Last night Hughes, 67, won the pounds 21,000 Whitbread Book Of The Year award for his collection of poetry, entitled Tales from Ovid. The award was unrelated to Birthday Letters, his astonishing verses about his wife, Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in 1963, which were published unexpectedly 10 days ago. He became odds-on favourite for the Whitbread prize after their publication.
In winning last night's prize, Hughes follows in the steps of his friend and fellow poet, the Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney, who won last year's Book of the Year for his collection of poetry The Spirit Level. Together they published two anthologies: The Rattle Bag and The School Bag.
The eclectic panel of judges announced their decision at a dinner in London. They included Lord Gowrie, chairman of the Arts Council, the novelist Fay Weldon, the former MP Edwina Currie and the television presenter Jonathan Ross, and were chaired by Professor Jeremy Treglown, professor of English at the University of Warwick.
Tales from Ovid was competing against a first novel, a biography and a novel for the prize for the best overall book of 1997. The Chairman of Whitbread Plc believes it is possible to choose between different breeds of book, comparing the process to what happens every year at Crufts. The other shortlisted contenders were Pauline Melville for her first novel, The Ventriloquist's Tale, Graham Robb for his biography of Victor Hugo, and Jim Crace for his novel Quarantine.
Tales from Ovid revives and retells the Metamorphoses myths first set down more than 2,000 years ago in Augustan Rome. The poems describe the clash and confrontation between the natural human world and the supernatural, where characters undergo magical transformations. Hughes's new interpretation sets out some of Ovid's best-loved stories for the millennium.
Tales from Ovid has been described as a work of vision and concentrated imagination. The judges of the 1997 Poetry Award concluded: "In contemporary speech Hughes has hacked away in the same quarry as that accomplished master and come up with something rougher and more immediate to a generation not raised on the classics." The collection was perhaps a fitting choice for the near close of a century. In the introduction Hughes talks of the late 20th century as facing the same uncertainty as that faced by late Augustan Rome.
- Clare Garner