Sweet lines from a 'subhuman redneck' win top poetry prize

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Les Murray, Australia's most distinguished poet, won the TS Eliot Prize for poetry last night while he slept soundly on the far side of the world.

His unconscious achievement was the greater given the competition on the short list of 10 from some of the world's greatest poets - above all, Seamus Heaney, winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Murray's exceptional, versatile poetry derives from the isolated life he lives on a small farm in Bunyah, New South Wales, where he also grew up.

The pounds 5,000 award for his collection, Subhuman Redneck Poems, was announced at 5.15am New South Wales time. Recuperating from a heart attack, the 58-year-old had been unable to fly to England for the announcement and presentation by Eliot's widow, Valerie.

But before last night's ceremony in London, Adrian Mitchell, one of the short-listed poets, denounced the Arts Council - which had promised to host a luncheon for the winner - saying it "did not give a shit" for poetry.

The well-established poet, who had been tipped to win, told The Independent: "I wrote them a long proposition suggesting they pay wages for poets, and they said they got it, but they never replied.

"The Arts Council is meant to support the arts, and poetry is one the greatest arts in Britain. The Arts Council has no concerns about supporting opera, but it has always had a policy of letting poets starve in garrets, or whatever they do."

Mitchell, 64, is one of Europe's best-selling poets, but he said he still did not make enough money to support himself and his wife, an actress, such was the nature of being a poet in the 1990s.

"I could possibly make a living these days from poetry readings if there was just me to support and I had no mortgage, because after many years doing readings for pounds 5 or nothing I am getting paid properly - pounds 100 to pounds 500 a time," he said.

"But very few actually live full-time on poetry. Great writers, like Hugh MacDiarmid and Basil Bunting lived and died in poverty, which is a shameful thing. What it says about the Arts Council is that it does not give a shit for the survival of poetry."

Mitchell subsidises his work by writing plays and adapting foreign dramas, and fits in his art as best he can. The most he has been paid for his poetry is pounds 2,000, which came from the pop group The Bluetones. They worked a four-line poem of his into their song "Bluetonic" - which to Mr Mitchell's delight made it to number one.

It was not all bad, however. "What's good about being a poet now is that there are a lot more readings than there were in the Fifties. And with technology and computers and desktop publishing there's nothing to stop people publishing their own poems."

The Swansea-born poet Stephen Knight, 36, was also short-listed for his collection Dream City Cinema. Less established than Mitchell, he is blunt, but not bitter, about the sacrifices. He said: "I have an incredibly generous partner who subsidises me but it means I have no car, no mortgage and no children." He lives in a one-bedroom flat in Twickenham with his girlfriend, who is a teacher.

To make ends meet Knight works two days a week - along with out-of-work actors - selling theatre tickets by phone, and picks up money by script- reading, directing and doing school workshops. What he finds frustrating is that, despite the vaunted poetry boom, so few people read new poetry. "My friends are all graduates and they all read novels and go to the theatre but they wouldn't think of picking up a new book of poems," he said.

Susan Wicks, 49, whose first novel, The Key, is published next week, was also on the short list of the TS Eliot Prize, which is supported by Waterstone's booksellers, for The Clever Daughter.

The mother of 15-year-old and 18-year-old girls, she said she has been lucky - her husband has helped to support her and she teaches creative writing part-time at the University of Kent.

"Writing poetry is not a financial question for me," she observed. "I'm only now starting to make money from it; I'm just about beginning to think of myself as a professional writer."

The other five short-listed poets were: Alice Oswald; Christopher Reid, Ciaran Carson, Maura Dooley and John Fuller.