Poetry Prize Networks in the UK

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.


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.

1. UK Poetry Prize Nomination Network, nominees highlighted.
Here the larger the node and name, the more nominations a poet has received UKprizenetwork1

2. UK Poetry Prize Nomination Network, judges highlighted
Here the larger the node and name, the more nominations a judge has madeukprizenetwork2

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)UKPrizenetwork3Others 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



  • D-AW wrote:

    From another David’s (a UK-based poet himself) FB share:

  • The judges and nominees of the Griffin Prize are NOT poets based in Britain and Ireland. There are two Griffin Prizes, the Canadian and the International, the latter being open to poets from throughout the world (including poetry in translation). This thing would have been more revealing had the Costa Poetry Award been included as well as the Eliot and Forward. Poets don’t attach as much importance to the Costa, but it sells far more books and reaches thousands more readers than the other two.

  • Occasionally, as you know, Griffin judges and Griffin (international) nominees are UK-based poets. It seemed relevant to include these interactions, not least because those complaining about the recent TSE award made frequent reference to the 2012 Griffin. I would happily have added Costa poetry nominations, but had trouble finding lists of judges for these years. If you’d like to send me these, we can see how revealing it is…

  • I suppose I should add that non-UK poets who have participated in these prizes are not included in the maps, which is why some prizes appear to have no winners (e.g Jorie Graham for the 2012 Forward). In the post, “where the judges and nominees are poets based in the UK or Ireland” is intended as a restrictive rather than a descriptive clause.

  • Here’s the complete Costa listings of judges, shortlists and winners (excluding 2014: Judges: Anna Dreda, Charlotte Runcie, Owen Sheers. Shortlist: Colette Bryce, Jonathan Edwards [winner], Lavinia Greenlaw, Kei Miller).
    Costa Award: winners 2006-13:
    Judges 1971-2013
    Shortlists 1995-2013

  • This analysis is very interesting, and a great way of examining it.

    Just a thought. If you did a node map of poets who have taught at Arvon, or recommended one another for a residency, or shared a house or taught in the same university department, or attended one another’s readings or (forsooth) bounced up and down on each other in an extra-marital sense…. Well, you’d have a very big map for a start. You would see lots of thick lines and, incidentally, a few nodes which would repel each other, like magnets turned to opposite poles. There are one or two people who would blacklist each other, for sure.

    There is nepotism, of course. But poetry is a very small world and it’s hard to see how we can eliminate it altogether. In spite of it, the indisputably excellent do generally get visibility and recognition, no matter where they come from. They will inevitably know each other because it’s a tiny field. I suspect it applies in any specialist prize-giving field – the results are determined not only by talent but by personal influence, zeitgeist and sheer accidents of timing.

    That doesn’t make it alright and it’s good to see it examined so closely. Good poets with small publishers are certainly at a disadvantage. But the prizes are still won by deserving poets, and by good publishers – I don’t see anyone who has won a substantial prize in recent years solely through influence and not by merit also.

  • […] his comments to my last post on “Poetry Prize Networks in the UK“, Neil Astley said my maps ought to […]

  • All very good points, Jo. See the updated maps in my next post for a slightly bigger picture. There is of course potential for the kind of massive social network map you’re describing, but there’s also a limit to how much of the information is public and available. As I say above, I have no position or information about the degree of nepotism or corruption within these networks. Only I think those who assert that there is should be able to show it systematically.

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