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Poet John Burnside wins the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry

John Burnside the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry in a year when two poets withdrew over objections to the competition's sponsor.

By / January 17, 2012

"I thought there had been a mistake," poet John Burnside said of his victory in the competition for the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry.


The T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry was won yesterday by John Burnside, a Scottish poet, in a year in which furor over one of the competition’s sponsors dominated the conversation.

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Burnside won a prize of 15,000 pounds for his work “Black Cat Bone,” a collection that was published this past September. 

“I really was surprised,” Burnside told the BBC. “I was actually stunned that they chose me. I thought I could relax and enjoy the evening as I've had my piece of the pie, so when they said my name, I thought there had been a mistake.” 

Nominees John Kinsella and Alice Oswald left the competition in protest of the investment company Aurum sponsoring the prize.

“I'm uncomfortable about the fact that Aurum Funds, an investment company which exclusively manages funds of hedge funds, is sponsoring the administration of the Eliot Prize,” Oswald said in a statement when she withdrew. “I think poetry should be questioning not endorsing such institutions.”

Kinsella said he agreed with Oswald.

“I am grateful to Alice Oswald for bringing the sponsorship of the TS Eliot Prize to my attention," Kinsella said in a statement. “I regret that I must do this at a particularly difficult time for the Poetry Book Society but the business of Aurum does not sit with my personal politics and ethics. I am grateful to everyone at the PBS for all they have done to promote my work and that of poetry in general.”

The Poetry Book Society lost its funding from Arts Council England this past April, and the literary world was told about its new sponsorship with Aurum in October.

Poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy took the Society’s side in the debate.

“I can only congratulate them in managing to carry on with the administration of this prize,” Duffy said in an interview with Channel 4 News. “My conscience told me to support the Poetry Book Society. It wouldn't have been a great thing if all the poets had lined up thinking it was their duty [to withdraw]. It's very much an individual decision.”

The winner Burnside had previously received the Whitbread Prize in 2000. He received his check from T.S. Eliot’s widow, Valerie Eliot.

All the nominees who made the shortlist in the competition received 1,000 pounds.

Molly Driscoll is a Monitor contributor.

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