Poetry enters remarkable new territory

Glitzy readings, throngs of fans – verse has never been more vibrant. John Walsh works the crowd at the TS Eliot prize, and witnesses the birth of a star

'Shop worker wins T S Eliot poetry prize" was the rather prosaic headline with which one national paper greeted the awarding of the nation's hottest award for verse. It could have been worse. It could have read, "Shop worker wins former bank clerk's poetry prize."

Poetry prizes seldom sit very high in the British news agenda. The general public, if it pays any attention to what wins the Whitbread Poetry Prize or the Forward Prize, probably thinks they're all won by Seamus Heaney, or Carol Ann Duffy or Simon Armitage, in a perpetual roster. But no one who followed the fortunes of the T S Eliot Prize this year could doubt that British poetry has entered remarkable new territory, with a new vigour and drive, and a fan base it could have only dreamed of a decade ago.

The prize is awarded every year by the Poetry Book Society, which was founded by T S Eliot in 1953, to encourage more people to read modern poetry – perversely at a time when he himself had all but given up writing poetry in favour of verse dramas such as The Cocktail Party and The Confidential Clerk. In 1993, the PBS inaugurated the prize to celebrate its 40th anniversary and forge a link with one of the literary Titans of the 20th century. Winners of the prize, apart from pocketing £15,000, get to shake hands with Eliot's widow, Valerie, a spry and pretty octogenarian, who edited and annotated her husband's letters for Faber and Faber, the publishing company of which he was a director. Simply being in Mrs Eliot's company can give young poets a powerful frisson of connectedness with history.

The Eliot Prize is unique among literary awards for featuring an event in which the talents of the short-listed writers are put on display. The Booker and the Whitbread may give their glamorous audiences dinner and a video display of the rival authors, filmed in the studies of their agreeable homes, but the T S Eliot does more: it offers a showcase of the nation's finest poets reading from the 10 best books of the year.

When I first attended a PBS readings evening, which features short-listed poets, it was a modest enterprise, attended by maybe 50 souls who'd grudgingly ventured out into the January night. Long trench coats hung from the backs of wooden chairs, and the poets had to clamber over each other to reach the stage. As years went by, word spread about the readings, and more people came, forcing the Society to book a 550-seat auditorium at the Bloomsbury Hotel. Last year, it was so crowded, there was some unseemly barging for space in the front row – not something one associates with poetry-lovers. This year, the organisers took a chance on hiring the 950-seat Queen Elizabeth Hall on London's South Bank. By 7.30 on Sunday, it was crammed to the gills and I had the honour of being Master of Ceremonies.

Standing before a photograph of Eliot, Andrew Motion, the Poet Laureate, read from the first section of The Waste Land, and the poets were each given eight minutes to display their talents. They were a weirdly eclectic bunch, in looks, accents and bearing. Peter Bennet, who lives in the charmingly named Wild Hills o'Wanney in Northumberland, was very large and profusely bearded like William Golding – a bardic figure who writes slightly sinister and unsettling little dreamscapes that often delve into English history. Stephen Romer, a suave, silver-haired boulevardier, who lives in France, read a very touching poem about his father's refusal to believe that Bach's St Matthew Passion is merely "a product of the human brain/ like medicine or the washing machine". Moniza Alvi, a dark-eyed, Anglo-Pakistani mythologist, read a savagely beautiful poem about a mermaid discovering the delights of human love by having her tail sliced open.

Robert Crawford, a professorial figure (he is indeed Professor of Modern Scottish Literature at St Andrews), seemed to grow before the audience's eyes into an alarming clan chieftain, as he read his version of the 1411 "Clan Donald's Call to Battle at Harlaw" ("Be manly, be murderous,/ Be martial, be militant,/ Be noxious, be noisiest,/ Be knightly, be niftiest..."). Glyn Maxwell, a boyish, sandy-haired figure who writes well-regarded novels and plays as well as poetry, and has now been on the T S Eliot short list three times, read "A Play of the Word," a long folk-tale about a mysterious woman, told in drumming anapaestic rhythms. Jen Hadfield, a slight, black-clad 30-year-old Shetland-dweller, read surreal notes about her travels in Canada, and incantatory litanies ("What I hate about love is its boil-wash/ What I love about love is its spin-cycle"). Ciaran Carson, a brooding, musical presence, read from his 111-page novel-in-verse, For All We Know, in his strong Belfast twang (he runs the Seamus Heaney Centre in Queens University Belfast). Maura Dooley, a slender beauty in a frock festooned with fish, read about a Twelfth Night encounter that pulled together a baby, a fox and the Three Wise Men.

