POETRY

TS Eliot Prize Reading and Awards Ceremony Almeida Theatre, London
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The Independent Culture
Where was Big Les from Bunyah, New South Wales? And where was Seamus from Derry? And where, for that matter, was Maura Dooley, sometime of Truro? Yes, there was a serious problem of absenteeism at this year's TS Eliot Awards, which, as in earlier years, should have consisted of an evening of readings at the Almeida Theatre by all 10 short-listed poets, followed by a second evening of announcements by the judges and general carousing by poets and poetasters in the Print Room of the British Museum to the thrilling accompaniment of a string quartet and a noticeably wakeful Lord Gowrie.

And yet, as I say, matters were disabled somewhat by the fact that three of the poets didn't show up to either occasion. Maura's excuse was water- tight enough - a bonny new baby girl; Seamus's was understandable enough given his exalted position in the poetical constellation - "Seamus is in somewhere like Chicago attending the opening of A Cure at Troy," his editor Christopher Reid, who happened to be another of the short-listed poets, told me.

But where was Les? There was no explanation for his absence at all. The consequence of all this was that two actors and another poet had to stand in for the absentees - Jo Shapcott made a creditable job of Maura Dooley's lyrics; an Irish actor gave us a passable Seamus; but the cheery Australian actor Peter O'Brien, who had been appointed to substitute for Les, didn't seem to know which end of the book he was reading from.

"I looked at the thing," he said, staring down at the copy of Subhuman Redneck Poems he was holding in his hand, "and I said to myself: 'Who is this guy?' I tried to find a few things out about him and failed. So I turned the book around and read the blurb on the back. Now you just listen to this..."

He read a bit out: "There is no poetry in the English language so rooted in its sacredness, so broad-leafed in its pleasures..."

"My God," said O'Brien, "Can this guy be into sacredness and pleasure at the same time?" and so it went on, amiable, uninspiring, swashbuckling waffle from a man who, it seemed to the audience, had not only not bothered to find out who Les Murray was and why he deserved to be read, but had not, it seemed, even finally chosen the poems he would read to us before delivering them.

And what was his attitude towards Murray and his poetry anyway, leaving aside the problem of almost total ignorance? It seemed to range from a jokey, partially bewildered near-contempt at the beginning, to a sort of grudging admiration at the end. But the real test of any readers' understanding of a poem comes from listening to how he or she reads it. And the fact that O'Brien fluffed and mispronounced Murray's words, and at times mistook his emphases, suggests that he hadn't even got to the bottom of the five that he read anyway - or hadn't cared enough to try very hard. Perhaps the fee didn't merit much more than a fast read.

As far as the audience was concerned, this misrepresentation led most of those present to be quite deceived about the quality of the book. No one I spoke to thought that Murray would win the prize. Most of them knew nothing more of Murray's book than what they had heard that evening.

But they were wrong - and the award is especially pleasing for two reasons. Big Les is one of the great poets of our time, and Carcanet, Murray's publisher, in this country, deserves the kind of lift to the spirits that the gaining of such an award will induce. For it was Carcanet whose offices were blown apart by the IRA bomb that devastated the centre of Manchester last year.

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