A case of poetic justice

Paul Muldoon won this year's T S Eliot Award. An Irish plot? An establi shment fix? No, says Michael Glover
Just outside the mock-splendour of the main reception rooms of the Polish Hearth Club, where the second T S Eliot Award had been made to the Northern Irish poet Paul Muldoon for the poetry collection of the year, two young Englishmen were hatchin g a fairly crude and factually inaccurate conspiracy theory. "Last year Ciaran Carson won it, didn't he?" said one to the other. "He's a Belfast poet, though his book wasn't directly about the Troubles, was it? Muldoon's Belfast too, isn't he? Wasn't Car son one of the judges this year? There has to be something in that..." Not much, though. They might have added that Muldoon and Carson are fast friends, and that a few months ago Carson said: "I know Muldoon's mind like the back of my hand."

Most of those packed like sardines into that room seemed to agree that it had gone to the right man, though there were some predictable voices of dissent. Michael Horowitz condemned the decision as "establishment" and "literary". Boyd Tonkin of the New Statesman wished it had been given to a much younger poet such as the spirited Kathleen Jamie, one of several Scots poets on the shortlist of 10.

When the announcement was made, Muldoon, as is his wont, took it in his relaxed stride, managing to look as charmingly bewildered at life's marvellous vicissitudes - in this case, he'd just been told that he was £5,000 better off - as ever. "I sound as if I might be quite cool," he said after receiving the cheque from Mrs T S Eliot. "But I'm not."

For a man who said that he wasn't, he certainly seemed to be. He also expressed delight at being given this particular award for a more personal reason. "Eliot was the first poet who really got me going," he said. Mrs Eliot, fiercely permed and looking brilliantly tigerish in her tenue, seemed delighted by that form of words.

This year's prize was divided into two unequal segments - a reading at the Almeida Theatreby the 10 shortlisted poets, and the prize-giving itself two days later. Unfortunately, the reading was made much more difficult for the poets concerned by the decision of the evening's presenter, Josephine Hart, to give the audience an unnecessarily long lecture on the merits of T S Eliot himself, the "greatest poet in 300 years" etc, etc. The five poets on the platform for the first half, though mildly attentive,were clearly suffering from the experience of waiting to begin - fidgets, violent blinks, dry gulps.

Things were then made worse for them by the fact that they had each been allocated far too short a reading time to get into their stride. Poets need time to relax and find their voices. Again, it was Muldoon who outshone all the rest as a performer by his sheer ability to relax and find the apposite linking word. Muldoon is the sort of natural comedian who can turn anything into a prop. On this occasion it was the microphone. He stood too close to it at first and it popped - violently. He jumped ba ck as if he'd been shot. He approached it again - a little more warily this time. It fired at him a second time, so he made a great circle of the stage and ended up right in front of the audience, disarmingly clutching his book and casting, from time to time, a wary, backward glance.

In a sense, of course, Horowitz was right. Muldoon was the establishment's choice - his book, The Annals of Chile (Faber), has been praised to the skies by most of the critics for its linguistic dexterity, its brilliant word play, its "hurtling exuberance of rhyme".

Unfortunately, his skills as a performer make it more - not less - difficult to judge his abilities as a poet. He is too disarming, too lovable. He could say anything and we would be pleased with him, just for being himself. The book itself is chock fullof the most extraordinarily obscure references to his school days (including names of his school friends), his family - all interwoven with deliciously arcane literary references, of course. Does anyone know that the Muldoon family's pet na me for a hotwater bottle is a "quoof"? They soon will. Or that his father was a mushroom grower? Is this man a jester, another of those emperors in a set of new clothes, or a marvellous poet after all? The scholars, at least, have plenty of unravelling to do.