10 December 2016

Christmas Poetry Picks 2016

Posted by John Clegg

Superintendent Bright looked up from his desk and cocked his head. ‘Morse!’ he called, shrilly. ‘You like poetry, don’t you?’

The dashing Endeavour Morse filled in the answer to 3 down. ‘I do, sir. My enthusiasms, in order, are crosswords, beer at lunch, opera, and poetry.’

‘We’ve got an invitation to present the prizes at the London Review Bookshop End-of-Year Poetry Awards 2016. Since I’m, hem, indisposed, I’m sending you, Thursday, and Strange.’

Inspector Thursday was scarcely visible under his wreath of pipesmoke, but coughed loudly in protest. ‘Now look here, sir,’ he hacked, ‘surely that’s a job for Division. We’re up to our eyes in murders here. Another three corpses turned up overnight, and the blood-tide shows no sign of abating.’

‘Death seems to follow you around,’ said Bright reflectively, twirling an anachronistic biro between his fingertips. ‘Anyway, I insist. Someone has to present the prizes, and it won’t be me. I have a prior engagement at the Freemason’s Hall.’ At Bright’s mention of the hated freemasons, Morse, Strange and Thursday went through an elaborate pantomime of tapping their noses and fiddling with their trouser legs. ‘I’ve booked you all on the 6.19 to London. And DS Strange, you can leave that bag of tinnies under the desk. I’ve heard quite enough about your train antics in the past. We won’t have another “Jaffs Express” incident on my watch.’

But the twinkle in Strange’s eye as he left the office would have indicated, to any percipient observer, a man with a trick or two left up his sleeve.

The crowd assembled at the London Review Bookshop was restive, festive, feckless, costive and reckless. ‘I’ve heard it’s a bumper one.’ ‘Vintage year for poetry.’ ‘Young hunks down from Oxford to do the presenting.’ ‘Refill your glass, sir?’ ‘If your tills are still open, I’d like to buy a couple of books.’

But the arrival of the visitors from Oxford quieted all murmurs, channelling them into a single hum of approval and anticipation. The most longed-for event on the poetry calendar was finally here. The canapés were being taken down in the lift, and the envelopes were being brought up – envelopes which spelt glory for some, the dashing of hopes for others. In this arena over the next hour reputations would be made and broken, careers launched on a spume of red wine and bongwater. This small bookshop, its tables pushed aside, its floor inexpertly buffed for the occasion, was the very manuscript-page of history; and those envelopes held, like unformed thoughts, the immortal names that would be inscribed on that very manuscript.

Such were Endeavour Morse’s reflections as the goodlooking young bookseller stepped out with the roving mic to point out the fire-doors and introduce the speakers. But there was a surprise which Endeavour had not counted on.

‘To present the first prize,’ said the handsome bookseller , ‘please welcome: DS Hathaway!’

‘This is a bit much,’ choked Thursday. ‘So much for narrative coherence.’

The first prize was for Best Tome, and Hathaway blinked in surprise as he withdrew the slip from the envelope. ‘For the first time in this prize’s history, there will be a joint award,’ he said. ‘Our judges have found it impossible to decide between two vast and important books. First of all, Don Share’s edition of Basil Bunting’s Collected Poems; an astonishing scholarly undertaking, beautifully produced and sensitively annotated. Second of all: Cristanne Miller’s edition of Emily Dickinson’s Poems as She Preserved Them, a revelatory volume which should permanently reorient our reading of Dickinson. Step forward, Basil and Emily!’

The bookshop rang with prolonged applause. Bottles of champagne were broken across the hulls of the enormous books.

‘Our second prize is for Best Pamphlet,’ said Hathaway. ‘There were so many contenders this year, so I’d like to propose something a little unusual. For every name I read, I will undo another button on my shirt!’

There were whoops from the audience.

‘The judges particularly enjoyed chapbooks from Rowena Knight, Nicola Nathan, and Philip Terry’s ludicrous revisionings of Du Bellay’s sonnets. Helen Tookey’s pamphlet from Happenstance, In the Glasshouse, was superb. But the prize this year goes to Chloe Stopa-Hunt’s White Hills, one of the strangest and most rebarbative batches of poems we’ve seen for ages and ages. Roll on a first collection.’

Stopa-Hunt was the final button; Hathaway flung his shirt open, revealing the well-toned pectoral muscles of Laurence Fox. ‘And with that’, he grinned, ‘I’ll hand over to Inspector Thursday to present the next award.’ There were no cheers this time, even a scatter of boos.

But the great man imperturably blew a gap in his shroud of pipesmoke and ascended to the stage.

‘The next prize is for Best Critical Work. The judges loved the essay collections from Katy Evans-Bush and Stephen Burt, and Richard Price’s Is This a Poem? was provocative and lively. If there was any possible way to include the miraculous rediscovery and first publication of William Empson’s The Face of the Buddha in a poetry round-up, it would certainly take the prize in this category and any other it competed in. Instead, the prize goes to another rediscovery: Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s wonderful 1978 Poetic Artifice, for a long time almost impossible to find since gents kept pinching it out of university libraries. Well done Shearsman, for bringing it back to light.’

