Expert Comment: David Harsent wins the T. S. Eliot PrizeFriday 16 January 2015
Lecturer in English Dr Guy Cuthbertson discuses the history of the T.S. Eliot Prize, which was won this week by David Harsent.
This week David Harsent won the T. S. Eliot Prize, and there has been a good deal of coverage and comment in the media and on social networking sites. Prizes make poetry newsworthy and most contemporary poets will probably never make it onto the national news or into the front pages of a newspaper unless they win a major prize or commit a serious crime (and yes, occasionally a poet opts for that second option). And in an age when very few people buy new poetry, prizes are vital for poets and publishers who are looking to make money from sales, or even just get into the bookshop in the first place.
Certainly, prizes can be lucrative – the TS Eliot Prize is £20,000, in addition to the boost in sales. As the TLS blog points out, David Harsent also won the 2012 Griffin Poetry Prize, which is worth 65,000 Canadian dollars: the chair of the judges of the TS Eliot Prize described Harsent as a poet for ‘dark and dangerous days’ but the TLS remarked, ‘Who says lightning – or good fortune – doesn’t strike twice, even in dark and dangerous days?’. And if a poet also happens to be an academic in a Creative Writing department, as many poets now are, then winning a prize could mean promotion, a pay rise or generous research leave.
And yet it is worth noting that many major poets failed to win prizes. My work has focused on poets who tended to not win prizes in their lifetime, although they would eventually and posthumously have prizes named after them. Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen died in the First World War before either of them had time to make a name as a poet.
Gerard Manley Hopkins (a poet who lived and worked at our Creative Campus) not only didn’t win prizes but also failed to publish most of his poetry. He won a school poetry prize when he was fifteen, with a poem that was very good but conventional and reassuringly familiar; his mature work, on the other hand, was too difficult and inventive for prizes, or publishers. As one wag commented on Twitter this week, ‘Poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult – but not too difficult, if they want a £20,000 prize’. In 1921, it was T S Eliot who wrote that ‘it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult’. But then Eliot himself won plenty of prizes, including the Nobel Prize in 1948.
By 1948, Eliot was already an established poet and an old man. The prize may have changed his life but it seems to have had little impact on his literary career. David Harsent is now 72 and he was already a significant figure in poetry before his success this week. Many congratulations to David Harsent. But prizes probably have their biggest influence on the young, which is why prizes like the Christopher Tower Poetry Prizes, the Eric Gregory Awards and the Newdigate Prize can be so valuable – not in financial terms but as encouragement. A prize tells a young writer that she or he must keep at it. Perhaps the school prize was the only prize Hopkins needed.
Dr Guy Cuthbertson is Senior Lecturer in English Literature and he specialises in the poetry of World War 1. Read his full profile