BY Helen Charman in Opinion | 24 JAN 19

Hannah Sullivan’s TS Eliot Prize-Winning ‘Three Poems’ and the Problem with an Awards Monoculture

The way in which we talk about these accolades tends to hyperbole; artworks are not created in a financial vacuum

BY Helen Charman in Opinion | 24 JAN 19

Hannah Sullivan, Three Poems, 2018, book cover. Courtesy: Faber & Faber

Last week, Three Poems (2018) Hannah Sullivan’s first collection, won the TS Eliot Prize, one of the most-anticipated poetry awards in the UK. As the title suggests, the collection comprises – slightly unusually – three separate long poems, linked by their commitment to self-reflexivity and a looping repetition at the level of each individual text as well as across the collection as a whole. ‘You, Very Young in New York’ begins with the same image it closes with, a girl on a street corner hailing a cab, and declares early on that ‘nothing happens’; but ‘even the sameness has a savour for you’; the second poem, ‘Repeat Until Time’, repeats and dismantles Heraclitus’s theory that nobody ever steps in the same river twice; whilst the final poem operates both as a commemoration of the birth of the poet’s first child and an elegy for her father.

The poems are deeply rooted in the physical, with an unrelenting focus on bodily detail: ‘Repeat Until Time’ begins ‘The picked mosquito bite scabs over, resin sap’; later, ‘A quick armpit wash at 6, a fluster of perfume’, and in ‘The Sandpit After Rain’ the processes of birth and death are linked to the image of a chicken being stuffed, of the foetus lolling in the womb like a cork. In ‘You, Very Young’, sexual dissatisfaction is expressed everywhere through the intrusion of vivid physical imagery: a whoopee-pie in a shared kitchen with cream filling ‘so rich it clumps like shit’, a bikini wax and a ‘finger slipping in to check the cervix’, a colleague sleeping in ‘a fruit and urine breeze beneath a linen sheet.’ The collection has moments of bathos – the bad jokes about Shelley in ‘Repeat Until Time’ jar and flatten – but read together Three Poems is steadfast in its dedication to pushing its modes of writing beyond their natural limits, in free verse that grows more productively strange each time you read it. In ‘The Sandpit After Rain’, Sullivan’s fixation on cyclical time is held in ambivalent tension with the language of physical awkwardness and decay:

         taboo pregnancy what not to do
         + dietary restrictions
         + death
         + new year 2015 date

         The ice is now abundant
         And should be brought into the ice-houses.

The announcement of the TS Eliot prize is always followed by discussion and critique; it would be foolish to pretend that this isn’t partially because, as a GBP£25,000 award, it’s the most financially valuable poetry prize in the U.K. The economic conditions in which poetry – a famously unprofitable genre – is published inevitably impact the pool of possible winners, and the prize is weighted in favour of big publishers with large marketing budgets. Four out of the ten shortlisted collections this year were published by Faber & Faber, Sullivan’s included, and for this reason, as well as many others, the kind of culture the prize fosters is difficult to celebrate. In 2012, Peter Riley, writing in the Fortnightly Review in 2012 after John Burnside had won the TS Eliot and the Forward prize for the same collection, Black Cat Bone (2011), articulated one of the problems with the monoculture that awards can create:

it would be good to be able to say that Burnside deserves all his prizes. The trouble is that I don’t think anybody does. It’s a question of disproportion – not of whether some poets are better than others (of course they are) but of whether a very small number of poets (less than a dozen) are really about a thousand times better than all the rest, and so should pick up all the prizes, for such is the structure that prize culture creates.

Portrait of Hannah Sullivan, 2018. Courtesy: T.S.Eliot Prize

None of this, of course, is to say that the collections nominated for this – or, indeed, any – prize are not worthy of the recognition, but rather that the vocabulary with which we talk about these accolades tends to hyperbole. Take, for example, the chair of the judges of this year’s TS Eliot prize, Sinéad Morrissey’s comments after Sullivan’s win:

A star is born. Where has she come from? I don’t know her personally, I hadn’t read her in magazines or anywhere else before. She has not come through the usual creative-writing, pamphlet route. She has just arrived, and it is breathtaking. I couldn’t be more delighted if I had won it myself.

Whilst Morrissey’s belief in Three Poems as a collection is clear, ‘A star is born’ leaves a sour taste. ‘I don’t know her personally’ shouldn’t be followed immediately by ‘I hadn’t read her in magazines’: these aren’t – or shouldn’t be – equivalencies. Whilst it’s true that Sullivan wasn’t a published poet until last year, she has had an illustrious academic career in America and the UK; granted, this is a different field, but the desire to perpetuate a myth of the autodidact underdog feels like an unhelpful projection. Morrissey’s almost-dismissal of the ‘usual, creative-writing, pamphlet route’ carelessly lumps together the primary ways a poet might be able, in 2019, to begin to find ways to share their work; aside from anything else, a funded creative writing course is one way to pay your rent whilst you put together a collection.  

Indeed, ‘Where has she come from?’ is a question we could more usefully apply to every poet who publishes a collection: where have they come from, and did they have the financial support they needed to make this work? If not, then why not? How can we change that? Last year, two significant prizes drew attention to the fact that artworks are not created in a financial vacuum: Anna Burns, author of the Booker Prize-winning Milkman (2018), thanked her local food bank and the Housing and Council Tax benefit system in her acknowledgements, and Charlotte Prodger, who won the 2018 Turner Prize, used her acceptance speech to acknowledge the support she received from free higher education and Creative Scotland: ‘I wouldn’t be in this room were it not for the public funding I received from Scotland’.

Helen Charman is a writer and academic based in Glasgow. Her first book, MOTHER STATE, is forthcoming from Allen Lane. She teaches in the English Studies department at Durham University.