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England's Green

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In 2022, the T. S. Eliot Prize (the most valuable prize for new poetry collections in the UK and Ireland) and Young Poets Network, The Poetry Society’s leading platform for poets aged up to 25, ran an exciting new collaboration to support the next generation of poetry reviewers: the Young Critics Scheme. My parents. In very different ways, my mother who read a lot of literature and then stopped before she had me, and my father who couldn’t read English at all when he arrived here and wrote in capital letters (e.g. on betting slips and the occasional card, FROM DAD, where he let the other words do the talking). Zaffar Kunial possesses that rare quality of negative capability which Keats first identified in Shakespeare (a guiding spirit in this, Kunial’s first collection); the poems hold us among mysteries and doubts, without pronouncing or attempting to resolve. Their beauty lies in their indecisiveness – their quiet refusal to settle matters or hold to a single view.' (Rebecca Watts, Times Literary Supplement)

Rich in form and reverent references, Us transports the reader from the hills of Pakistan to the schoolgrounds of Stratford-upon-Avon, from George Herbert to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.' (Maria Crawford, Financial Times, BOOKS OF THE YEAR) Ruth Awololais a long time reader, writer, appreciator and believer in the power of poetry. She has been performing her own poetry since 2015 and writes for a range of audiences including poetry for children. At this time of year you can’t get much more English than a playground game of conkers. In ‘Invasive’ we learn that the horse chestnut is, in fact,Tender and true, complex and profound, Quiet is a beautiful balancing act of a book – a debut that brings Adukwei Bulley fully formed, starting something,” they added. I was really excited by Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha – how so much was painted in so few words and with so much left out. The Poetry Society is delighted to partner with the T. S. Eliot Prize on this innovative new scheme for keen young readers of poetry. We hope this initiative will encourage even more young people to engage critically with the titles on the prize shortlist, and provide opportunities for them to gain in skills and confidence. The Poetry Society is committed to finding new ways to support the development of our next generation of poetry readers, writers and critics. We are excited to hear these new young critics’ responses, which we’re sure will open up new windows to the books on this year’s Eliot Prize shortlist, and introduce an inspiring selection of poets to even more readers.” That could come across as trite and pat, but the poem it ends (‘The Wind in the Willows’ – my emphasis) brings the book’s themes together with a craft that supports the virtuosity. Staring at an isolated word, or repeating it aloud, over and over, is a brain-game that can disrupt the cosiest family of letters, and sometimes suggest curious re-alliances. In this week’s poem, from Zaffar Kunial’s second collection, England’s Green, the word chosen for such an adventure is “ foxgloves”. Kunial begins by gently imagining the pleasure of hiding in the middle of his word, where “the xgl is hard to say”. It certainly is: I practised it when no one was listening, and made a sound part kiss, part hiss and part gulp. It sounded like a protest against “the England of its harbouring word”.

Davina Baconis studying English and Environmental Science in Cornwall. In 2018, she won the BBC Young Writers’ Award and earlier this year, they had an article published in shado mag. They enjoy exploring ideas about identity, community, and the environment through short stories, poetry, and essays. What’s more English than a place name like ‘Bascote Heath, Little Itchington’ where we meet Kunial “armed with my mother’s maiden name” picturing the humanity behind the names. There’s an echo of Larkin’s “long uneven lines” as Kunial imagines the glorious dead “moving in one long continuous / column, four abreast …” which would stretch from Whitehall to Durham. Immediately he imagines the column in the pre-partition India, where his father was born into a Muslim family. Later in the book we see a wartime photo of his English grandfather next to “one of two brown” fellow airmen. This is the same grandfather The ten Young Critics are: Ruth Awolola, Davina Bacon, Aliyah Begum, Noah Jacob, Abondance Matanda, Lily McDermott, Holly Moberley, SZ Shao, Mukisa Verrall and Eric Yip. Lily McDermottis a twenty-four-year-old poet from Yorkshire. In 2019, she graduated from the University of Oxford with an English Literature degree. She now runs her own tutoring company, alongside writing poetry and screenplays. She was a semi-finalist for The Poet’s Billow Atlantis Award 2021. Her favourite poet is Hollie McNish.Kunial’s style is a wise vernacular that Auden would have loved . . . Six is a pamphlet to read and re-read; its words are so plain and so well put together that you won’t realise until much later how permanently they’ve marked you, like a grass stain.' (Alex Hayden-Williams, Varsity) These intersections are threefold. Firstly, Kunial’s brown skinned Englishness; secondly the two languages of his parents; and thirdly the facility with words of someone who has had to overcome a speech impediment. Let’s take a look at each. The collection falls into four parts. I think of them as music albums and the first one is loosely about insects, but it’s also about many other things that kind of bring in human elements. It’s also about the urgency of their very brief lives, but seen through quite a human lens… We all see through our human perspectives, so when I’m talking about the insects for example, the perspective is very much of a middle aged mum, so a lot of the insects that I’m most able to strongly empathise with, it’s in their maternal instincts that I find the most common ground.’

The poetry shortlist was made up of Fiona Benson’s Ephemeron, Zaffar Kunial’s England’s Green, Yomi Sode’s Manorism and Safiya Kamaria Kinshasa’s Cane, Corn & Gully, alongside Adukwei Bulley’s Quiet. Noah Jacobis an Arab-British poet and performer. She is an editor and columnist for Zindabad Zine and alum of The Writing Room and the Roundhouse Poetry Collective, having placed second in the Roundhouse Poetry Slam 2021. She has been featured in SLAMbassadors, Kalopsia Lit, Shubbak Festival and Camden Festival. El Socorro’ comes from the autobiographical collection Sonnets for Albert , Anthony Joseph’s fifth poetry collection. It follows Desafinado , Teragaton , Bird Head Son , and Rubber Orchestras . Beyond poetry Joseph has also written three novels, including the multi-award shortlisted Kitch: A Fictional Biography of a Calypso Icon . His first full book, which has come together slowly, patiently, over several years... He can do clear-eyed and tender inside a single poem, without any hint of glibness. Fun fact: he used to earn his living writing verse for Hallmark cards.'Kunial clearly delights in language, with wordplay and differing pronunciations fuelling "Foregrounds" et al. I particularly liked "Foxgloves" ("Sometimes I like to hide in the word / foxgloves - in the middle of foxgloves. The xgl is hard to say") and "The Wind in the Willows," where he wonders if the book title appeals to him just for its sound. That’s the same middle where the West Indian Viv Richards can place his “feet exactly where [WG] Grace / played at fifty” (‘Innings’) At the ceremony it was also announced that the prize is looking for new sponsorship, as Rathbones has decided to step down following seven years as sponsor.

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