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Field Notes to the T.S. Eliot Prize

14/01/2013 15:57 GMT | Updated 15/03/2013 09:12 GMT

The T.S. Eliot Prize for a single collection is one of the most popular, prestigious, and increasingly transatlantic poetry prizes in Britain. In preparation for the shortlist reading at the Royal Festival Hall, where thousands of poetry lovers including me will shortly descend with excitement, here is an overview of this year's 10 contenders.

Simon Armitage "gets medieval" with his alliterative translations of a lesser-known epic about Britain's most legendary king. Something of a local hero himself, and certainly a first-rate poet, Armitage has been nominated many times but has yet to win the prize. The judges may opt to rectify that, but doing so would probably be more about Armitage than Arthur this time around. His book The Death of King Arthur appears a worthy contribution to letters from a poet who probably should have won this prize for something more dazzling and entirely his own long ago.

Sean Borodale gives us an full-sensory excursion into a world only beekeepers know with his debut collection Bee Journal. You can almost smell and taste this poetry. He was selected as a Granta New Poet in May 2012, and his rapid ascent has caused quite a stir. The work takes the approach of an an observation diary, in keen, meditative notes on our honey-bearing friends. Here is one newcomer to watch.

Gillian Clarke is the National Poet of Wales. Her collection Ice is timely as snow descends on Britain from the north and, walking the south bank of the Thames at night one senses that "frost has got its knives out". Her work is of the sort one can profitably teach to secondary school students--accessible but interesting, with a gentle voice and quiet provocation.

Julia Copus is no stranger to single-poem prizes, having won both the National Poetry Competition and the Forward Prize in that category. In The World's Two Smallest Humans, her third collection, she takes a by turns poignant and clever look at the inner and outer tribulations of modern womanhood, from extramarital affairs to fertility treatment. The emotional intensity and sensitive handling of tough topics that brought individual poems into the spotlight previously may well make this a prize-worthy collection overall.

Paul Farley is Liverpudlian poet obsessed with the mundane. He also keeps a light stance, allowing for quick riposte. A syrupy meditation on how anachronistic tins of treacle bring us "face-to-face with history" with a smell like "horseshit or coal smoke" can turn shockingly humourous as the speaker suddenly encourages us to "smear it into every orifice". The Dark Film is a contender for just this kind of nimble freshness.

European-influenced American Jorie Graham is highly decorated, and her most recent UK publication P L A C E already won the Forward Prize. Hers is a particular type of academic experimentalism that owes a debt above all to poet John Ashbery, mixed in with what Sean O'Brien (who won the Eliot in 2007) calls "a use of layout which sceptics might view as a diagram showing the triumph of typography over prosody." But for true believers in Graham's intellectually and linguistic complexity, not to mention her pedigree, this collection, and Graham, could be a winner in absentia.

Continuing the theme of already-decorated books on this shortlist, Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie's The Overhaul already won the Costa (formerly Whitbread) Poetry Award. Nominated for the Eliot twice before, her work is deeply rooted in the musicality of Scottish poetry and her later work carefully examines our precarious relationship to the natural world. Sonorous and perceptive, I could happily listen to her read for hours.

Sharon Olds was a seminal influence on a generation of American confessional poets. She pushed the envelope of this mode, both in terms of taboo subject matter and quality of attention, making her much-loved in certain circles In Stag's Leap she takes up the subject of a difficult divorce after a long marriage. Her humane depiction of a love unwilling to douse itself can be read in the title poem, where she claims that, "When anyone escapes, my heart / leaps up. Even when it's I who am / escaped from." Hers is a place well earned on the shortlist.

Formal and frequently set with end rhyme, Jacob Polley puts his own stamp on influence from some of Britain's best-loved poets in The Havocs. At his most remarkable, like the best of verse, his work rings clarion. Others poems, to my ear, chime through the occasional off note. Still, his trajectory seems trending more toward the success of post-new-formalists like the American Christian Wiman than stepping backward into the territory of Walter de la Mare, and his promising book is a commendable addition to the list.

Deryn Rees-Jones is the second Welsh poet to make the shortlist. In his review, Tom Sperlinger celebrates her nominated collection Burying the Wren, writing that despite her inveterate status "such a feeling--of starting again, but not afresh--animates this whole collection." She is another one to watch.

The winner will be announced at the award ceremony on Monday, January 14th. Meanwhile, I am on my way now to hear these ten outstanding poets celebrate great poetry from both side of the pond, along with several thousand of my closest friends. Who is your favourite?

[Note: this article originally claimed that Sharon Olds won the prize in 2009. In fact, she was nominated in that year but did not win. However, she did win this year's prize. Congratulations, Sharon Olds]