Shortlist announced for the Forward Prizes for Poetry 2012

A variety of both new and well-established talents are selected for a potential £16 000 prize in October.

 The shortlists for the prestigious Forward Prizes for Poetry were announced on Tuesday, paving the way for some of the most celebrated and original English-writing poets from around the world, as well as newly-arriving talents yet to find their voice, and their funding. The prizes were founded in 1992 by William Sieghart and the Forward Group and have been running for the past 21 years, rewarding only the best in contemporary poets. Among the nominees for this year's prize for Best First Collection sponsored by Felix Dennis is 81 Austerities by Sam Riviere, winner in 2007 of an Eric Gregory Award and co-editor of the anthology series Stop Sharpening Your Knives, whose poems have featured previously in the New Statesman.

The Best First Collection prize is one of three prizes sponsored by the Forward Arts Foundation, worth £5 000, second to the Best Collection prize for £10 000. The third prize is Best Single Poem in memory of Michael Donaghy, worth £1000. At a possible total of £16 000, it is one of the UK's most valuable prizes for poetry, and leaves little truth in war poet Robert Graves' poignant line “there's no money in poetry, but then there's no poetry in money”. Previous winners of the Best Collection prize include Seamus Heaney, Carol Ann Duffy and Ted Hughes, while only one poet, Robin Robertson, has won all three prizes. This year, the nominees for the Best Collection prize include Australian poet Barry Hill, whose collection has been drawn from paintings by Lucian Freud, Oxford Professor of Poetry Geoffrey Hill, who was also shortlisted under the same category last year, and Jorie Graham, described by the Poetry Foundation as “perhaps the most celebrated poet of the American post-war generation”. Other highlights include, for obvious reasons, Selima Hill's collection titled People Who Like Meatballs.

This year, the judging panel will once again be chaired by Leonie Rushforth, who commented on the variety of submissions, saying she was “especially delighted by the standard of this year's first collections.” She added that, excluding the recurrence of the surname Hill, “there was no obvious route to the shortlists”. The prizes will be awarded on the eve of National Poetry Day, Wednesday 3 October, in Somerset House. 

The winners will be announced at Somerset House on 3rd October. Photo: Getty Images
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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis