Award begins a new chapter for poet on verge of retirement

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The Independent Culture

A 69-year-old poet who had been contemplating retirement became the first winner of Britain's most lucrative prize for an individual author yesterday, the £60,000 Northern Rock Foundation Writer award.

A panel including the novelists Pat Barker and Helen Dunmore and the Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, unanimously chose Anne Stevenson for the inaugural award.

During a career spanning half a century of writing – including Bitter Fame, a controversial biography of her fellow poet Sylvia Plath – and many volumes of poetry, Stevenson had never before won an important award.

But she struck gold with a prize that is unusual in that writers have to be predominantly living and working in the North-east of England to be eligible. Although raised in the United States, Ms Stevenson has made her home in Durham since the 1980s.

She expressed delight at receiving this "affirmation of my writing at a time when I was telling myself that I should perhaps retire from poetry".

Accepting her prize at a ceremony in Newcastle, she said she had been surprised to realise that many of the poems she had submitted for the prize were elegies.

"No one at the beginning of a new millennium, I thought, is going to give an award to an ageing poet who looks meditatively back to the 20th century rather than forward with hope and enthusiasm."

Newly invigorated by her success, she intends to use the award as a springboard for travel and to improve her foreign language skills.

Pat Barker, who also lives in the North-east, said: "Now, at the age of 69, her creativity undimmed and her craftsmanship enhanced by age, she is on the brink of a particularly interesting and productive period."

Stevenson said that she was particularly delighted that poetry had been honoured with the award. She said: "Thousands of people write poetry but few except other poets and publishers of little magazines read it," she said.

"Poetry has traditionally been the maker, the explorer, the guardian of language, and we live in a time when language is in a shocking state of degradation. Yet it took a long time to learn to write well. I have never believed that art of any kind is an easy option," she said.

The Northern Rock Foundation was founded by the Northern Rock Building Society when it shed its mutual status in 1997. Now a FTSE 100 listed company, it intends to make three awards to writers over the next five years, with total prize money of £180,000.