It was never going to be an easy award to give. The T.S. Eliot Prize, the U.K.'s most prestigious poetry accolade, presented to the author of the best collection published in the U.K. or Ireland in the past year, attracts a formidable field. Past winners include Australian Les Murray, American Mark Doty and British poet Ted Hughes, whose Birthday Letters was the posthumous winner last year. This year's 10 finalists were equally distinguished.
"We had an exceptionally strong list," said poet Blake Morrison, chairman of the judges (the other two were poets Selima Hill and Jamie McKendrick). "To come down from 10 even to three was difficult." The short-list included American heavyweight C.K. Williams and the popular Carol Ann Duffy, a candidate last year for U.K. Poet Laureate and a writer whose wit and technical virtuosity have won her a wide audience. The additional presence on the short-list of Scots poet Kathleen Jamie and the Canadian Anne Carson encouraged speculation that for the first time in the prize's seven-year history a woman might be the winner.
But in the event, although Irish poet Tom Paulin's The Wind Dog and C.K. Williams' Repairs were cited as close runners-up, it was Billy's Rain, by British poet Hugo Williams, that proved the favorite of all three judges and won the $8,300 prize.
Hugo Williams' sequence of 51 autobiographical poems charts the course of an adulterous affair. The title poem of the collection refers to the fake rain created during a film shoot, and has implications about art's relation to life as well as encapsulating a moment in the romance. Of the book, Hill--herself a former short-listed contestant--said: "What [Hugo Williams] was trying to do was incredibly ambitious ... It was cool ... It was very brave."
In Billy's Rain Williams turns a merciless eye on himself, investing with poetic resonance such trivial events as having a haircut or setting the alarm for the morning. He also tackles larger aspects--lust, jealousy, female orgasm--with the same unblinking focus. Reading the poems gives an unnerving sense of spying on something private, an unease which seems to affect the poet himself. In the final poem, Balcony Scene, for instance, he places himself in the position of a man on a passing double-decker bus looking in through the window at Williams and his lover as they make love.
Many of the poems in the collection exude raw pain. "None of that any more, and all of it still./All of it still and more of it every day," he writes in the poem Sweet Nothings of the way in which a finished love affair haunts the memory with ever-increasing power. The bareness of the style and the repetitive syntax here give powerful expression to this paradox.
Of the end of the affair Williams says, "It's extraordinary ... the way that, with the break-up, the love pours out ... It's almost like a soft-centered chocolate, very nice and then suddenly all this goo pours out at the end and it's called love. And you suddenly realize you're in deeper than you thought."
Williams' background partly explains his elegant style. His father, the '30s film star Hugh Williams, wrote drawing room comedies with his wife Margaret; a filmed version of their play The Grass is Greener starred Cary Grant. From his father, the subject of an earlier collection, Writing Home, Williams admits to having inherited "a sort of stylishness, and writing lines for myself to speak ... He never really opened his mouth unless he'd got some well-formed, rather cruel epithet to deliver. There's a lot of that, a lot of not being boring--that was a great thing for that generation."
In the end, it was the power of the poetry itself, the cumulative effect of the whole sequence of Billy's Rain, that swung the judges onto Williams' side, regardless of any other considerations. Hill recognized that her presence on the judging panel may have aroused expectations that she might tip the balance in favor of one of the three women on the short-list. "I was aware of being the first woman judge, of having a lot of people ... hoping that I'd make a politically correct choice gender-wise," she said. "I don't think those three women needed that sort of favor done them anyway ... I realized afterward that we came up with a white, male, Old Etonian ... eek! So I'm proud of us for not letting that get in the way." Not many poetry collections are real page-turners, but Williams' unflinching dissection of his affair certainly makes a good read.