As the Forward Prizes celebrate their first thirty years of existence, Camille Ralphs takes us back to 1992 and the first edition of these awards, employing the occasion to revisit poems by Tony Harrison, Jo Shapcott and Elizabeth Garrett featured in the inaugural Forward Book of Poetry.

The Forward Prizes for Poetry, among the most valuable and valued prizes for both established and emerging poets, have just celebrated their thirtieth birthday. It might seem that this longstanding monument on the literary landscape has been pretty much immutable since its inception, excluding the very recent announcement of a new prize, from 2023, for poetry in performance; on the contrary, the Forward Book of Poetry 1993 makes clear that the concept behind the prizes has changed over the years. The Forward Prize (singular) used to be a “national prize of prizes chosen from all the existing literary competitions in Britain” and from “nominations from publishers, literary editors of the national newspapers, and leading poetry publications”, according to the anthology’s blurb. 

Arguably this more narrowly focused prize was more essential (the current prizes, with the exception of the individual poem prize, which is closest to the original idea, offer similar wares to the T. S. Eliot Prize and the Seamus Heaney Centre’s First Collection Poetry Prize), if any prize can be described as such. It may also have been more concentrated (which is not necessarily to say more attentive): while this year’s judges read “217 full collections and 192 single poems”, according to William Seighart in his introduction to the 2023 volume, the judges in 1992 (Stephen Spender, Margaret Drabble, John Bayley, Roger McGough and Mick Imlah) merely read “over two hundred poems”. One imagines that this resulted in a much more streamlined judging process. They began with a sort of longlist. That I recognized far more names in the 1993 edition than I did in, say, that from 2007 may be down to the judges’ sound taste and sensitive forecasting, or just to the fact that they were betting exclusively on work that had already been garlanded.

Spender notes in his foreword that “there were several amateurish efforts submitted by what seem to be Poets’ Mutual Admiration societies, [but] on the whole the standard was remarkably high”. It appears now that some of those poems, alongside a few of their competent, but anaemic friends from the Literary Complacency Society, slipped into print. The usually high-performing Linda France’s “If Love Was Jazz”, for instance, leaves the reader with the indelible impression that neither love nor jazz is worth bothering with: “If love was jazz, / I’d sing its praises, / Like Larkin has”? 

More interesting are the stronger poems that probably would not be published today. Tony Harrison’s “A Cold Coming”, which Alan Rusbridger of The Guardian commissioned him to write about the Gulf War (1991–2), is a salient example. For a British poet to put on the voice of an Iraqi soldier who had burnt to death in his vehicle during Operation Desert Storm, when British troops were part of the coalition fighting against Iraq, would likely be deemed deplorable, even though the poem is demonstrably anti-war; and its lewdly punning title and epigraph, which allude to T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi”, seem at odds with its macabre theme. How contemptuous to give this real man an Ancient Mariner-esque spiel that’s focused on, of all things, sperm banks! And admittedly, as is often the case with commissioned poems, there are some dreadful moments (a poet can get away with a bathetic rhyming couplet now and again, but not repeatedly, and not like this: “they seemed the masters of their fate / with wisely jarred ejaculate”). Yet in the context surrounding the photograph that inspired the poem, the US photographer Ken Jarecke’s “The Death of an Iraqi Soldier, Highway of Death” (1991), a justification for Harrison’s gruesome apologue begins to take shape. 

The former Observer picture editor Tony McGrath said that the photograph showed that “war is disgusting, humiliating and degrading, and diminishes everybody”. Jarecke, meanwhile, said of the man: “It appears as though he’s trying to lift himself up and out of the truck … he fought for his life and thought it was worth fighting for”. That the man from this extremely disturbing image, with “his dumb mask like baked dogturds”, is so obsessed with procreation in Harrison’s poem seems grotesque; then we reach the poem’s vital moment. “I was filled with such a yearning / to stay in life as I was burning, / such a longing to be beside / my wife in bed before I died, / and most, to have engendered there / a child untouched by war’s despair”. “Engendered there” is a neat allusion to the sestet of Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan”, which proposes that Leda’s pregnancy will eventually lead to the burning of Troy (though Harrison may have missed a trick in not alluding also to “The Second Coming”). “A Cold Coming” argues that the dissemination of life anywhere in the world is insupportable to the point of absurdity – offensive absurdity – in the face of such cauterized, anonymous death.

Jo Shapcott’s heavily anthologized poem “Phrase Book” is not so different at its core (the poem presents the internal experience of a woman watching distressing and disorienting footage of the Gulf War on television). Conceptually, it sits somewhere between one of Martha Rosler’s House Beautiful: Bringing the war home (c.1967–72) photomontages, which combine beautiful US home interiors with images of the Vietnam War, and Henry Reed’s poem “Judging Distances” (1943), which demonstrates how military language oddifies the ordinary. The human ideal in question here is not life so much as love, whose gentleness and sometime domesticity is threatened by the recrudescence of violence. Love, like “bliss” in the poem (a pilots’ acronym for Blend, Low silhouette, Irregular shape, Small, and Secluded location), starts to feel like something used “for evasion and escape”; at its worst, it is “Just one person pounding another into dust, / into dust”. 

