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.