Monday, 15 October 2012

Great Leaps Forward


Peculiar goings-on at the 2012 Forward Prize the other week - they've only gone and awarded it to one of the world's most important living poets, Jorie Graham. And there's me thinking your surname had to be Burnside, Paterson or O'Brien to be even in with a chance...And what's this? One of the UK's most important (and most woefully underrated) poets, Denise Riley, who's never had a full volume brought out by a mainstream publisher, has also won the Best Single Poem prize - I can scarcely credit it...
    But if this is true and not some viral hoax then it's immensely good news that two such uncompromising voices should gain the wider exposure in this country they've long deserved. I've been an admirer of Jorie Graham for many years (three parts intellectual enthusiasm to one part pathetic crush based on photos like this one on the right) - I haven't read all of PLACE, her prize-winning book, but early volumes like Erosion and The End of Beauty are as exploratory and spellbinding as any poetry of the 20thC, powerfully combining fractured lyricism with philosophical and political scope (the Carcanet Selected Dream of the Unified Field is a good place to start if you haven't come across her).
    Denise Riley,similarly, has consistently forged an individual style which one might term post- Cambridge School but which initially emerged out of the 70's climate of critical theory and Eric Mottram's avant garde-oriented Poetry Review. But if her work is informed by feminism and a deconstructionist, self-interrogating view of language (broadly, in these ways, comparable with Graham's) it has nevertheless always been more approachable and couched in the everyday than most of her fellow-experimentalists. The quirky play she makes with the elegiac mode in her winning poem 'A Part Song' is typical of this fine touch.
    With trendy young whippersnapper Sam Riviere also among the prizes for his debut Austerities, does this all reflect a salutary broadening of taste for the Forward? Might the judges even have read Peter Riley's brilliant broadside about 'Poetry Prize Culture' in the Fortnightly Review earlier this year?
   Or is it just that the O' Burnterson conglomerate hasn't produced any volumes this year?

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