Monday, 5 January 2015

Shadowing the T. S. Eliot Prize

Creative reading is the cornerstone of creative writing. Our group of young poets and novelists meet once a week, and as their Librarian, I bombard them with words and reading. So I was thrilled by the structured resources available through the T S Eliot Shadowing Scheme.

The group, consisting of six A-level students, had been asked to read the poems in advance, each to varying levels of detail. Some had read every poem I had given them or had even sought out the full published collections, whilst others had dipped in and out of one and two.

The discussion began with me asking a few of them about their favourites. Chad read out ‘The Wandered’ by Ruth Padel, which he engaged with because of the reflective tone – he loved the image of the mother’s pies, with a ceramic bird “whose yellow beak cracked the crust”.

Thus, we moved on to Gluck’s ‘The Past’, and compared the style. It was noted that ‘The Past’ reminded us of Emily Dickinson, with wavering lines, some seemingly unfinished, the flow creating an almost visible movement to match the words.

I proposed Kevin Powers as my favourite. Sophie highlighted the way he seems to say one thing and mean another, and the prominence the effect of war has had on his writing. We had recently looked at writing in the second person, and Powers demonstrates the impact of writing in this way with the present tense: lines like “Think of missing so often it becomes absurd” seemed to have a different meaning to each of us.

We talked about the importance of length on our engagement with poetry, as many of the students confessed to being unable to maintain focus with the longer of the selection. In an attempt to disprove this theory, I read Hugo Williams’ ‘I Knew the Bride’, which I had shared with some teaching colleagues and they had loved. Williams uses similar techniques to Powers, including the second person narrative voice. But when we came to discuss the poem, most of our group confessed to having switched off, around the point Williams talks about “practising our jiving / for the Feather’s Club Ball at the Lyceum”. We discussed that the opening lines and final stanza were painfully and beautifully emotive, and when we looked in more detail at the poem, individuals confessed to being touched by certain lines in the mid-section: “You fought a five-year war / with that foul thing” was the cause of much speculation – what was “that foul thing”?

Finally, the quietest of our group suggested we discuss ‘Icefield’ by David Harsent. It was the imagery in this poetry that stood out, the darkness of the sounds that run through each line, and the contradictory enlightenment that the reader experiences. We discussed the overriding darkness that seemed to run throughout the whole selection, and the students reflected that their best poetry of late had been similarly melancholy.

One student asked if our favourites conformed to what we think should or will win? We discussed the difference between popular culture and high culture more widely. But the consensus seemed to be that David Harsent’s words – with the cemented description paving the way to powerful imagery – were what stayed with us most strongly. Thus, the Oxford Spires Academy creative writing club concluded this to be our winner.

But we are very much looking forward to the official winner being announced on 12th January.

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