Tuesday, 14 January 2014

From Eliot to Daumier and back 1

Sinead Morrissey, Winner of 1012 T S Eliot Prize

Ladies and gentlemen, I did not win. It was Sinead Morrissey what won it at fourth time of listing. She is a superbly gifted poet and it's a good thing. Any of the books would have been a good thing and to those who did not win on this occasion I sincerely wish all fortune on their next. I loved some particularly but that is beside the point. I was not a judge, though I was in 2003 (indeed chair) and the judges must have had a very hard time. Ian Duhig, as chair, made the speech and it was, as you'd expect from him, perceptive, humane, generous, and to the point. He should certainly win it some time himself. I hope he does.

The readings at the Royal Festival Hall were the best I've yet heard. The audience numbering over 2,000, the place was full, warm, responsive: a glorious place and occasion on which to read. Part of the pleasure was the variety because none of the poets was particularly like another on the list.  Ian McMillan was an ideal host because of his wit, intelligence, energy and sheer hard work in genuinely reading everything. Dannie Abse stole the show, with thunderous applause and affection pouring towards him from every part of the great auditorium. For me, personally, it was marvellous to have Clarissa, Tom and Helen there and, after the signing, I could join them and we made our way back together to Tom's house in Stratford by tube.

The full audio of all the readings is available here, my own in particular is here - and should you want the blessed actual vision of me reading for some 25 minutes at Poets and Players in Manchester on 9 January, that, I now discover (they don't tell you these things) is here.

The Poetry Book Society does a marvellous job of the Eliot Prize, the whole thing from finding judges and taking the event through to the remarkable success that it is. I am proud to be associated with it with Dave and David and James, and expecially Chris Holifield, the director who works her heart out.


Sunday was beautiful and sunny and we decided to go to the Royal Academy to see the Honoré Daumier exhibition. I didn't quite know - hadn't really thought - why I was so looking forward to this. Years and years of galleries had taken some of the edge off my pleasure in paintings, certainly in big blockbuster exhibitions.

It is like a pot full of your favourite jam. I thought I had extracted all the jam to be had under the circumstances, especially from the blockbusters, feeling that all big exhibitions were like coach tours or dashes through great cities, a desperate effort to cram in all the sights - in other words, largely pointless. There would, I thought, be instead the odd dart into this or that permanent exhibition, the National Gallery for instance, or any of the Tates, to sit or stand and stare at two or three particular paintings, when all the pleasure would come seeping back, but no vast crowds, no major playschool narratives of the Great Masters or the Great Civilisations.

A few weeks ago I dropped into the National Gallery just to look at three Goyas, because I knew that Goya would never fail me and would always go straight into the bloodstream. Goya is in any case my intravenous drug of choice. What that man doesn't understand about human character, the human predicament, and the too too solid flesh of humanity is not worth knowing. It is not the horror I love,  not the Black Paintings at the end, but those shimmers and premonitions of the early and middle work, the raw vulnerability yet overwhelming presence of his portraits and the foreshadowings of darkness of the genre paintings that seem to me what life  - historical life - actually is. And it is there as material - as paint, line, gesture - the fresh horror and beauty of which is just as much the message as the images themselves, the two being inseparable, one the twin life of the other.

But it is Daumier I want to think about, so will write a new post starting with him, and maybe end with a little more about the Eliot prize giving, about the society of poets, not The Society, just the society. People. So, onto part 2.

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