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“Poetry is Nearer to Vital Truth than History”: A Look at UK Poetry Prizes

Escapism, ingenuity and imagination. Whether illustrating the natural panorama, the political climate or human connection, poems can illuminate new worlds for their readers, as well as elevate and challenge societal discourses. As such, journeying from Robert Burns’ navigation of Scottish cultural identity to Dylan Thomas’ critique of the human condition, the UK’s literary landscape can be seen through the poet’s lens throughout its history.

One prevalent way in which such penmanship has been uplifted and celebrated globally is through poetry competitions and awards. Poets such as Carol Ann Duffy, Seamus Heaney, Simon Armitage and Lemn Sissay are peppered amongst the landscape of poetic competitions and prizes for their instrumental role as wordsmiths and truth-tellers. However, with current changes to education demonstrating a systematic restriction of creative and expressive subjects, it is all the more necessary to celebrate the importance of poetry now and raise awareness for the UK’s most prolific poetry prizes.

As Lemn Sissay elegantly stated:

“Poetry is where the true you is revealed. I think poetry talks to the true self. You can see a person in their poems – and it’s as much about what they don’t talk about as what they do.”

One such esteemed poetry competition for emerging UK poets is that established by Poetry London, a leading poetry magazine founded in 1988 now supported by Arts Council England. They have since cultivated a home for celebrating new and eclectic writers, reflected by a third of the poetry in their magazine being penned by new writers. They do so with the ethos of “attracting the best poems by the best poets currently writing”, be they already widely recognised or not yet heard.

The T.S. Eliot Prize, awarded annually by the Poetry Book Society to honour their founder, is another highly coveted prize in the UK poetry community – and not just for its hearty £20,000 prize fund. Whilst it stands as the most valuable poetry prize in the UK, with the nine runners up receiving £1,500 each, entrants seek not just the money but the prestige that comes from being named a winner, among the likes of Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes.

Worthy of note also, particularly in response to the current literary climate, is the Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors awarded to poets under the age of thirty. First awarded in 1960, the prize continues to find and honour the brightest young poets, in the hopes that it will encourage young people to write and publish their poetry with passion and confidence.

Established just after the turn of the 20th century, The Poetry Society has been instrumental in the dissemination and celebration of poetry in the UK. By publishing The Poetry Review as well as running prizes, the society has achieved international acclaim for its support of budding poetic talent. Awarding £16,000 through a myriad of different competition prizes, the most prestigious of these is the National Poetry Competition. With previous winners of the prize including ex-Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, Sinéad Morrissey, Christopher James, and Ruth Padel, winning such an award comes with immense esteem.

Together with the National Poetry Competition, The Poetry Society also runs the Peggy Poole Award offering a year of mentoring from a prominent poet to its winner. Unlike some of this award’s contemporaries, mentorship provides support and nurture for promising talent in the North-Western region of England. Such prizes are imperative to evolving and progressing the literary and poetic landscape, ensuring a new generation of poets are inspired.

With COVID-19 restrictions placed on schools, the GCSE curriculum has faced cuts, including giving children the option to drop poetry altogether from their education. Having had this explained as “tinkering at the edges”, poetry gets further diminished to nothing more than frivolity on the outskirts of necessary learning. This is why awards such as the Eric Gregory Award are becoming ever more important in keeping the spirit and love of poetry alive in younger generations and those still yet to come.

As an art form, and even as a genre of writing, poetry is arguably one of the more sidelined creative exploits; poetry is overlooked as a self-indulgent hobby, where fiction makes the headlines. Poetry prizes, therefore, become increasingly necessary, as a lifeline for supporting and recognising the work of deserving and wonderfully talented poets, both emerging and experienced alike. In this way, we hope to soon see the day where poetry prizes are as coveted and valued as the literary giants that dominate the Prize industry now.

Submissions for the 2020 National Poetry Competition are open until 31 October.



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