The International John Pollard Foundation Poetry Prize

Saloon, Provost’s House

Tuesday 16th April 2019

Good evening,

And welcome everybody to the inaugural of the John Pollard Foundation Poetry Prize.

This is a milestone event not only in Ireland but internationally – a significant new Poetry Prize, which is as generously endowed as the renowned Forward Prize – and I’m sure will soon be as well known.

As a poetry fan myself, I’m delighted that this Prize has come into being, and that it encourages poets at the start of their careers. And I’m proud and honoured that the Trinity Oscar Wilde Centre has been trusted with the administration of such an important Prize.

The Prize is truly international in that it is open to all debut poetry collections in English, no matter where they’re published. As a result, of course, competition has been very high. I understand that over forty volumes of poetry were submitted by publishers in Canada, Ireland, the UK and the US. From this, eight books were shortlisted.

As is the nature of literary prizes, to get on the shortlist is a measure of quality. I hope all eight authors receive great recognition – and boost in sales.

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The great value of any Prize is that it brings attention to the field that it rewards. It incentivises the competitors, and it creates a stir in the wider world. This is always important and it’s particularly so for an uncommercial field like poetry, which does not command the readership or media attention of novels or drama.

That said, we are currently enjoying a growth period for poetry. Statistics from UK book sales monitor Nielsen – who also cover Ireland - show that sales of poetry books grew by over 12 percent last year, for the second year in a row.1 Poetry sales hit an all-time high of £12.3 million sterling in 2018 – nearly double what they were in 2012.2

This growth is being driven by younger readers - two-thirds of buyers of poetry books in 2018 were younger than 34, and 41 percent were aged 13 to 22.

Commentators have advanced a few reasons for this growth, including that in times of political upheaval and uncertainty, people turn to poetry to make sense of the world.

Another possible reason is that the form’s brevity means that it can be easily consumed on phones and shared on social media.

Whatever the reasons, this growth is hugely exciting for those of us who love poetry. I like to quote Patrick Kavanagh: ‘The standing army of Irish poets never falls below 10,000’. It’s good to think that more than fifty years after Kavanagh’s death, this claim might still stand, and that poetry is regenerative and remains essential to understanding the human condition.

By establishing this award in honour of his grandfather, Stephen Vernon contributes hugely to the international poetry renaissance. The prize-winning poet receives generous assistance at a crucial stage of their career, and just as importantly, recognition. The short-listed poets also benefit from recognition. This prize is big news - it will, I trust, be reported on in all the countries where publishers submitted books.

Stephen Vernon is renowned for his philanthropy, which has included generous donations to the National Maternity Hospital.3 With this Prize he makes a truly transformative impact on poetry.

We’re all delighted that this International Prize is being run from Ireland, which speaks, of course, to this country’s remarkable poetic tradition. And as I’ve said, it’s a huge honour for the Trinity Oscar Wilde Centre to be entrusted to administer the prize.

Trinity’s School of English is ranked 28th in the world in the current QS Rankings. This reflects the quality of the teaching and research, and the achievements of graduates, who include novelists Anne Enright, Sebastian Barry, Sally Rooney, and Claire Kilroy; poets Derek Mahon, Eavan Boland, Brendan Kennelly and Paula Meehan; and I guess in this week that sees the airing of the last ever season of Game of Thrones, it’s worth noting that the creators and scriptwriters of that show, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, first met in Trinity on the masters programme in English literature.

Staff in the School of English and in the Oscar Wilde Centre include renowned authors – Deirdre Madden, Carlo Gebler, Harry Clifton, Kevin Power and Mary O’Malley.  

This time last year we officially opened the new Trinity Centre for Literature and Cultural Translation, the first centre of its kind in Ireland, which runs the Masters in Literary Translation and greatly strengthens this university’s commitment to helping to create and support a flourishing literary ecosystem which we see as essential for Dublin, Ireland and the world.

‘A flourishing literary ecosystem’ means

  • establishing excellent creative writing courses;
  • enabling translation;
  • supporting independent publishing presses and literary journals;
  • providing writers’ bursaries and retreats, and
  • supporting literary prizes that are markers of talent.

Since 2006 the Trinity Oscar Wilde Centre has administered the Rooney Prize for emerging Irish literary talent, one of the longest-established of any literary prize anywhere – and one that has proved particularly good at spotting emerging talent.

The International John Pollard Foundation Poetry Prize, complements the Rooney Prize, and brings to the Oscar Wilde Centre a new global audience of publishers and poets writing in the English language.   

A prize is only as good as its judges. The Selection Committee for this has been carefully chosen. The chairperson is Professor Aileen Douglas, Head of the School of English. She is joined by:

  • Tim Dooley, tutor for The Poetry School, visiting lecturer at the University of Westminster, and an arts mentor for the Koestler Trust;
  • Harry Clifton, former Ireland Professor of Poetry and visiting research fellow in English here in Trinity; and
  • Tom Walker, Ussher Assistant Professor of Irish Writing at Trinity

On behalf of the university, and indeed of poetry lovers everywhere, I thank the Committee for the work they’ve put into this Prize. There is a great deal involved in reading forty books of poetry and I’m sure the quality was high and short-listing a difficult call. I thank the Committee, and of course Stephen Vernon, for drawing our attention to outstanding international poets. I look forward to getting an opportunity to read their work.

And now I know how impatient you all must be to find out who is the winner of the John Pollard International Poetry Prize. May I invite Professor Aileen Douglas, chairperson of the selection committee, to announce the 2019 inaugural winner.

Thank you, Hannah for that wonderful reading. As the inaugural winner, you bring great distinction to this Award. And now, my thanks to all for being here this evening and I invite you all to enjoy the reception.

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