Friday, 5 February 2010

Costa Book of the Year

Belated congratulations to Christopher Reid, who has won the Costa book of the year award. He's the first poet to carry off the prize since Seamus Heaney in 1999. His collection A Scattering, the Guardian notes in its byline, "has sold fewer than 1,000 copies". You what? A poetry collection that hasn't passed the 1000-mark? What did he do? Self-publish it?

In all seriousness, while this is great news for Reid (once Ted Hughes' editor) and another nice boost for British poetry in general, I have some personal misgivings. I'm not for a moment going to say it is undeserved, but anything that gives professional poetry-corpse-botherer Daisy Goodwin something to crow about is a cause for concern. "Christopher Reid’s victory in the Costa awards marks a new awareness of the power of poetry," she begins. So far, so much for my stomach contents. No one, it is commonly acknowledged, can write on poetry in newspapers without either announcing the dawn of a new age or sounding the death knell. Goodwin's speciality is trying to sell poetry as viagra, fluoxetine and ketamine all in one, so it's no surprise that for all her pretence of focusing on A Scattering, she somehow steers the subject back round to her own flimsy trestle-table of wares:
"Why wade through self-help tomes like Women Who Love Too Much, when you can read One Art by Elizabeth Bishop, or Two Cures for Love by Wendy Cope? If you need directions on how to live your life, read The Church-porch by George Herbert. If a child is leaving home, try Walking Away by C Day-Lewis. A good poem will provide more consolation than Prozac, more insights into the human condition than therapy."
The reason Goodwin gets to bang on about this is because A Scattering is a book about the death of Reid's wife. As such, it is heart-wrenching stuff.  The problem, minor as it is, that I have with books like this winning prizes is that I can't help but wonder (call it unjust cynicism, if you like) how much of the recognition is for the poetry and how much for the poet; that is to say, how far the judges were paying their due to a man shouldering the greatest of losses and the deepest of pains with dignity and humanity. Christopher Reid isn't the only person to have managed this feat; he's just one of the few with the skill to make the world aware of it. Most of us can't find the words to explain what is happening. He has. But are we praising him for finding the words, or is it just that we don't easily recognise the same depths of emotion in others who have borne a loss?

I think my concern is reasonable, particularly in an age when misery memoirs occupy more shelf-space in many bookshops than poetry and plays put together. We evidently, as a culture, have an appetite for suffering. So I suppose it's just that I'll be more comfortable believing in a 'new awareness' of poetry when the winning book is a cool and calculated display of skill, insight and exploration. I want proof that poetry survives and succeeds without necessarily acting as a portal through which we can touch each other's pain.

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