18.45: Edwin Morgan Poetry Prize
Liz Lochhead chaired a re-launch of the Edwin Morgan Poetry Prize. She was joined by three previous winners. She opened proceedings with a recital of Morgan’s ‘The Apple Song’ before allowing Jane McKie, Paul Batchelor and Jen Hadfield to take the stage.
Reading poetry is a skill that takes time and experience to master. Unfortunately these three poets have some way to go. They all assumed the hushed tone of the romantic amateur who yearns to say something profound.
McKie was the worst of the whisperers. Her best poem was ‘Tentsmuir Point’, which explored the cold comfort landscape affords us. The narrator climbs a sand dune and reflects on the view: ‘it warms me, this nothing.’ Nevertheless, most of her poems were overwritten and offered nothing more than occasional word-music. ‘Midsummer’ contained absurd imagery and clunky lines, including the awful: ‘at the edge of the glade is a white silk blouse/ blessed with the ache of the nearness of grass.’ No amount of sibilance can save hyperbole of this kind. Here McKie has simply mistaken nonsense for poetry.
Batchelor was similarly lacklustre. ‘A Windfall’ was written ‘for Edwin Morgan’ but sounded more like a pre-edited version of Ezra Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’ . ‘The Tawny Owl’ was almost a good poem but, like roses, owls are dangerous subjects for poets. If something is ‘asking to be written about it’ it’s probably worth avoiding.
Hadfield’s poetry saved the day. ‘Invisible’ weaved imagery from Gulliver’s Travels into an interesting exploration of scale. ‘The Domestic Cat’ contained the exquisite line: ‘the wet bracelet of his mouth unlatched’, proving how sound and sense can complement one another. ‘Hydra’ transformed the body into a clunky machine, not a new subject but made fresh by an act normally associated with organic pursuits: the turning of soil. ‘Lichen’ described another displacement of the body. Although the poem contained more than a whiff of Sylvia Plath it was sufficiently unnerving. Imagine lichen as ‘milllions of black and golden ears’. Her new collection, Byssus, is out in 2014.
After discussion on the difficulty of publishing first collections (which turns out not to be so difficult now as it was for Edwin Morgan) the specifics of the new prize were unveiled. The Edwin Morgan Trust will award £20,000 bi-annually for a collection in Gaelic, Scots or English written by a poet thirty or under. The prize will be administered by the Scottish Poetry Library. The first deadline is 3rd March 2014. If the winner is unpublished they will receive help finding a publisher. Here’s hoping Morgan’s Trustees will also award the winner some lessons in public speaking.