Colossus of odes: Philip Gross wins TS Eliot poetry prize for The Water TableCollection of poems on the Severn estuary lands top award after beating tough opposition, including two former winners
Mark Brown, arts correspondent guardian.co.uk, Monday 18 January 2010 19.40 GMT Article history
Philip Gross, whose poetry collection The Water Table has won him the TS Eliot prize. Photograph: Supplied
A university professor’s detailed and lyrical meditations on the ever-changing waters of the Severn estuary tonight won him the UK’s most lucrative poetry prize against tough opposition.
The Water Table by Philip Gross 64pp, Bloodaxe Books Ltd, £8.95 Buy The Water Table at the Guardian bookshop Philip Gross is a well established poet but far from being a household name. He was named winner of the 2009 TS Eliot prize at a ceremony in London, beating competition from his better-known peers such as Alice Oswald, Sharon Olds and Christopher Reid.
Gross, professor of creative writing at the University of Glamorgan, won the prize for The Water Table – a themed collection that is metaphysical and political and religious, but has at its heart the subject of water.
Simon Armitage, who chaired the panel of three poets – the others were Colette Bryce and Penelope Shuttle – that chose the winner, said he hoped the win would introduce people to a new voice in contemporary poetry.
He said The Water Table stood out because it was not merely a collection of poems but also “so obviously a book”.
Armitage added: “It is so concentrated and keen-eyed and patient. The poems have a beauty and a craft to the writing and it’s hard to imagine how he kept it up over 64 pages.”
Gross’s collection had an unintended topicality to it when it was published last November, with news headlines telling stories of flooding in Cumbria. The dangers of water are explored in the collection but his poems also address subjects such as climate change, the environment, the human race’s fragile place in the planet and also what constitutes art.
There are also poems about the more mundane human experience, such as arguing in an Ikea car park.
“There are big concerns throughout the book and he writes with real lyrical confidence,” said Armitage.
He said the judging had been hard work, almost bewildering when they were going through the original 98 collections submitted for the prize. It was, he said, a strong, wider-ranging shortlist which reminded you “what an extraordinary thing the English language is”.
The TS Eliot prize is, according to Armitage, the major poetry prize recognising an art form that does not usually make people fortunes. The organisers have now made it the most lucrative poetry prize by raising the winner’s pot to £15,000, from £10,000. That money is donated by TS Eliot’s widow, Valerie Eliot, who presented the prize .
The Water Table is Gross’s sixth book of poems published by the Northumberland-based publisher Bloodaxe and he has also written 10 novels for young people. While well established, it is fair to say that Gross is not well known generally and the win, at a stroke, substantially raises his profile.
He follows in the footsteps of former winners such as Ted Hughes for Birthday Letters, Carol Ann Duffy for Rapture and Seamus Heaney for District and Circle.
This year’s 10-strong shortlist probably raised more eyebrows because of the poets not on it – there was no Andrew Motion or Peter Porter, nor Don Paterson, who won the 2009 Forward prize.
There were, though, three former TS Eliot winners in the shape of George Szirtes, for The Burning of the Books and Other Poems; Hugo Williams, nominated for West End Final; and Alice Oswald, for Dart. The other shortlisted poets were Christopher Reid – winner of the Costa poetry prize and a strong contender, in many eyes, for the overall Costa prize – Sharon Olds, Jayne Draycott, Fred D’Aguiar, Sinéad Morrissey, and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin.
• This article was amended on Wednesday 20 January 2010. We omitted Alice Oswald from the list of this year’s TS Eliot nominees who have previously won the prize, and misnamed Ted Hughes’s prizewinning book of poetry. This has been corrected.