Jacob Polley has won the 2016 TS Eliot prize with Jackself, a collection described by the judges as “a firework of a book”.
The loosely autobiographical poems use the “Jack” of nursery rhyme and local legend to tell the story of a childhood in rural Cumbria, from the “cartilage stew and spreadable carrots” of school dinners to the limpets the title character “rives from a crevice” on the rocky shore at low tide, “where the pools gaze / with new lenses at their grotto walls / flinching with jellies”.
Polley emerged as winner of the UK’s richest poetry prize at a ceremony on Monday evening at the Wallace Collection gallery in London. The book was chosen from a 10-strong shortlist including the winner of the 2015 Forward prize, Vahni Capildeo, and previous TS Eliot prizewinner Alice Oswald.
It is third time lucky for the Carlisle born-poet, who was first shortlisted for his debut collection The Brink in 2003, and then again with The Havocs in 2012.
Polley, who was born in 1975, was among 20 to be named the Next Generation of best British poets by the Poetry Book Society in 2004 on the strength of his first collection. He has also written a novel, Talk of the Town, which won the 2010 Somerset Maugham award, and collaborated with director Ian Fenton on a short film, Keeping House, about the history of a recently closed cockle-selling shop in Berwick-upon-Tweed. He teaches at Newcastle University.
Chair of judges, Ruth Padel, who was joined on the panel by fellow poets Julia Copus and Alan Gillis, said Jackself was “a firework of a book; inventive, exciting and outstanding in its imaginative range and depth of feeling”.
She added: “Rather like Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns, he is looking at a childhood though a very English mythology. He has taken a word out of Gerard Manley Hopkins – ‘Jackself’ – as the starting point for a collection that is incredibly inventive and very moving.
“It’s a sort of autobiography, set in a place called Lamanby, but it’s really like Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, where everything is strange. His mastery of phrase and rhythm and the control of line, combined with the hurts of childhood and his glee in inventive language, have taken his writing to a new level.”
Polley is the 23rd winner of the prize, which carries a purse of £20,000. It was founded by TS Eliot’s widow Valerie in 1993 and is now run by the TS Eliot Foundation.