Review: Singing for their supper

TS Eliot Prize reading Almeida Theatre, London.

No poet can be a poet these days without being seen and heard to be one. Only the dead may speak to us from the privacy of the page alone. The annual TS Eliot Prize acknowledges this by inviting all 10 short-listed poets to read from their collections the night before the ceremony. Ten minutes each. Ten minutes to prove oneself a winner.

This year's event (on Sunday) was hamstrung by a rash of absenteeism. Why was Derek Walcott, the one who deserved to win, not with us? There were two explanations, the official and the unofficial. The Poetry Book Society said he was having a nightmare rewriting his musical with Paul Simon, and it would be unfeeling to wake him. The version from another poet, talking in the bar, was a touch more hubristic: "Walcott said that he'd come over if they could guarantee that he'd be the winner." No such guarantee was forthcoming.

Fleur Adcock was held up in New Zealand by her mother's 90th-birthday celebrations, a non-negotiable date, she communicated to us through her stand-in, Jo Shapcott. And then there was the doom-laden Peter Reading, described in the programme as the laureate of grunge, who was away making his American fans miserable.

Did the occasion seem more muted this year, less celebratory of the art, because the poets were not lined up on the stage in chairs like so many ducks in a shooting gallery? Perhaps. Why? Because the reading itself was obliged to invade an extraordinary set created for The Government Inspector, which consists of a floor sloping forward at a sickeningly vertiginous angle. The poets, having teetered up there, seemed about to pitch forward into the audience. In these circumstances, it is best not to hazard too much - which was why the first half of the evening, during which Jo Shapcott, Gillian Allnutt, Helen Dunmore, Selima Hill, and even the excellent Jamie McKendrick, seemed scarcely to register on our consciousness.

The second half - when a rowdyhouse of gruffer-voiced men came on - was generally livelier, although Alan Jenkins, standing in for Peter Reading, hammed it up unnecessarily. Best of all were Don Paterson, who turned the volume of his Dundonian voice up and down in ways that constantly pleased and surprised, and the lovely spectacle of Guyanese poet John Agard, deftest of performance poets, with his rasta locks whipped back into a ponytail, standing in for Walcott.

For 10 long minutes Agard managed to stay still, keeping his eyes on the words alone, not once twisting his sinewy body to their rhythm in his customary manner. Only at the end did he raise his arms high like a preacher in a gesture of salutation to the last three words he spoke: "Because it sings."

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