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
SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle