Sunday, 12 January 2014

To the Eliot Prize

Later this morning we'll start for London. As a performer I am to be at the Royal Festival Hall at 5:15 which means getting a 2pm train from Norwich. The readings start at 7.

This will be my third shortlist reading. I go, as I did the last two times, with zero expectation of winning, in fact I was so surprised to have won nine years ago that I was utterly lost for words. Zero expectation is quite nice. It means I am not holding even a soupçon of hope in reserve and that I will be genuinely pleased if any of those poets whose books I have properly read and admired wins it.

Do I feel nervous? Under the circumstances, definitely not, but I don't feel nervous about readings anyway. The poems are what they are - the way I read them is not going to change that. Ultimately poems live in the reader or listener's head not in the performer's mouth. People will either like them or not. Ingratiating oneself is loathsome. Playing up to an audience is loathsome. Treat the audience as you would any one single previously unmet human being. Be courteous, friendly, intelligent and no more expansive than you need to be. If that means being brief, then be brief. The RFH is no different.

Big audiences don't faze me: small ones are slightly more likely to do so, especially those with current students. It is, I think, more difficult to be 'a poet' when the relationship with the people in front of you has been as 'a teacher'. This suggests that both roles are performances, and indeed they are, and different, but that is saying no more than that one behaves differently in different circumstances. The advice to 'just be yourself' implies that there is a single all-purpose 'you'. The self is more various and being true to it is more a matter of being aware of its history than of some ever fixed mark. Your wardrobe is an extension of you. You wear it to occasion.

Prizes are great blessings if you receive one but to claim them as matters of deserving is putting it too strongly. All the judging panels I have been on have veered between choices during discussion and the winner that emerged was the product of a particular feeling at a particular moment. Speaking for myself I never thought I 'deserved' the Eliot for Reel. What I felt, intensely and clearly was: 'Heavens! They've chosen me!' I felt gobstoppingly lucky.

Prizes are both blessings and bollocks. To be considered at all is a thrill, not because it makes you great, but because those who had the power to choose at the time, chose you. Somebody thinks you're worth it. Lucky for you it's that somebody and not another. You don't write poetry to win prizes but to write the best poems you possibly can. Let what will come of that.

The abbey bells are ringing. Radio 3 is playing Schumann's Carnival. The sky is quite bright and there is hardly any wind.


Gwil W said...

Luck plays a big part. Maybe they can just post it to you George? Save you getting dressed up.

charles said...

Roles, performances. I think of these things as not dissimilar to the annual ritual of the primary school nativity play. If as a publisher I have an author shortlisted (not so in this case), I feel like a parent watching their child: pride, even while I know the play's the thing, not the performers; and next year there'll be a different Mary and Joseph. Good luck, as they say to actors going onstage.

looby said...

"The advice to 'just be yourself' implies that there is a single all-purpose 'you'. The self is more various and being true to it is more a matter of being aware of its history than of some ever fixed mark."

Among the worst pieces of advice I have ever received is the old maxim "be yourself." Yes," I'm always tempted to reply. "But which one?
I'm not not sure about poetry not having a life in the mouth of the reader. Poetry for me is first of all an oral art and I use printed poetry books with some reluctance, as a way of the poet communicating with me when I'm not physically present. Hearing Les Murray's rapid, slurred, half-mumbled accent, and W N Herbert's precise, musical, performative Doric, are only two instances of where the poetry really came alive for me in a way it can never do through print.

George S said...

The orality / aurality question, Looby - I don't discount it or underrate its value - in order to get into the ear it has to be said by someone but the poet is very rarely there in person. The reader has a mouth and an inner ear too.

Charles, yes, except while singing for our suppers we know supper will be served for the book not the singing. Supper for the singing comes in the form of applause from that huge audience.

Gwil W said...

Even with the partying presence of Niki Lauda at the Golden Globes in his Novomatic cap the promoted film 'Rush', the one about Hunt and Lauda, was awardless . . .

You have more chance George!

Gwil W said...

Or had. I just looked.