Mr Walcott was vacationing in the Caribbean, wisely avoiding January’s misery. If he’d been at the South Bank, he’d have fried on the crowd’s electricity.
The night is like the Oscars of poetry. The Royal Festival Hall’s foyer was buzzing beforehand, the bar streaming with published bards and poetry lovers. Inside the auditorium, the atmosphere among the 2000-strong audience was charged.
Valerie Eliot, wife of TS, donates the annual prize which this year stood at £15,000 for the best new collection of poetry published in the UK or Ireland last year. The shortlisted poets included Simon Armitage, Pascale Petit, Annie Freud, Sam Willets, John Haynes, Brian Turner, Robin Robertson, Fiona Sampson, Seamus Heaney and of course, Walcott.
War veteran Turner, who spent seven years in the US Army, read on the carnage of Iraq. More carnage from Petit, whose What the Water Gave Me traces the life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Her poem, The Bus, documents the silver pole that pierced Kahlo’s stomach to exit her reproductive bits – a shudder shot through the crowd when she spoke.
Robin Robertson – to my mind, an excellent poet – almost sang his recital, such was its potency. He tempered this with a bawdy ditty about a woman drinking him under the table. Willets, an ex-heroin addict, was charming and cute, his debut collection covering the un-cute topics of Nazi persecution and addiction.
It was fitting that Daljit Nagra, a poet most inventive in his use of Indian English, read for Walcott: host Radio 3’s Ian McMillan said Walcott redefines conventional speech, bringing ‘Caribbean grammar and syntax into the English language’. Walcott’s winning collection White Egrets also deals with love and aging, while Sixty Years After described the ‘hunched’ beauty of a lost love, now ‘treble-chinned’ in her nursing home wheelchair.
Finally, the famous Seamus Heaney read, a welcome surprise as his absence was expected. Despite a slightly shaky performance, he commanded hushed respect from the audience. And then it was done. We had to wait ‘till the following night to hear the winner announced at a private ceremony, news that no doubt tickled the cicadas of the Caribbean as well as Walcott.
The TS Eliot Prize Readings took place at the Southbank Centre on January 23, 2011.
Image by Jason Williamson