John Walsh: Tales of the City

'Keats and Byron would have been intrigued by what their successors have evolved into...'
Click to follow

I don't know whether the collective noun for poets is an anthology or an inspiration, but they were out in droves on Sunday night. The 10 poets shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize were appearing at the Bloomsbury Theatre in front of a packed house, the evening before the judges' final deliberations as to who should win the £15,000 award for the year's best collection.

There's an additional frisson available to the winner, who gets to shake hands with TS Eliot's widow, Valerie, now 81. Believers in the atomic theory of flesh, who are convinced that hands retain molecular trace elements of every other hand that has touched them, will be impressed to think that whoever wins the prize will carry some pallid neutrons of the great Thomas Stearns around with him or her for evermore.

I'd been signed up as MC, introducing the performers and getting them on and off stage at a steady clip. It's a tough gig because poetry audiences, by and large, don't come to hear Las Vegas-style introductions, they come to be elevated by Parnassian thoughts expressed in the finest words in the best order. Eliot himself once opined that poetry is merely "a higher form of entertainment", but you wouldn't dream of bringing a touch of vaudeville to this audience.

The TS Eliot prize is the prize all poets yearn to win and, while it doesn't share the media razzmatazz that accompanies the Booker, it's heading in that direction. The cultural mainstream is having one of its periodic fits of being interested in poetry – witness the appearance of many of the Eliot shortlist reading their stuff on Radio 4 in the past week. It must have been a lovely surprise for devotees of Today to wake up to the cool, Persian-cat incantation of Mimi Khalvati reading her poem, "The Candles of the Chestnut Trees". But did it, and the other readings, inspire thousands to investigate the poetry shelves in Borders and Waterstones? Or did it fall on their ears like some background noise with no relevance to their lives?

I'd like to think it was the former, but I suspect the latter. Despite those little collections in bookshops, with titles like Poems to Stop You Going Mad and Poems to Help You Understand Blokes – that suggest poems are just therapeutic little bullets to be inserted in times of stress – much contemporary poetry remains tantalisingly opaque. I like to think that I understand perhaps 60 per cent of any modern poetry collection (unless it's by Geoffrey Hill, whereupon the percentage shrinks to 6 per cent). So how many new converts does British poetry make each year? And who are its perfect devotees, the ones with the 100-per-cent comprehension rate?

Good question. On Sunday night, Alan Gillis, one of the shortlisted 10, turned to me and asked, "Who are they? These people who will come out on a rainy Sunday evening and pay £12 to hear a lot of poets reading their work...?" We looked around. Some very old faces, some fresh and pink teenage beauties, some vividly Irish fizzogs. A preponderance of women in grey wool overcoats. A lot of bearded librarian types with spectacles dangling from chains round their necks. Some freakishly tall young chaps with shaggy hair, clearly second-year English undergraduates keen to clap eyes on poetry stars (such as Don Paterson) and living legends such as Edwin Morgan, the Scottish poet laureate (who's in a nursing home, aged 87, and couldn't attend, but was shortlisted). A visiting alien would have gazed at the throng and concluded they were members of a peculiar tribe, obsessively devoted to comfortable clothing, soft furnishings, red wine, earnest conversation, facial hair and nesting in studies.

And the poets? You never saw such an eclectic gathering of performers, nor heard such wildly contrasted styles. Keats and Byron would have been intrigued by what their successors have evolved into. Matthew Sweeney is the crazed Celtic roustabout, his hair a-streel, his delivery savage. Sarah Maguire tucked a multicoloured shawl around her sensible shoulders and read, with slow rapture, about a grass-covered church in Rotherhithe. Gillis, a burly Ulsterman, read a poem of advice to his son, "Bob the Builder is a Dickhead". Fiona Sampson, who deals in the sensuous and the sacramental, resembled a sexy nun in slender black cotton. Sophie Hannah, a modern Dorothy Parker in granny glasses, told a friend what to say "next time you speak to You-know-who" ("Tell him that all my ancient faults/ have been eradicated...") Newcomer Frances Leviston, a 25-year-old Infant Phenomenon, pale and svelte, read a nature poem about a man, a woman and a gutted pheasant. Ian Duhig, a puckish, grizzle-haired man with a voice like a broken harmonica, read a poem in celebration of the dry martini; Tehran-born Khalvati read a couple of Persian "ghazals" or love lyrics, her voice breathy with romance. Sean O'Brien used to be a class warrior full of political fury; now he's the leading poet-critic of his generation, he's mutated into a seigneurial figure, white-bearded, capon-fed, musing on death and inundation.

O'Brien eventually picked up the £15,000, but what mattered was the display of the crazed eclecticism of British poetry in the 21st century, its strength and tenderness, its music and wit and its occasional foreign accents. Even if 40 per cent of it stays tantalisingly out of your (or at least my) grasp.