Thursday was no match for shirtless Hathaway in holding the crowd’s attention. ‘You’d better take over, Morse,’ he coughed. Morse stepped onto the stage, shooting a contemptuous glance at the lithe Hathaway, who was brushing imaginary dust off his robust shoulders with a sly grin. The battle of the hunks was on.

‘The next prize,’ Morse enunciated carefully, ‘is for Best Debut Collection. Again it’s been quite a year. Adam Crothers’ electric rhyming and hairpin turns of sense in Several Deer; Rebecca Watts’ quiet flair for natural description; William Wootten's finely wrought, surprising lyrics; Jen Calleja’s haunted sui generis fragmentary monologues. The prize, though, is awarded to Charlotte Newman for Trammel: furious lacerating high-velocity collisions, tempered with a knack for finding the precise unexpected word, tempered again with moments of real sudden vulnerability. A really amazing debut.’

Morse’s shirt had remained buttoned throughout his flawless performance, but every eye was nonetheless riveted to his frame. The luckless Hathaway grimaced in the corner as Morse invited Strange to join him on the podium, and announce together the prize for Best Collection.

Strange bumbled through the crowd, bearing his Red Stripe aloft like a beacon. ‘Evening mateys,’ he said cheerily. ‘This is an unusually dull announcement; or rather, the judges of the Forward and Eliot Prizes have done an unusually good job. There are some really stunning collections out at the moment; Cain is Luke Kennard’s best book yet, funny and inventive and sounding just like himself under the yoke of the strangest formal constraint imaginable. Alice Oswald’s Falling Awake is a real treat, a return to the individual short poem but featuring a remarkable final longer piece. John McCullough's Spacecraft extended the mastery and flair which characterized his 2012 debut. Vahni Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation is just astonishing: rich, searching, self-interrogative. All of these would have been worthy winners; the prize goes to Denise Riley, for Say Something Back; classical, precise, intensely moving. Put your hands together for Denise Riley!’

The crowd cheered, but their elation was not to last. The door flew open, and a breathless DS Lewis stumbled in. ‘Sorry sirs…gentlemen,’ he managed, not quite clear on how to address his beloved future boss. ‘But…there’s been another murder.’

‘Lew-IS’, sighed Morse; his first opportunity to do so, and one he would avail himself of often in the adventures to come. ‘Let me quickly finish the categories.

Liveliest New Publisher goes to Little Island Press, who are putting out really beautiful books, including a wonderful debut from Freddie Mason. Runner-up are Oxford’s Hurst Street Press, who also make very good pickle.

Best Revival is jointly awarded to Shearsman bringing John Riley back into print, Sandeep Pamar’s new edition of Nancy Cunard’s poetry, and the NYRB Classics rereleasing J.H. Prynne’s The White Stones.

Exciting News Award goes to the fact that Anvil and Carcanet presses are merger-ing, making available once again some of Anvil’s extensive and exciting backlist.

The Mister Kipling Award for Excellence in Cakes goes to Mr. Kipling himself, for bringing back the Fiendish Fancy, one of the rare bright spots in 2016 which did not involve poetry.

That concludes the London Review Bookshop Poetry Awards 2016: now lead on, Lewis. I have a feeling that the real work of our evening is just beginning.’

The four abandoned Hathaway, and crossed Pied Bull Yard into Bloomsbury Square. At once – under Thursday’s supervision – Lewis and Strange set to work on digging a trench, while Endeavour headed round the corner to Bury Place Food and Wine. He returned after a few minutes with a bottle of Glenlivet in a paper bag.

‘Are the preparations made?’ he whispered. There was a nod from Thursday, who drew from the folds of his voluminous coat a fine-bladed knife, and drove it efficiently into the tip of his finger. As his blood ran into the trench, the knife was passed around, and the other three repeated the process. Finally, Endeavour unscrewed the cap on the whisky, and tipped a good measure of that spirit over the blood. It was a very different spirit which rose up from it.

The Ghost of Old Morse grinned at the familiar faces. ‘What are we waiting for?’ he bellowed. ‘To the Jag! Lewis, you’d better drive. I’m too insubstantial, and the younger version of me is far gone on bookshop Malbec.’ He clapped a ghostly arm around his old Sergeant. ‘It feels good to be hunting murderers again. Who won the Poetry Awards? I tell you who I fancied…’

So later that evening, the team consecrated the

Morse’s Choice Award: ‘I really liked Peter McDonald’s translations of the Homeric Hymns, and Patrick Mackie’s Further Adventures of the Lives of the Saints was wonderful – breathless and hilarious. And I’m astonished that Anne Carson’s Float hasn’t got a mention yet (though it isn’t really a collection, and it seemed unfair to enter it in the pamphlet category). But my final pick is Roy Fisher’s marvellous Slakki: New & Neglected; deep cuts and rarities from one of our very best poets.’