Poetry and prizes

With marginally more cachet than the Booker Prize, the Nobel rolled round this year with a winner I can confidently predict many Anglophone readers (myself included) will not have heard of. Tomas Transtromer is a Swedish poet, and his New Collected Poems is published in English translation by Bloodaxe. I don’t think the Nobel committee have been insular or deliberately obscure in picking Transtromer – it’s to my shame that I haven’t read him before, and by all accounts his work is very widely translated and respected. His poetry looks luminous and visionary, and I look forward to reading it. The great value of something like the Nobel is that it awards a writer for their body of work, not for an individual book or collection, and as by far the most prestigious literary award in the world, it confers immense publicity on writers of whom many readers would otherwise be unaware.

I think it’s fitting that a poet won the Nobel today, 6 October being National Poetry Day. Events like this can often be quite irritatingly upbeat in their attempts to inform, publicise and educate (impromptu poetry readings on buses, irritating the passengers; people dressing up as their favourite sonnet, or whatever), but poetry occupies a unique literary position in that it’s the most versatile and durable of forms, while also being the most marginal. My recent obsessive interest in poetry aside, I very rarely buy books from contemporary poets, and something like NPD is invaluable in emphasising how ridiculous that is for someone who would consider themselves reasonably well-read. Salt, one of the best specialist poetry presses in the country, have an excellent campaign called ‘Just One Book’, encouraging people to buy at least one title from them a year. Since their Arts Council funding has been cut, this campaign will genuinely make the difference between them folding or staying open. I would urge anyone with even a passing interest in poetry to take a look at their website and order something, on a whim if necessary. A thriving poetry scene is necessary not just for the publishing industry or for individual poets, but for culture and society as a whole. As Adrian Mitchell said, a country without poetry is an impoverished country. It’s like a country without music – unimaginable.

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