The Irish miss the grand slam

The collective noun for a group of poets trying to outperform each other for the TS Eliot award? `A paranoia of poets'.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
After Professor Gillian Beer had hectored the microphone into fitful life, and a spread of bodies had been coaxed away from the bar of the Polish Hearth Club to stand forward of the freelance camera crew in a show of eager anticipation, James Fenton, poet, sometime tigerish columnist, and chairman of this year's TS Eliot Award judges, stepped up, and in that lugubrious, drop-jawed, undertakerish manner of his, got down to the business. There were only two books out of the 10 that were serious contenders for the pounds 5,000 prize which was about to be given away for the best poetry collection of the year, he told us, and the one that didn't quite get it was by an Irishman, Michael Longley.

Thank God for that! For the past two years this prize has been enthralled to the indomitable Irishry - Ciaran Carson won it in 1993, and his chum Paul Muldoon in 1994 when Carson was one of the judges. This year there were no fewer than four Irish poets on the shortlist of 10 - if you count in that the delightful oddball Ian Duhig, who was born in London of Irish- Catholic parents.

The prize went to an American poet virtually unknown in this country, Mark Doty, whose first book to be published over here, My Alexandria (Cape, pounds 7), appeared in August last year. This decision also meant that those laddish lovables Maxwell and Armitage didn't win it either - which was a bit of a blow to the Faber publicity machine, who had been puffing Armitage's Dead Sea Poems as the book of the year ever since they first swooned at the news of the brilliant title.

The choice of Doty was as excellent as it was unpredictable, and we got a taste of how he performs in public at the Almeida Theatre on the previous evening when all 10 poets were put through their paces in front of a capacity audience. None of them seemed to enjoy the competitive spirit of the occasion very much. (Duhig, trembling and stuttering, told us that his publisher had just coined a collective noun for a group of poets that is obliged to read together: a paranoia of poets.) Doty, being new to an English audience, was the most fascinating spectacle.

He's a tall, lean man who sits bolt upright in his seat like a marionette and, when he stands in front of the microphone, appears to thrust his face at us as he reads, working lips and cheeks very hard, wetting his teeth with his tongue in order to stop himself falling into hoarseness. There's a snatch of a beard, a drizzle of a moustache, pale, intense eyes and a powerfully impassioned delivery. The poem he read - just one; all the other poets read several - was "Broadway", a characteristically opulent and caressing view of New York City which hugs the presence of the place like a person. All the poems of the past few years have been written out of the experience of his partner dying of Aids. Its terrible presence in his life has given him a quite enthralling capacity to evoke the minute preciousness of everything that is transitory.