For some reason, the awarding of poetry prizes is always an occasion for controversy–accusations of logrolling, of blackballing, of various forms of individual and institutional favouritism and collusion, of low aesthetic and/or moral standards. There was more than the usual of this last week when the Poetry Book Society gave the 2014 T. S. Eliot Prize (and with it, £20,000) to David Harsent, for his book Fire Songs, published by Faber & Faber.
In addition to the usual from Twitter and Facebook, there was this post–titled “Sui Generous”–by Michel Caines on the TLS blog, which traced several links between Fiona Sampson, one of the three TSE prize judges, and the winner. Sampson by way of explanation in turn wrote about “the intimacy of the poetry world” in the Guardian (according to this write up–I can’t link to the original). More Twittering; more Facebook shares and comments.
I don’t really have a dog in this fight and I don’t know really how I feel about all the kerfuffle. I have no idea how anyone picks winners in these things. But if the accusations against Sampson–and against prize culture in general–boil down to quid pro quos among a small set of judges and winners, this is something that can be measured.
Below I have three network graphs representing the nominees and winners between 2010 and 2014 of the T. S. Eliot Prize, the Forward Prize (Best Collection category), and the Griffin Prize, where the judges and nominees are poets based in the UK or Ireland. There are 174 nominations in those five years, shared among 61 individuals. Because the TSE prize has the most nominations and all judges are usually poets, it accounts for 129 of the 174 nominations.
[UPDATE: THESE CHARTS HAVE BEEN REPLACED BY MORE ACCURATE ONES. SEE NEXT POST]
The nodes represent poets. The colour of the node represents the publisher (see last graph for legend). The size of the node and the name differs based on the graph–see below. The lines represent a nomination for a prize (labelled on the line somewhere) with each prize a different colour. Winners are represented by a thicker line. The exceptions to the line-colour rule are the lines connecting Fiona Sampson to David Harsent, Michael Longley, John Burnside, and Sean O’Brien. That’s because each of these people was nominated more than once by Sampson: Harsent for 2014 TSE (winner), 2012 Griffin (winner), and 2011 Forward; Longley for the 2014 TSE and 2011 Forward; Burnside also for the 2014 TSE and 2011 Forward (winner), and O’Brien for the 2012 Griffin and 2011 Forward [UPDATE The 2014 TSE nominations of Longley and Burnside were by the PBS, not Sampson. See next post]. No other judge picked the same poet more than once.
OK- three network charts plus one pie chart. You should be able to click them for a larger view.
3. UK Poetry Prize Nomination Network, combined (reproportioned)
Combines chart 1 and 2, showing overall making and receiving of nominations – (note that judging counts for more, since a judge makes several nominations)Others have written about the dominance of a handful of poetry presses in these prizes. Here’s the breakdown of the above nominations:
4. UK Poetry Prize Nomination Network, Publishing Houses