Sunday, January 3, 2021

David Constantine wins Queen's gold medal for poetry


‘People think of poetry as deeply off-putting and not their cup of tea. But the stuff of poetry is humanity’
... David Constantine

David Constantine wins Queen's gold medal for poetry

Poet laureate Simon Armitage, a previous winner, praised the humanity of the author’s work ‘noticing and detailing the ways of the world’

Alison Flood
Fri 18 Dec 2020 13.25 GMT

The Queen’s gold medal for poetry has been awarded to David Constantine, a “long overdue” prize for a writer praised by the poet laureate, Simon Armitage, for his “humane” writing.

Constantine is the 51st recipient of an award for excellence in poetry that dates back to 1933, and includes Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin and WH Auden among its former recipients. A poet, translator and novelist, Constantine published his first collection, A Brightness to Cast Shadows, in 1980. His 11th, Belongings, was published in October.

“Above all, David Constantine is a ‘humane’ poet – a word often used in connection with his work, as if in noticing and detailing the ways of the world he is doing so on behalf of all that is best in us,” said Armitage, who received the medal in 2018 and who, as the current poet laureate, chaired the committee that chose Constantine.

Constantine said he was “completely overwhelmed” when he was informed by Armitage of his win. “These past few days I have been thinking of the many people, living and dead, who have accompanied me in the writing of my poems. It has made me all the more grateful for this generous award,” he said. “The kind of poetry I write and have written from the age of 16, has depended almost totally on people – having people around me whom I wanted to write about, or who encouraged me, whom I loved, or loved me. That’s become very, very clear now – how I’ve been helped along the way, by people whom I think of as touchstones of what I should try to be like.”

He pointed to his grandmother, whose husband was killed on the Somme. “She couldn’t speak about it until right at the end of her life and I was the person she spoke to about it, and I suddenly knew what it was my responsibility to try to do.” He wrote about his grandfather in the poem In Memoriam 8571 Private JW Gleave, in his first collection.

Constantine said he was very touched to be described as humane. “People think of poetry as deeply off-putting and not their cup of tea. But the stuff of poetry is humanity. It’s what we are and our relations with the world around us, which is getting increasingly catastrophic,” he said.

“So much is going wrong at the minute, so grievously wrong. I don’t think poetry can put it right – proper humane politics might begin to put it right. But poetry keeps on saying what it is we risk losing, what we are losing and what we might do about it. It is a celebration of things that are threatened, things without which life isn’t worth it.”

Constantine was one of the first poets published by the small press Bloodaxe, in 1980. Its editor Neil Astley said he “knew immediately on reading his first manuscript that this was a poet whose distinctive tone and voice was fully formed and very different from anyone else’s, yet steeped in the lyric and narrative traditions of English and European poetry – and most importantly, informed by a generous spirit and profoundly humane and compassionate vision of the world.

“His poetry has a remarkable unity of thought and feeling, formally exact but free-ranging, highly musical and rhythmically adventurous at the same time,” said Astley. “The recognition he has received through the award is both well deserved and long overdue.”

Lake by David Constantine

Sole self that day with a working pair of legs

A beating heart, attentive senses, climbed

High enough, far away enough, slowly

Against the river’s hurry, quietly


Against the din of it, keeping close to it 

And passing the highest shieling that an ash

Had burst as thinking will a head, I came 

At dusk to a lake in its own terrain.


There the hills backed off in a spacious horseshoe

On that flat plane I was the only upright 

The banks were low, looped in a contour line

The lake had nothing to mirror but the sky.  


Sole self I bedded down close as I could

To listen: lapping, birdlife homing, settling

I watched the wind shunting the low black clouds

In tatters, fast, under a pale still ceiling.


Woke once or twice feeling a breath of rain

Glimpsed, silver on black, bits of a star-figure

Heard very high a flight of fellow humans

Touching on dawn after the black Atlantic.

from Belongings (Bloodaxe Books, 2020)


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