Those of us who were never destined to be great young poets can probably remember the attempts. I kept my verses from when I was 14 in a pillowcase, which was mercifully put in the wash. Writing poetry is like learning an instrument. You need a disproportionate amount of know-how simply not to sound terrible. But when I spent National Poetry Day at the South Bank Centre for the Foyle Young Poets Awards, there were no bum notes. You could hear a universal page-turning from the audience at certain points, as they all followed the readers on stage in booklet form.
Here were a group of young poets who’d discovered the value of art and, what’s more, art for its own exploratory sake. Comedian Phill Jupitus, who was in attendance, said how great it was to see artists that were ‘young and style-free’, before they’d picked up the bad mannerisms or had time to start impersonating what they thought was the done thing.
The Poetry Society, who organise the prize, recently commissioned young Scottish poets to write about the independence referendum and perform their work at Gretna Green. One of these – an outstanding 13-year-old called Magnus Dixon, now a Foyle winner for the second year running – wrote about not knowing who he’d vote for. It’s great to see negative capability in motion. People easily forget poetry can be about doubt, or is in fact supposed to be about doubt.
This year Dixon’s Foyle entry, one of the finest, was about a storm. Jasmine Burgess, a thirteen year-old from Oxford, wrote a poem called ‘The Sea’ that was stunning and fresh, giving the ocean a ‘panting grin’ and a ‘taste of black olives’.
The Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award is for 12 to 17-year-olds. 7,603 young poets entered this year from 78 countries, making it technically the biggest poetry prize in the world. There’s no theme or limit to the number of submissions entrants are allowed to send. You don’t need to have a profile to enter.
Dom Hale, a previous winner, won a few months after he started to write. Richard O’Brien, a poet, playwright and Huffington Post blogger still runs new work by people he met eight years ago on the programme. All of the previous winners I spoke to – now up and coming or established poets – can trace most of their opportunities back to the Foyle. Helen Mort’s first collection, published by Chatto & Windus, has been shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize. She is the youngest person to become a poet in residence at the Wordsworth Trust, and two years ago returned to judge the prize.
Ours is an age of supposedly declining art forms and certainly declining arts industries. This has led to caution on the part of those responsible for publishing new fiction, and it’s made certain big literary prizes cautious, too. The poetry world, while not able to totally insulate itself from the decline of the publishing industry or the need for funds, naturally stands slightly apart: the numbers of people who buy poetry has for a while been small, and the poets themselves don’t expect much financial remuneration from their work.
If you’re fed up with the Booker, maybe you should pay attention to the Foyle. If there’s a patronisingly positive message to be taken from this, it isn’t that these guys have a ‘bright future’, or poetry is in ‘safe hands’: it’s that these guys care about art, even art for art’s sake, and that can be enough.