Two poets couldn't make the event, and had friends read their work for them. One was Mark Doty, the only American to win the T S Eliot prize, in 1995, who was stricken with a stomach bug. The other was Mick Imlah, who was dying.

Imlah, 52, the poetry editor of the Times Literary Supplement for 16 years, was an immensely popular figure on the poetry and books-party circuit. Handsome, talented and generous of spirit, he had puzzled fans by producing little poetry in print, since Birthmarks, his 1988 debut. When he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease a year ago, it prompted him to gather together a great sheaf of poems written over the last two decades, mostly on Scottish themes. The result was published in autumn 2008: it was called The Lost Leader, was twice as long and twice as accomplished as most volumes. It won the Forward Prize and became the most talked-about poetry book of the year. Imlah was inevitably a major subject at the party to mark the awarding of the prize the following night at the Skinners' Hall in the City of London. The nation's poets were out in force: Sean O'Brien, Ruth Fainlight, Sara Maguire, Alan Brownjohn, Robin Robertson, Ruth Padel, Allen Gillis – and Michael Horovitz, who convened the famous poetry love-in that packed out the Albert Hall in 1966.

Discussions ranged from the probable identity of the new Poet Laureate (Andrew Motion corks up his sherry cask this year) to the performance of Ms Padel, poet-in-residence at Somerset House and incidentally Darwin's great-granddaughter, on Desert Island Discs the previous day. There were speeches. Andrew Burnham, the Secretary of State for Culture, praised Motion for his 10 years' poetic ambassadorship, and told a mildly sceptical throng that poetry had changed his life when his English teacher sent him home to watch a video of Tony Harrison's recital of "V", strewn with four-letter graffiti. "It taught me it was possible for poetry to have a northern voice," he said. The poetry world, wary of condescension by government types, murmured guarded approval.

Andrew Motion, chair of the T S Eliot judges (the others were Lavinia Greenlaw and Tobias Hill) went through the short list identifying the strengths of each writer – and paused to reveal that Mick Imlah had died that morning. An aghast silence filled the room. Struggling to stay composed, Motion revealed that he and Imlah had been friends from Oxford, 30 years earlier. "He was one of the cleverest, most interesting, amazing, talented and sweet-natured people I have ever met," he said.

And so to the big announcement. Some assumed that a sympathy vote would guarantee that the prize would go to Imlah, but there was a surprise – it went instead to the young Shetland ingenue Jen Hadfield, who, on hearing Motion say her name, promptly burst into tears. It was not a very Kate Winslet moment. Dabbing tears away, she read a poem about a horse, which happily contained the lines, "Ladies and gentlemen, will you fill your glasses? May I lead us all in a toast or prayer?"

The poetry world crowded round her. The Skinners' Hall was suddenly full of tears, drink, love, gossip and sympathy. The best words in the best order. T S Eliot would have been impressed.

Self-portrait as a Fortune-telling Miracle Fish

By Jen Hadfield, the winning poet

I'm disappointed in the gods that formed me thus

in the likeness of the wall-eyed Halibut;

in my longing, a Meagre or Eelpout;

in my maudlin, a Poor Cod or Bitterling.

I'm disgusted with whichever of you

chose jealousy-with-an-overbite

to be my consort, my symbiotic groupie

and yet some rogue demi-deity

gave a posy of dubious virtues –

made me transparent; electric;

a Wide-eyed Flounder; a Crystal Gobi;

a Stargazer; a Velvet-belly;

a Deepsea Angler, blind,

were it not for this proboscis

that lets me troll my little lantern

in the silt and dim

off the continental shelf.

And my daemon's a dogfish – I think –

A Starry Hound, a blunt and hungry hobo,

scrounging, starveling, sleeping on the go.