. But it was the bizarre balance of cynicism and optimism in lines like “Loving a spouse […] is like praising One God, whom you will betray” from Tiphanie Yanique’s Wife that took the prize for Best First Collection.

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The poems were many-tongued, not only in drawing on Scots and Caribbean dialects, but in transforming stale or standardised language. Harry Giles’ collection, Tonguit, includes a poem that replaces the word “terrorism” with “love” in a speech by David Cameron. Denise Riley hammers words into new expressions in a different way, for the deadly commonplace of bereavement, since ‘Death makes dead metaphors revive’, as the death of her adult son has taught her.

Riley’s Say Something Back, Alice Oswald’s Falling Awake and Vahni Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation, the stand-out volumes on the Best Collection shortlist, all strengthened my belief in the importance of reading a poem aloud. Riley hears something back by the way she speaks and sings to the dead, “unquiet as a talkative ear.” Oswald’s “sound carvings” emerge from a process that she has compared to erosion or excavation—as if something is already there—to become meticulously timed oral performances. Vahni Capildeo won the big prize, for Best Collection—to my surprise, but my delight in hindsight. Capildeo talks about the musicality created not only by reading aloud, but also by intermingling poetry and prose: how the lines turn on themselves differently when given space. Her description of her work as infused with “coexistent distance-in-presence, presence-in-distance” sounds wishy-washy, until she clarifies this as typical of electronic communication today – and until you read her book. In ‘Investigation of Past Shoes’, she writes, “Sitting next to someone can make my feet curl: shy, self-destructive and oyster-like, they want to shuck their cases […] little undersea pinks’. Capildeo’s collection is definitely a shoe to wear in.