Tuesday, 16 June 2015

A growing obsession: the prizewinning culture of U.K. poetry

Most of us love the thrill of winning an award, and I’m no exception. I’ve even been known to enter a poetry competition or two. Over the past few years, however, I’ve become more and more concerned about the constant growth of a prizewinning culture in U.K. poetry. It’s turned into a dangerous obsession.

The recent shortlist for the Forward prizes is a useful point of departure for discussion. There are many excellent books on that list, and the judges have clearly done a conscientious job within their remit: to find what they feel are the best books to have been presented to the prize.

The problem begins when marketing departments, journalists and the general public use the Forward shortlist and its resultant anthology as a summary/snapshot of what’s going on in U.K. poetry. As such, it’s inevitably limiting.

Let’s be clear: in no way am I belittling the quality of the Forward shortlist or the work of the judges. The issue is that the frenzied parading of the Forward Prize, the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Roehampton Prize, the Aldeburgh Prize, the Seamus Heaney Prize, etc, etc, has become a negative phenomenon. These prizes and their shortlists are providing us with a narrow definition of success and failure, inclusion and exclusion.

The immediacy of newsfeeds has encouraged the public to accept the ease of such interpretations. People are invited to recognise their own lack of knowledge like novice wine drinkers who are bombarded with medal-adorned bottles, all approved by panels of famous critics. It’s time to admit the negative consequences of our growing obsession with prizes in U.K. poetry, to trust ourselves to explore independently once more.


  1. I agree. And further to what you've written, I tend to think that poets are a bit over-obsessed with both publication and prizes.

    I well realise that being a poet is a tough gig, if you want to do it seriously. But it sometimes seems to me that poets are over-eager for publication and prize entries when they may not even have been writing, or developing their craft/voice, for that long. Surely it's more important to develop skill and craft as a poet? And to take your time?

    I also fear that the "must publish/must win" culture can influence some of these plagiarism cases that have come to light. Amidst other issues which may cause someone to be a plagiarist, I wonder if there's something at work like "if I sound like this poet/these other poets, that's the way to get published or win a prize."

    1. Hi Clarissa,

      Yes, the rush to publish is another important problem that's also grown in the context of social media: poets often feel pressurised by the constant flow of others' achievements.

  2. Dear Matthew

    Hardly anybody actually buys contemporary poetry these days so the Enter Prize culture is one of the few ways left to drum up some totally synthetic interest. It's as simple as that.

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish