For those who are partial to a bit of poetry, you’ll probably have heard by now that Sarah Howe has been awarded this year’s T.S. Eliot prize by judges Pascale Petit (chair), Kei Miller, and Ahren Warner. You may also have seen this article, which questioned the negative tinge of the criticism of which Howe has received. Katy Evans-Bush argued that these criticisms were more to do with Howe’s age, gender and ethnicity (Howe is of dual Chinese-British heritage). Some seemed baffled both that it was possible to win on a first collection, yet also that it took her ten years to write. Surely the fact that she spent so long producing the poetry might suggest how it became possible to win? I mean, that, or witchcraft.
I am yet to read Loop of Jade, but I thought I would share some thoughts on what I have seen of it and the poems in Ten: the new wave (Bloodaxe, 2014), where I first came across Howe’s work. Some poems in Loop of Jade have been published online, and a key feature of Howe’s work has been noted to be her use of form. What I enjoy is its variety, its use of white space; in Mother’s Jewellery Box (from the collection), the line breaks fall on the page like necklaces and rings displayed. It mirrors ‘the twin lids / of the black lacquer box’ opening, tiers of jewels described with vivid imagery, the ‘amber ring’ likened to a ‘teaspoon of honey / whisky poured / by morning light.’
Surely the fact that she spent so long producing the poetry might suggest how it became possible to win? I mean, that, or witchcraft.
In Crocodile the imagery turns more surreal – grotesque even – as emotions are anthropomorphised, for want of a better word, into a fisherman’s catch: a ‘membranous sac’, a ‘bilge of florescent green / goo’. It contrasts with the everyday descriptions in other poems as the depictions of a lover’s meal are contrasted with British cultural references such as the slipping waiters being compared to ‘Michael Flatleys’.
Ten: the new wave was published as part of an initiative responding to the statistic in 2005 that ‘less than 1% of poetry published in the UK is by black and Asian poets,’ which in no way reflects the actual demographics of either authors or readers. Spread the Word produced The Complete Works, to develop ten writers, and this collection represents the second round of writers. (n) that from a long way off looks like flies features in both books. Here, it may be true that Howe is, as she stated, ‘a poet’s poet’, with references to Shakespeare. However, Shakespeare has long been a school staple, and if Kate Tempest can make similar references and is at the height of her popularity, perhaps Howe is selling herself short.
After all, Howe’s common themes are about family and heritage, which are universal and, therefore, accessible. At the dead fly, she wonders ‘if that fly had a father and mother?’ Howe sees in the fly her ‘own reflected face’, and this is reinforced at her thought to ‘scrape her off with a tissue’. The imagery and literary references serve to speak about family. However, in Ten: the new wave there are also noticeable differences – the current poem a more stripped-down version. And perhaps less is more in this case. One of the aspects of Howe’s work that keeps you reading is that the form is so varied, the directions it takes so unexpected.
if Kate Tempest can make similar references and is at the height of her popularity, perhaps Howe is selling herself short.
One of my favourites is Frenzied. I love the opening ‘Maybe holding back / is just another kind / of need’, coupled with the two metaphors for each person’s emotional state, personality even. It tells of marriage, not as a happy-ever-after, but as something earth-shifting – ‘all the trees trembled’ – to those involved, where you cab be vulnerable: ‘be kind to me.’ It is the depiction of relationships that Howe is at her strongest, and a deserving prize winner as any. As a poet myself, it’s a rare luxury to see it feature in large news stories, but sadly with such emphasis taken away from the poetry itself, we are left with the attention on sexist articles masquerading as valid criticism.
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