Wednesday 20 November 2019

Book worm: Poetry prize for cherished minority art

Matthew Sweeney
Matthew Sweeney

John Boland

Poetry, as everyone knows, is a minority art that's cherished by the few, but that doesn't explain the continuing sales of Yeats or Heaney or Durcan or, indeed, the standing army of 10,000 poets claimed by Patrick Kavanagh to exist in this country.

More than 60 of these were in contention last year for the inaugural €5,000 Pigott Poetry Prize, which was the bright idea of Irish-American industrialist Mark Pigott, the award eventually going to Matthew Sweeney's Horse Music and presented at Listowel Writers' Week.

I was co-judge of that competition with English poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, and this year the distinguished Welsh poet Gillian Clarke and myself have been reading almost 60 more collections submitted by various publishers.

Choosing a shortlist from distinguished as well as less familiar poets wasn't easy, but eventually we settled on five, three of them from writers well known to lovers of poetry: Ciaran Carson's From Elsewhere, Paul Muldoon's One Thousand Things Worth Knowing and Peter Sirr's The Rooms.

But we were also thrilled to encounter the challenging poems to be found in Caoilinn Hughes's debut collection, Gathering Evidence, and were very struck by the distinctive voice of Ger Reidy in Before Rain. The winner will be announced at next month's Listowel Writers' Week.

Muldoon, incidentally, is the only poet in the shortlist who revels in rhyme, but then this time-honoured aspect of poetry seems to be out of favour these days.

Indeed, on a recent edition of RTE Radio One's The Arts Show, the young woman poet who was discussing Clive James's marvellous new collection, Sentenced to Life (reviewed last week in these pages), took issue with James's fondness for strict rhyming, which she thought a bit much.

Nor was she impressed by his preference for iambic pentameters, which apparently were alright for Shakespeare but not for the likes of contemporary poets. Lord only knows what she'd say about WB Yeats and Philip Larkin, both of them helplessly in thrall to rhyming pentameters. Really, I give up.

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