The Backward Prize

Posted by Ken Edwards on Monday, July 18, 2011 Under: writing
The announcement of the shortlist for this year's Forward Prize for Poetry has given me the second big laugh of the week, following former Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Andy Hayman's Arthur Daley impression at the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee last Tuesday.

Goodness knows I need all the laughs I can get while I'm cooped up here with my left leg in plaster. Thanks, guys.

If the hacking scandal has, temporarily at least, exposed the corruption at the very top of British media and political circles, the Forward shortlist shows that in the tiny world of British poetry it's still very much - incredibly - business as usual.

Of the six-strong shortlist, only D Nurkse, published by the small press CB Editions, is a name new to me. The rest - poets and publishers - are the usual suspects, trundled out yet again. The one that gave me the biggest laugh is the appalling Sean O'Brien, who has won the prize THREE TIMES in its 20-year history and is now selected on a fourth occasion.

Much has been made of this being an all-male shortlist, but if this were the sole shortcoming it would be bad enough. I have the greatest respect for Geoffrey Hill, but it could easily be argued that his best work is behind him and in any case he's been established long enough not to need such a prize. As for John Burnside, David Harsent and Michael Longley, they are serial award-winners. Time to give someone else a chance. And surely there are enterprising poetry publishers other than Jonathan Cape, Faber & Faber, Enitharmon and Picador Poetry, who come up year after year?

Reality Street, admittedly, has never entered a book for this prize. There doesn't seem any point in doing so when the panel of judges is dominated by a cabal of poets and editors associated with the mainstream publishers, headed by the likes of Sir Andrew Motion (this year). 

To those who argue that I have no right to criticise the shortlist if I am not offering an alternative, I say this. For years, I did regularly submit our newly published books to the Poetry Book Society for its quarterly Choices, from which the shortlist for the rival TS Eliot Prize is selected. The consolation prizes available also included quarterly inclusion in the PBS' "recommended" list of new poetry books.

No Reality Street book ever got as far as even being a quarterly recommendation. Not even the book that went on to become our crossover bestseller, Denise Riley's Selected Poems (2000). 

The penny dropped one day, a few years back. It became clear that the kind of poetry Reality Street publishes is never going to be seriously considered for such recommendations, let alone awards. I eventually stopped submitting books. Opening myself up to accusations of self-marginalisation no doubt, but there is a limit to the humiliation I am prepared to put up with.

This is emphatically not special pleading. The most interesting poetry of our time, whether published by Shearsman, Barque, West House Books, or Carcanet, or whoever, will never get anywhere near such awards so long as the present corrupt regimes remain. Even Salt, with its recent lurch away from the avant-garde and into the mainstream, has got nowhere in this year's Forward listings.

Sorry I started this. I usually maintain a dignified silence on these occasions. It must be my present temporary disability getting to me. Back to more interesting topics soon.

In : writing 

Tags: "forward prize" 
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Ken Edwards This blog is written by Ken Edwards, co-founder and editor/publisher of Reality Street, and it's mainly about the press. Ken's personal blog can now be found at