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This item is taken from PN Review 108, Volume 22 Number 4, March - April 1996.

The 'whispery American beanpole called Mark Doty', as John Walsh described him in the Independent, was awarded the 1996 T.S. Eliot Prize for his third book of poems and his first British collection, My Alexandria (Cape, 1995), published in the United States in 1993 and awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry. His new collection, Atlantis, was published in the United States last year and is due for publication this Autumn in Britain, together with his memoir of the life, and death from Aids-related causes, of his friend and the dedicatee of much of his work.

Three British imprints competed for Doty's poems. A kind of auction was conducted and the revived Cape poetry list, merging as a vital and consistent imprint under its editor Robin Robertson, triumphed. Doty's success is further proof of an imprint which, better husbanded down the years, might currently boast Neruda, Walcott, Ashbery, Paz and others who 'passed that way' but were dropped as editors moved on during years of merger and takeover. It is to be hoped that the doubtful security offeredby a conglomerate to a poetry list that wins accolades and earns profits will help it survive this time.

The choice of Doty for the Eliot prize was uncontroversial: his is a fine book and a safe choice. Liz Lochhead, one of the judges, struck a curiously patronising note when she declared: 'Mark Doty's outstanding My Alexandria has been justly lauded in his native America and burst upon Britain with the force that such rage, beauty and sorrow must summon. How can poems be so searing and so scintillating at the same time?' She focuses on one element in Doty's poetry, the volatile element, the subject-matter. But his distinction and achievement are far broader than sensitive or aggrieved 'witness'. His subject matter is only part of his larger subject. The thematic range is assured, the formal versatility and skill expansive and controlled. More than rage there is celebration, more than beauty there is a world of transforming actualities. It is not necessary to rhetoricise the virtues of such writing. The poetry is not in the rage, beauty, sorrow or pity. It is in the disposition of the language, the prosody and diction. The poetry is in the poetry.

Readers of PN Review are familiar with Doty's more recent work and the interview published three issues ago. His largeness of heart, and a discipline - moral and verbal - attached to a sense of place, human pathos, and the theme of time, put us in mind of Elizabeth Bishop, but there is profligacy in Doty as well, a sense of extension (at times over-extension) unlike anything in her work. Doty is part of a substantial generation that includes Robert Pinsky, Jorie Graham, Robert Hass and Louise Glück among other reckonable figures. New American poetry is rich and various, engaging intractable matter with moral courage and a hard-won candour. Perhaps it will be read once again in Britain, as it was in the 1960s and 1970s. If it is taken to heart, it will effect a reappraisal of the scale and seriousness of what often is passed off here as major 'native' work.

BBC North's Drama department, which produces 45 hours of drama a year for Radio 3 and Radio 4, has launched the biennial Alfred Bradley Bursary Award for 1996/1997, devoted this year to verse drama, a 'poetry prize' with a difference. Bradley was a distinguished drama producer; his anthology programme Northern Drift was popular. The award, set up in 1992 to commemorate his life and work, 'aims to encourage and develop new writing in the North of England' and is open to writers born or resident in the area. Unlike other awards, it does not require an entry fee. The purpose is not to raise money for a needy or greedy enterprise but to encourage writers to consider a medium that has proved a context for innovative work. 'For poets and other writers,' the BBC says, 'the award provides money, time and the support of BBC Radio Drama producers.' These producers are creative unsung 'makers' in an increasingly extempore radio culture. 'We like working with writers who take risks,' the Chief Producer Kate Rowland says. 'We think it's about combining the skills of the story teller with the producer and reacting to place and people to create lively, stimulating and popular drama.'

The bursary offers up to £3000 for each of two years, as well as the chance to develop ideas into a BBC radio commission, with the additional fees that this implies. The money is not negligible. The support team, the promise of transmission, and the stimulus of formal challenges, make this a rare creative award. As well as the bursary itself, 'The scheme also allows for a group of poets and writers whom the judges feel have potential to participate in workshops, as well as to receive individual small bursaries.'

There is a long tradition of verse radio drama and of verse on radio. Last year the performance of Caspar Hauser by David Constantine was notable. The intimacy of the medium and its versatility are revealed even in 'essayistic' transmissions such as Donald Davie's Six Epistles to Eva Hesse two decades ago. It is for radio that Dylan Thomas wrote Under Milk Wood. Louise MacNeice and Henry Reed, W.H. Auden, Norman Nicholson, Padraic Fallon, R.S. Thomas, Gillian Clarke and others, have contributed memorably. 'We're looking for poets and other writers to experiment and find new ways of telling stories for an aural medium.' The challenge of radio is not a constraint but an invitation. The scheme suggests that the BBC is keeping faith with the traditions it established long ago and that its hunger for the new is real. Will the talent it seeks come to the surface in a televisual age? If it does, latter-day Bradleys and Cleverdons are there to do it justice.

This item is taken from PN Review 108, Volume 22 Number 4, March - April 1996.

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