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Sharon Olds Wins UK’s T. S. Eliot Prize

By Harriet Staff

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Sharon Olds has been announced as the winner of the UK’s 2012 T. S. Eliot Prize (view the shortlist here). Stag’s Leap, Olds’s collection of poems “that describe the sharp grief of divorce and the slow, painful, incremental creep of recovery,” was chosen for the £15,000 prize by a panel headed by poet Carol Ann Duffy. Olds is the first female American poet to win the Prize, “and her book was chosen from a recording-breaking 131 submissions.” From The Guardian:

Poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, chair of the final judging panel, said: “This was the book of her career. There is a grace and chivalry in her grief that marks her out as being a world-class poet. I always say that poetry is the music of being human, and in this book she is really singing. Her journey from grief to healing is so beautifully executed.”

Among the shortlisted poets were fellow American Jorie Graham, and Britons Kathleen Jamie, Deryn Rees-Jones, Julia Copus and Duffy’s opposite number in Wales, Gillian Clarke, the country’s national poet. “It was a really strong shortlist, with so much talent and grace,” said Duffy, “and it was particularly strong in women. We were particularly pleased to have six fantastic books by women.”

Duffy’s fellow judges were the Northern Irish poet-classicist Michael Longley and the poet and editor David Morley.

The “stag’s leap” of the title of the collection refers to Olds’s husband’s leap for freedom – but also, perhaps, her own gradual attainment of a new equilibrium.

The collection operates as what the Observer described as a “calendar of pain”: we begin with her husband’s announcement of his departure while “two tulips stretched/ away from each other extreme in the old vase”, and we wind up years later when “…he starts to seem more far/ away, he seems to waft, drift/ at a distance, once-husband in his grey suit/ with the shimmer to its weave”. There comes a new, if harsh, clarity: “I did not know him, I knew my idea of him.”

On the heels of Olds’s win is what seems speculation, with an article at the Huffington Post asking “Why Did American Sharon Olds Win Britain’s Top Poetry Prize?” But it’s a fond look at the poet by Robert Peak, who attended the T.S. Eliot Shortlist Reading:

This is the mature Sharon Olds. This is the winner of the 2012 T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry. She joins Mark Doty, another poet of intense observation, as one of just two Americans to take home the prize.

Yet this American poet, who pushed the envelope of confessional poetry and inspired a generation toward the genre in its heyday seems at first a somewhat unlikely choice for a British award. Olds was not always writing redemptive poems about personal loss. As a student, I still recall certain poems in Satan Says, like those of Larry Levis and a handful of others, that in the course of deeply probing the human condition found their way to the topic of brutal and sadistic physical and psychological violence. They still disturb me so much that I can not re-read them to this day. Yet this ability to abide great emotional difficulty is what makes Sharon’s most recent work able to extoll “homemade kindness” in a way that feels genuinely earned.

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Posted in Poetry News on Wednesday, January 16th, 2013 by Harriet Staff.