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This item is taken from PN Review 210, Volume 39 Number 4, March - April 2013.

This year's T.S. Eliot Prize was awarded to Sharon Olds for Stag's Leap, the apotheosis of a rhetorical confessionalism for which she has long been noted. When she was first shortlisted for the prize, for her 1992 book The Father, Fenella Copplestone commented in PN Review 98,

This is a person who has not heard of the Fourth Commandment, the one before the prohibition against murder; who snatches the bedclothes off a dying man, and spies pruriently on the last moments his widow has to spend with him; who interrupts her catalogue of every last indignity cancer has to inflict upon him to tell us of her own weight loss; who uses extreme sexual imagery to convey her yearning for love from a poor old guy whose body is being crucified before her eyes. Maybe alcoholics deserve all this; maybe, as they say of rape victims, 'he had it coming'; but I want no part of it. Celebrated she may be, but for me, Sharon Olds commits all three of the crimes against poetry that Auden levelled against himself when he sorted out his own poems: dishonesty, bad manners, and boredom. Grave-robbing was one he didn't even consider.

The moral offence readers might have taken from the matter and manner of the earlier work remains a possibility in Stag's Leap, yet the almost universal acclaim accorded to it perhaps suggests that Sharon Olds has got things into proportion, or that the British reader has developed an appetite for the kinds of nakedness in which she specialises. Or again it may be that the response has been so loud that her critics are drowned in its indiscriminate volume.

Down the issues of PN Review, Sharon Olds has had, if not a rough ride, certainly a resistant one. In PNR 120, after another of her confessional self-exposures, James Sutherland-Smith suggested, 'Her candour may actually be the least interesting aspect of her work as opposed to the impulses she unwittingly reveals.' Those are impulses as much in her readers as in herself. Adam Kirsch in The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry (2008), quoted in these pages, said, 'Her poems are engagements in the war of biology against theology'. He does not go for her matter or manner: 'art has other demands, and these, most of the time, she does not even want to meet'. Candour, if it is candour, and factual occasions, if they are factual, are of little moment. It would be interesting to read what Keston Sutherland has to say about the 'I' in Sharon Olds, about her 'voice' and her evolving impersonation of the self.

She was shortlisted a second time for the Eliot prize for her 2009 collection One Secret Thing. Third time lucky: the chair of this year's judges was the poet laureate, who won the Eliot prize with her obliquely confessional book Rapture (2005) and has long admired Olds. She was joined on the panel by Michael Longley and David Morley. For the first time in the prize's history, during the public readings at a teeming Royal Festival Hall (an audience of over two thousand was reported), David Morley tweeted his response to each reader's performance during the applause. To exhibit his judicial tweets is to demonstrate how the tweet genre belongs to its occasion, and how when a tweet escapes its moment into the cold eye of type it disproves Kerouac's maxim 'first thought best thought'. Some tweets are not thoughts at all but warm responses reaching for a handy cliché. The medium is as immediate, comprehensive and inexpressively expressive as a horoscope.

'Kathleen Jamie, precision, magic and the simple
         complexity of an expert figure skater.'
'Sean Borodale beguiled the audience with choice
         of poem and choice of tones.'
'The reading by Deryn Rees-Jones was one of the best
         pitch-perfect performances of a long poem I have heard.'
'Gillian Clarke pitched her four poems so perfectly, the air
         turned pure mountain Welsh.'
'Farley was brave and splendid. Schoolboys from
         Charterhouse loved him & kept prodding me.'
'Impressed by Simon Armitage's quiet, determined
         rendering of The Death of King Arthur...'
'Good to see Jacob Polley receive the only spontaneous
         applause for the ballad Langley Lane (fine poem).'

And so on. The prodding of the Charterhouse schoolboys is the only moment at which one feels the living occasion.


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This item is taken from PN Review 210, Volume 39 Number 4, March - April 2013.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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