Verse-novel on the death of a marriage wins T S Eliot poetry prize

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The Independent Culture

After an outing last year as a bridesmaid on the shortlist for the T S Eliot Prize, the Canadian poet Anne Carson yesterday took the poetry world's £10,000 bouquet for her book The Beauty of the Husband.

Helen Dunmore, the novelist and poet who chaired the panel of judges, saluted Ms Carson's verse-novel on the disintegration of a marriage as "tart, lyrical, erotic, plain-spoken and highly-charged". Anne Carson is the first woman to win the Eliot Prize (awarded by the Poetry Book Society). In its eight previous years, it has gone to male giants such as Les Murray and Ted Hughes.

Marriage and affairs – their sporadic joys, and lasting tribulations – fill Carson's work. But the agony and ecstasy of love come dressed in cunning and sophisticated forms of verse.

Long acclaimed in North America, and described as "the most exciting poet writing in English today" by fellow-Canadian Michael Ondaatje, Ms Carson had to wait until 1998 before a whole volume of her work appeared in Britain. Glass and God, which dramatised both a contemporary love affair and the passions of Emily Brontë, was followed by Men in the Off Hours and then The Beauty of the Husband, which were both published by Cape.

Anne Carson is a professor of classics who teaches at McGill University in Montreal. The emotional peaks and troughs that she evokes always carry with them echoes of Greek and other poetry.

The Beauty of the Husband, subtitled "a fictional essay in 29 tangos", also draws some of its inspiration from John Keats. Scholarship and slang combine to create an edgy, alert and often heart-rending sense of longing and loss.

The Beauty of the Husband, like much of her previous poetry, seems to slide daringly between the tones of soap-opera and classical tragedy.

Its success also draws at-tention to the revival of the long-haul narrative in verse – a form often thought to have died out with Victorian practioners such as Robert Browning and George Meredith.

Last year' competition saw widely-praised verse novels by Glyn Maxwell and Bernardine Evaristo. This March, Tom Paulin will publish the first part of his poetic epic about the Second World War, The Invasion Handbook.

Marriages may not be getting any longer or more satisfying (at least not those that feature in Ms Carson's work), but poems certainly are.

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