First Night: Poetry prize hopefuls have to play it by ear

TS Eliot Prize Readings Almeida Theatre London

THOSE WHO win literary prizes are usually lucky enough to have done all the work before the cash is handed over. Not so with the TS Eliot Prize for the best poetry book of the year: the agonies are spread over two evenings.

Last night the 10 shortlisted poets had to read from their books in front of an audience at Islington's Almeida Theatre to find out if the work was as good on the ear as it had seemed to be on the page.

Tonight the winner will be announced at the British Library. The pounds 5,000 prize is not enormous, but the prestige of an award sponsored by Mrs TS Eliot is worth at least a million dollars more, and penniless poets are used to dining out on their reputations. The award was established in 1993 and male Celts for the most part have dominated until now - two Irishmen, one Scotsman and that honorary Celt, Les Murray, have won in the past.

This year the English are in with a chance, though - the late Ted Hughes is on the short-list with Birthday Letters, and there are excellent collections by Jo Shapcott, Ruth Padel and Ken Smith.

Tom Paulin, representing Hughes, turns in a perplexingly ironised version of the originals, though when he reads the poem "Daffodils" we are treated to the best poem of the evening.

The Irish poet Paul Muldoon, who won in 1994, is playful, deft, compulsive to watch and listen to, a natural joker. Padel reads three love poems from Rembrandt Would Have Loved You with a deft conversational ease.

Ken Smith lurches on to the stage to conclude the evening. He stares at the back wall of the theatre, at its crude, unadorned brick. "I've been staring at this bloody wonderful wall all evening. I don't know whether it's artificial or not but it looks pretty real to me ..." Still shaking his head, he turns back to the audience and, leaning forward exaggeratedly,speaks in a growly, gravelly whisper, poems about his life as an itinerant poet in Prague, in Ukraine, and among those long-legged, sheep-herding mountain people who told very old jokes about the Russian landing on the Moon because they lived so far from anywhere.

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