2012 Forward Prize Awarded to Jorie Graham

First US woman to win beats Geoffrey Hill to the £10,000 prize.

Last night at Somerset House the 2012 Forward Prize was awarded to the American poet Jorie Graham for her latest collection P L A C E (Carcanet). Graham, about whom the New York Times has written, “For 30 years Jorie Graham has engaged the whole human contraption – intellectual, global, domestic, apocalyptic – rather than the narrow emotional slice of it most often reserved for poems,” is yet to receive much attention in the UK. Chicago’s Poetry Foundation refer to her as “perhaps the most celebrated poet of the American post-war generation.”

The coveted award for Best First Collection (£5,000) went to Sam Riviere for 81 Austerities, which began life as a blog applauded by Ruth Padel as “a vision of a world ruled by twin demons, Austerity and Information Overload.” Riviere is, alongside his many online, print and performance projects, currently studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. We published a poem from the collection, “When it came”, earlier this year, which you can read online by clicking here.

The prize for Best Single Poem went to Denise Riley, whose poem “A Part Song” was published by the London Review of Books in February. The poem deals with the poet’s grief following the death of her son, neatly arranged into stanzas which paradoxically imply the experience is all but monovocal: “She do the bereaved in different voices / For the point of this address is to prod / And shepherd you back within range / Of my strained ears”. Leonie Rushford, chair of the judges, said “A Part Song struck us all powerfully. It is a really searing poem”.

P L A C E, which defeated stiff competition from Oxford’s Professor of Poetry Geoffrey Hill and Australian poet Barry Hill, “explores the ways in which our imagination, intuition, and experience – increasingly devalued by a culture that regards them as ‘mere’ subjectivity – aid us in navigating a world moving blindly towards its own annihilation”. The collection opens on Omaha Beach in Normandy on 5th June, the day before the anniversary of the “historical” 6th, when the allied forces landed on the beach, also known as the D-Day landings. Graham is the first ever American woman to win the prize, and the first female recipient since 2004. Rushforth said of the collection: “It is a challenging collection of unusual force and originality, forging connections between inner experience and a world in crisis.”

The Forward Book of Poetry, a collection of winning and highly commended poems from this year’s prize, will be published on Thursday, National Poetry Day, by Faber and Faber.

Someset House, venue for last night's Forward Prize ceremony. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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The fisher bird that unites levity with strength

We think the planet's fish are rightfully ours. But the brown pelican is known to snatch fish from other birds in mid-air.

If ever there was a time when I was unaccountably happy, it was the day I first saw the Pacific. I had just started working at an office near San Jose and, three days in to my first week, a colleague drove me south and west on a back road that seemed to run for hours through dense stands of Douglas fir and redwood, not stopping till we were just shy of the coast, the firs giving way to wind-sculpted specimens of California cypress and Monterey pine.

Here we parked and walked the rest of the way, coming over a rise and finally gazing out over the water. The Pacific. The idea of it had been part of my mental furniture since childhood, though I didn’t really know why, and what I saw both confirmed and confounded the image I had of that great ocean. But the thing that struck me most, the true source of my unaccountable happiness, was a long flight of brown pelicans drifting along the waterline, just ten yards from the shore, more elegant than I could have imagined from having seen pictures and captive specimens in zoos. This is not surprising, as what makes the brown pelican so elegant is how it moves, whether diving from astonishing heights in pursuit of fish or, as on this first encounter, hastening slowly along a beach in groups of thirty or forty, head back, wings tipped up slightly, with an air of ease that would give the term “laid back” a whole new definition.

The brown pelican: it’s a slightly misleading name, as the predominant colour varies from cocoa-brown to near-grey, while the breast is white and the head is brushed with a pale citrus tone, rather like the gannet, to which it is related. The birds breed on rocky islands off the Central American coast and travel north to hunt. In recent years, concern has been voiced for the species’ long-term safety: first, because of an observable thinning of the eggs, probably caused by pesticides, and second because, as recently as 2014, there was an alarming and inexplicable drop in the birthrate, which some observers attributed to huge fish-kills caused by Fukushima.

On an everyday level, though, pelicans, like cormorants and other coastal dwellers, have to be protected from those among the human population who think that all the fish in the ocean are, by some God-given right, unaccountably ours.

But none of this was in my mind that day, as I stood on that white beach and watched as flight after flight of pelicans sailed by. Out over the water, the sun sparkled yet the sea was almost still, in some places, so the bodies of the passing birds reflected in the water whenever they dipped low in their flight. What did come to mind was a phrase from Marianne Moore’s poem about another member of the Pelecaniformes family – the “frigate pelican”, or frigate bird, which she describes as “uniting levity with strength”. It’s as good a description of grace as I know.

Yet grace takes many forms, from the absolute economy with which an old tango dancer clothes her unquenched passion at a Buenos Aires milonga to Jürgen Schult’s world-record discus throw at Neubrandenburg in 1986, and we have to learn from birds such
as the pelican what we mean by “levity”, and “strength”.

How else to do that, other than by closely observing how the natural world really operates, rather than how we think it does? Later, in her poem about the frigate bird (an accomplished flier and an even more accomplished thief, known to pluck fish from another bird’s grasp in mid-air), Moore extends that notion of levity: “Festina lente. Be gay/civilly? How so?” and adds a quote from the Bhagavadgita that, to my mind, gets to the heart of the matter: “If I do well I am blessed/whether any bless me or not . . .” The lesson we learn from the noble order of Pelecaniformes is exactly this: of the many prizes we may try for, grace transcends all.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times