Sharon Olds wins TS Eliot poetry prize for Stag’s Leap collection on divorce
New York poet unanimous winner of £15,000 prize as judges praise ‘grace and chivalry’ in her writing
Sharon Olds has scooped the TS Eliot poety prize for Stag’s Leap. The title of her collection refers to her husband’s leap for freedom. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe
A series of poems that describe the sharp grief of divorce and the slow, painful, incremental creep of recovery is the winner of the 2012 TS Eliot prize for the best new collection published in the UK and Ireland.
Sharon Olds, the US poet whose work has pushed the boundaries of writing about the body, the emotions, and intimacy, was the unanimous choice of the judges for her collection, Stag’s Leap.
Poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, chair of the final judging panel, said: “This was the book of her career. There is a grace and chivalry in her grief that marks her out as being a world-class poet. I always say that poetry is the music of being human, and in this book she is really singing. Her journey from grief to healing is so beautifully executed.”
Among the shortlisted poets were fellow American Jorie Graham, and Britons Kathleen Jamie, Deryn Rees-Jones, Julia Copus and Duffy’s opposite number in Wales, Gillian Clarke, the country’s national poet. “It was a really strong shortlist, with so much talent and grace,” said Duffy, “and it was particularly strong in women. We were particularly pleased to have six fantastic books by women.”
Duffy’s fellow judges were the Northern Irish poet-classicist Michael Longley and the poet and editor David Morley.
The “stag’s leap” of the title of the collection refers to Olds’s husband’s leap for freedom – but also, perhaps, her own gradual attainment of a new equilibrium.
The collection operates as what the Observer described as a “calendar of pain”: we begin with her husband’s announcement of his departure while “two tulips stretched/ away from each other extreme in the old vase”, and we wind up years later when “…he starts to seem more far/ away, he seems to waft, drift/ at a distance, once-husband in his grey suit/ with the shimmer to its weave”. There comes a new, if harsh, clarity: “I did not know him, I knew my idea of him.”
The announcement followed readings at the Royal Festival Hall in London from all 10 shortlisted collections.
Two thousand people attended the readings confirming, said Duffy, poetry’s place “as our national art. The other poets on the shortlist were Simon Armitage, Paul Farley, Jacob Polley and Sean Borrodale.
Duffy said she was delighted to see how proficient the poets had become at performing their poetry to a large audience. “Ten years ago I think they would have been muttering into their jacket sleeves,” she said.
Olds, who lives in New York and was born in San Francisco in 1942, received a cheque for £15,000 donated posthumously by Valerie Eliot, who died last year. The shortlisted poets each received £1,000.
The prize is run by the Poetry Book Society and supported by the TS Eliot estate and Aurum, an investment management company.