TS Eliot Prize: Sharon Olds is first US female winner

Sharon Olds (Photo: Catherine Mauge) Sharon Olds: The judges described her winning collection as "a tremendous book of grace and gallantry"

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Sharon Olds has become the first female American poet to win the TS Eliot Prize - with a collection about the end of her marriage.

The judges described Stag's Leap as "a tremendous book of grace and gallantry which crowns the career of a world-class poet".

Olds picked up the £15,000 prize at a ceremony in the Courtyard at the Wallace Collection in London on Monday.

The San Francisco-born poet had been nominated twice previously.

The judges, chaired by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, chose the winner from a shortlist of 10 poets that included Simon Armitage, Julia Copus, Jorie Graham and Kathleen Jamie. Each shortlisted poet received a cheque for £1,000.

TS ELIOT PRIZE SHORTLIST

  • Simon Armitage - The Death of King Arthur
  • Sean Borodale - Bee Journal
  • Gillian Clarke - Ice
  • Julia Copus - The World's Two Smallest Humans
  • Paul Farley - The Dark Film
  • Jorie Graham - P L A C E
  • Kathleen Jamie - The Overhaul
  • Sharon Olds - Stag's Leap
  • Jacob Polley - The Havocs
  • Deryn Rees-Jones - Burying the Wren

It was the first prize to be awarded since the death of Valerie Eliot, TS Eliot's widow, in November last year. The TS Eliot Estate has funded the prize since it was first awarded in 1993.

In her Guardian review of Stag's Leap, Kate Kellaway noted that Olds describes "a love for her husband that refuses to die to order".

"They are the most unusual love poems: fortified by years, by sexual passion of valedictory intensity and by vows she does not, at first, know how to unmake. They can be read as an ongoing narrative - a calendar of pain."

Born in 1942, Olds' first collection of poems Satan Says (1980) received the inaugural San Francisco Poetry Center Award.

Her other collections include Strike Sparks: Selected Poems (2004) and The Father (1992), which was shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize. Her collection, One Secret Thing (2009) explored the themes of war, family relationships and the death of her mother, and was also shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize.

Olds currently teaches creative writing at New York University.

Organised by the Poetry Book Society, the TS Eliot Prize received a recording-breaking 131 submissions in 2012. Joining Carol Ann Duffy on the judging panel were Michael Longley and David Morley.

Last year's winner of the Prize was John Burnside, for his collection Black Cat Bone. Previous winners include Alice Oswald, Don Paterson, Carol Ann Duffy, Seamus Heaney, Sean O'Brien and Ted Hughes.

Unspeakable

from Stag's Leap, published by Jonathan Cape

Now I come to look at love

in a new way, now that I know I'm not

standing in its light. I want to ask my

almost-no-longer husband what it's like to not

love, but he does not want to talk about it,

he wants a stillness at the end of it.

And sometimes I feel as if, already,

I am not here - to stand in his thirty-year

sight, and not in love's sight,

I feel an invisibility

like a neutron in a cloud chamber buried in a mile-long

accelerator, where what cannot

be seen is inferred by what the visible

does. After the alarm goes off,

I stroke him, my hand feels like a singer

who sings along him, as if it is

his flesh that's singing, in its full range,

tenor of the higher vertebrae,

baritone, bass, contrabass.

I want to say to him, now, What

was it like, to love me - when you looked at me,

what did you see? When he loved me, I looked

out at the world as if from inside

a profound dwelling, like a burrow, or a well, I'd gaze

up, at noon, and see Orion

shining - when I thought he loved me, when I thought

we were joined not just for breath's time,

but for the long continuance,

the hard candies of femur and stone,

the fastnesses. He shows no anger,

I show no anger but in flashes of humour

all is courtesy and horror. And after

the first minute, when I say, Is this about

her, and he says, No, it's about

you, we do not speak of her.

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