According to Shapcott, the poem “tries to represent the fragmented experience we all have … of highly charged information flying into our brains from many sources” as well as the extent to which we are all besieged and benighted when elsewhere armies clash by night. Muted, neutralizing, depersonalized military jargon (“Human Remains Pouch”; “Kill Box”) is central to the poem, as are phrases from a 1960s British phrase book (“Let me pass please. I am an Englishwoman”): a nod to ridiculous, obsolescent British exceptionalism. In spite of its popularity and the irreproachability of its argument, however, I am unsure about this poem. The macaronic confluence of broken 1960s English with 1990s military lingo feels more incongruous than the intended effect requires (why would the speaker be using 1960s phrases?), even with the rationalization, the link to obsolescence, I suggest above. And why three-ish mixed dictions? Two might have worked, or twenty. As it is, the poem feels a little adventitious. 

There are no accidents, meanwhile, in the poems of Elizabeth Garrett. Formally, she is a metaphysical poet, and has said her biggest influence is John Donne; tonally, she is serious, Gravesian; musically, not unlike Hart Crane, guided by sound as much as sense, but with something burnished, gentle and precise about her lexical choices – like Gillian Allnutt’s later work. There is an attention to sensuous minutiae, or to a finicky and fallen world made bright by ex nihilo and annihilating light. Take these lines from “Wedding Breakfast” (almost a vanitas response to William Carlos Williams’s “Nantucket”):

How constancy dazzles with its white
Lies! The shadows dark as coffee,
Two cups of tricked light,
A new moon rising on each cherry.
Still life: you can’t. Even the light
Is mortal.

In Poetry Review’s Spring 1994 issue, where she was announced as a New Generation Poet and deemed “as near to a pure lyric poet as we’ll get in our times”, she said that “I think with my tongue. The properties of the sheer sensual in words – whatever the language – fascinates me”. But after publishing just two full collections of poems (The Rule of Three, 1992, and A Two-Part Invention, 1998), she vanished from public view. What happened? I asked her editor, Neil Astley at Bloodaxe Books, who said he was “as mystified as you are as to why Elizabeth stopped writing”. He would welcome new poems from her. Another Bloodaxe poet, Abigail Parry, is at work on a book about Garrett – so I’m not alone in wanting to draw attention to her work. But has she, like Rosemary Tonks or Rimbaud, just abandoned the art form?

That would be a shame. She wrote more good poems than can be adequately handled here: sensitive ekphrases such as “Song Without Words” (after Vermeer’s “Woman Tuning a Lute”), the sardonic nursery rhyme “Gone”, the Marvellian “Love’s Parallel”, “Prints” and “Paris Matins” with their Muldoonian rhymes (try “clatters”, “coloratura” and “collateral”; or  “despair”, “dispersed” and “Hesperides”), the wicked pack of cards in “Tyranny of Choice”. Lawrence Sail once noted her poems’ “occasional eschewing of current usage” – contemporariness and vernacularism are not necessarily intrinsic goods, and Garrett’s connection to a variety of pasts and presents is a great strength of her work. Another of her strengths, her attention to subtle consonantal music and internal rhyme, concatenations of patterns resembling those of Welsh bardic metres, is everywhere evident: “the two ripe halves / Of a heart, our apportioned selves / Part cleanly”, she writes in “Anatomy of Departure”.

The poem that appears in the  Forward Book of Poetry 1993 is an excerpt from her “Rumaucourt” sequence (in The Rule of Three) titled “First Light”. It is close to perfect. Half aubade, half matin, it has something of the limpid slowness of Derek Mahon’s “Everything Is Going To Be All Right”, though with a more immediately evident tone of illumined despair. The “high room”, “high bed” and “tall air”, alongside the window-sill featured in the opening and closing stanzas, can’t help but suggest high windows. And who is the “we” referred to here? At the opening, the reader assumes two lovers, but when “memory crept back like a truant lover / Mocking our wise fear”, the first-person plural seems to suggest instead a series of incarnations of a single self. Later still, it implies a universalism. In such moments of gloam turned clarity and inconsequentiality, in an environment of total and totalling loss where religious reassurances are AWOL (much of the real French commune of Rumaucourt, including the church of St Amand, had to be rebuilt after the First World War), it is hard for anyone to feel and justify “the air, / The importunate tug of the blood, our being here”. Being where we are right now, we could use more Elizabeth Garrett.

Camille Ralphs has two published pamphlets, Malkin: An ellegy in 14 spels (The Emma Press, 2015), which was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Poetry Award, and uplifts & chains (If A Leaf Falls Press, 2020). She is poetry editor at the Times Literary Supplement.

Donate to Poetry London

Be a part of the next 100 issues

To donate, please click on the button below, or send a cheque payable to ‘Poetry London’ to Poetry London, Goldsmiths, University of London, New Cross, London, SE14 6NW, UK.

Donate to Poetry London today

Subscribe to Poetry London

Subscribe today!