Tonight the Eliot Prize for 2012 will be announced. Back in January 2005, a new mother carrying the whiff of Eau de Johnson’s Baby Lotion and nappies about her, I stood in Senate House, London, representing for my other child: a passionate, brittle, little book I had written over a period of a few years. It had been shortlisted for the 2004 T S Eliot Prize. I was trembling. I was still heady from the night before. I had read before a packed house with the other shortlisted poets in the Bloomsbury Theatre.
Backstage, in a dressing room before that reading, the poets were quiet. It was a surreal experience, lining up with poetry greats. I had felt small and vulnerable. Not at all the way I had imagined when I had stubbornly toyed with the grandiose notion that something wonderful might one day happen – back then, starting out, in my perennially freezing bedsitter, composing poems on a little electric typewriter that had prompted my neighbour to bang with genuine feeling on the wall. Stop. But I couldn’t. And here I was. In the audience, my husband sat next to Derek Mahon.
But we rise to challenges. There is a wonderful interplay in adrenaline and the prospect of making a prize eejit of oneself. I probably gave the best reading of my life. And it was certainly the most enjoyable reading I have ever given. Having an audience brings out the best in poets. Poetry is, after all, more frequently like speech day in the school of hard knocks. Up there, looking out to faces captured in the half light, I had felt it was, in some ways obvious and in some ways still inscrutable, a defining moment.
People do like to knock prizes. And, no, they are not the last word in quality. To be overlooked in the prize culture is not to be insignificant. To be lauded is not necessarily to be the best. Yes, people do like to remind people of this, even though we are all perfectly aware of it.
The night of the announcement, in Senate House, the room was positively a-flutter. For that moment, as I looked around the room, I knew I had something in common with all my fellow shortlisted poets. We all wanted to win, with both a sense of impossible delight and real trepidation. The prospect of great honour; the prospect of great scrutiny. The prospect of money. Unfamiliar prospects for poets. I knew, however, that I would not win. And I didn’t. George Szirtes won, for a brilliant book, Reel. The applause was heartfelt. We were all pleased for him and his terrific achievement.
But, in another sense, I had won. All those nights back then, in that bedsitter, had brought me to an exciting place – and from there, it continued with surprising reach. Doors were opened. These doors led directly to readings and opportunities; indirectly, they led me to rich friendships and unexpected collaborations. But the wonder of the experience also left me blocked for many years. Self-conscious, self-critical, unable to put a foot down for fear of it being the wrong one. The fault was my own. Treat success and disaster the same, the wise have it. Strange and surprising moments like this matter more than we can anticipate.