Last night, I attended the Society of Authors’ annual awards ceremony at which many of the country’s leading literary prizes are announced. For the sixth year, I was helping to judge the Eric Gregory Awards for poets under thirty and Carol Ann Duffy was there to hand out the prizes (including a Travelling Scholarship to Worple Press’s Elizabeth Cook).
I think it’s important for older, more established writers to contribute in this way – after all, despite Facebook and Twitter, it’s not easy for young poets to make people take notice of their work. I remember only too well the nightmare of searching for a home for my own early collection. Eventually, Roland John’s Hippopotamus Press took it — Westerners, a book I’m still fond of, entirely about the two years I spent in Egypt. Roland’s press added to the diversity of the poetry scene in the 1980s as Peter and Amanda Carpenter’s Worple does now. Young writers depend on the generosity of small presses and appreciate the support and feedback that they can give. That’s one of the reasons I respect Edmund Blunden, whose life is very much on my mind at the moment (I’m editing a new edition of Undertones of War for O.U.P.): he did so much to encourage other emerging figures (Ivor Gurney, for instance) and to revive interest in neglected poets such as John Clare.
I suppose one of the reasons I wrote Knot, which Worple published last April, was to celebrate the under-celebrated: the poet William Drummond himself, of course, whose home at Hawthornden Castle was our ‘retreat’ and the setting for the masque in the book’s second section; but also those various Elizabethans whose voices drift through the text. Why don’t we read George Gascoigne any more, for example? A wonderfully various Bedfordshire poet, full of humour and a thoroughly modern sensibility. Or Michael Drayton and Samuel Daniel – two of the major contemporaries of Shakespeare. Shakespeare himself knew how shaky reputation can be. His own sonnets were a bid for immortality, and repeatedly make the point that producing good poetry is our best chance of living for ever. No prizes for poets under thirty in those days, however, and just to live beyond thirty was probably prize enough. But there was always the hope that some nobleman would endorse your work and even hand over some gold. Well done, then, to all the Gregory winners.