Arts: Awards reflect fashion for more reasoned rhyme

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The Independent Online
The prestigious Paul Hamlyn Awards for Artists have been presented to five poets. David Lister suggests that the five chosen represent a move away from attempts to make poetry young and trendy.

Their styles range from freeform to highly formal sonnets. Their ages range up to 70. Five poets last night received the Paul Hamlyn Foundation Awards For Artists worth pounds 15,000 each.

The choice of the five signalled a move away from the deliberate trendy marketing of poetry in recent years through projects such as Young Generation Poets, and awkward attempts to make youthful poets part of the fashion scene.

The five chosen are established and highly-regarded poets, but in some cases writers who have not been in the limelight. One, Elizabeth Jennings, 70, lives in a B&B in Oxford.

The winning poets are: John Agard, Roy Fisher, Kathleen Jamie, Elizabeth Jennings and Barry MacSweeney.

Judith Palmer, literature officer at the South Bank Centre and a member of the board of the Poetry Society, commented: "There has been a feeling among older poets that they have had the worst of all possible worlds. They were writing before poetry was fashionable. Too old to be Young Generation Poets they were unable to participate in the new rock n roll.

"It's great to have a list of winners that includes people who don't hang out, aren't among the London in-crowd earning their living from book reviews, but ply their craft - and get very depressed about it."

John Agard, 48, born in Guyana has been described as "an outstanding luminary of the exploding galaxy of West Indian-British troubadors". Roy Fisher, 67, writes poetry most often associated with the post-industrial landscape of the Midlands. Kathleen Jamie, 35, from Scotland, was one of the New Generation Poets, and often writes in Scottish dialect. Elizabeth Jennings, 70, writes sonnets and other verse striving to come to terms with losses. Barry MacSweeney, 49, from Newcastle, was an investigative crime reporter and writes poetry described as "unsparing of allusions, and bitter and comic in its self-appraisal."

Poets had to apply to be considered for the awards and 342 did so - a number that may reflect the need for funds as much as for fame.

For the awards come at the same time as a survey by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation of poets' incomes. It shows that the pre-tax income of a successful, published poet in the UK or Ireland with an average age of 48, is about pounds 12,500 a year - well below the national earnings average.

The survey is based on the earnings of these 342 poets. It found that average annual earnings range from pounds 7500 in the North-west to pounds 14,500 in the Midlands and Scotland. Poets in London earned on average pounds 12,358.

The poet Adrian Mitchell, who was one of the judges of the award, commented: "We commemorate our poets in Westminster Abbey when they're good and dead. Meanwhile their successors are struggling - against neglect, illness and poverty, to survive."