2017's Young Romantic Shortlisters
For the first time, the Keats-Shelley Awards were presented in the hallowed halls of The Society of Antiquaries – a wonderfully appropriate setting for a gathering of Young Romantic poets, essayists and the occasional invading politician, under the watchful eyes of medieval monarchs and statesmen.
A hundred Keats-Shelley enthusiasts, including a strong contingent of short-listed poets and essayists, and embracing KSMA members, sponsors, writers, academics and Sir Bob Geldof, enjoyed drinks before proceeding to the lecture theatre for the presentations. The winning entries had not been announced beforehand, so there was a palpable air of anticipation in the room.
Giuseppe Albano, Curator of Keats-Shelley House, Sir Bob Geldof, Anthony Gardner, the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association
The event was introduced by the KSMA Chair, Harriet Cullen, who set the scene for the prize-giving. The essayists were allowed to choose their themes, but the challenge for the poets was ‘To a Friend’ – a subject suggested by the 200th anniversary of John Keats’s first published book of poems. No less than 23 of the poems in this volume were dedicated to friends and family - including his brother George, his friends Leigh Hunt, George Felton Matthew, and Charles Cowden Clark , who ‘first taught me all the sweets of song – the grand, the sweet, the terse, the free, the fine’, and a charming toast to ‘a number of ladies’.
The Minister for Arts and Digital Culture, Matt Hancock, introduced the Keats-Shelley Prize Chair, Baroness Benjamin, OBE, DL. As the presenter of ‘Playschool’, Floella had, he said, been his ‘childhood idol’ – a buzz in the audience confirmed that she had been such an idol for many – and had since become a very good friend and colleague. He said that so often the memories of childhood that loom so large at the time shrink when viewed from the perspective of adulthood. Floella does not shrink: ‘she grows’, and in their parliamentary dealings he had benefitted a great deal from her eloquence and conviction. Matt also reminded us of Bill Clinton’s comment that politicians campaign in poetry but govern in prose. So we are in the poetry phase at the moment and should make the most of that.
Floella Benjamin doffed her cap to her ‘playschool babies’, and began by emphasising the importance of joy, passion, love and inclusion in the experience of childhood. She herself was convinced that love, in all its purest forms – the love of friends, romantic love, brotherly and sisterly love, love of life and even lost love – is the most powerful influence on the act of creation, whether it flows from pen to paper, or from fingers to keyboard.
Floella Benjamin, 2017's Keats-Shelley Prize Chair
Floella felt strongly that it was love above all that had fed the surprising, original, heart-warming explosions of words and explorations of language that characterised the short-listed entries to the competition. Poetry, especially, can create coping mechanisms for those who are troubled or alone – just the fact that someone understands what you’re going through, ‘someone thinks and feels like me’. Floella went further, she felt that creative people – the ‘chosen ones’ – had a duty to promote joy, compassion and the wellbeing of others.
It was worth pointing out at this stage that the competition had attracted over a thousand entries –more than ever before. She turned to the short-listed entrants sitting in the front rows: ‘You are already winners. You made me weep, laugh and contemplate. You will change lives.’ She then presented the prizes – exchanging a few words with each of the winners, Young Romantics first, and giving them all a hug.
2017's Keats-Shelley & Young Romantics Shortlisters, with Floella Benjamin and Bob Geldof
Daniel Shailer won the Young Romantics Essay Prize, for his essay ‘Guilt in Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner’: he had been particularly fascinated and moved by ‘the irrationality of guilt’, as expressed in the poem.
Daniel Shailer and Floella Benjamin
The second Prize for poetry by Young Romantics went to Saskia Gardam for ‘Tea for Two’, in which she explored the idea of playing with a cliché, and infusing it with the subtle strains of love in everyday life. The opening lines set the scene perfectly:
The slanting January rain
Ushered fleeting pedestrians to huddle in yellow cafés
Saskia Gardam receives her prize from Floella Benjamin
First prize was won by Tallulah Lefkovitz for ‘The Step of Two’ – a poem inspired by her love of dance.
Floella had particularly loved the musical quality of Tallulah's writing:
I can’t help but miss you,
Though you’re standing right here
I can’t help but know
You’ll be gone in a year.
But concertos are flames…
2017's triumphant Young Romantic poets
There were two essay prizes awarded in the adult category – the second to Professor John Greenfield for his essay on ‘Jane Campion’s ‘Bright Star’: the Disrupted Biographies of John Keats and Fanny Brawne’.
First Prize was awarded to Hester Styles Vickery for an essay entitled: ‘How interesting he looks in dying: John Keats and Consumption’. Hester was inspired by Keats’s training at King’s College in surgery: he knew death and yet was still willing to engage with something that was romance in dying.
Hester Styles Vickery and Floella Benjamin
The second prize for Poetry was presented to D.H. Maitreyabandhu, a distinguished Buddhist poet and a previous winner of the Keats-Shelley Prize. His ‘One Hundred Cloche Hats’ was a wonderfully surreal riff on the work of French painters and writers: ‘before Picasso made his riddle-image in violin colours… before Braque rediscovered sky at Varengeville-sur-Mer…’
The winner of 2017's Keats-Shelley Prize for Poetry was Cahal Dallat for Giant.
Cahal Dallat and Floella Benjamin
His winning poem, ‘Giant’ included the lines:
There was nothing exceptional about him If you ignored the tallest-man-in –the-country thing…
The poet – also a teacher – commented: ‘I always tell my students to write about the ordinary, and he wasn’t ordinary – his height precluded it – yet he was marked out by his gentleness and his ‘giant-size civility.’
Floella then spoke about her upbringing, in a home which encompassed the fires of the imagination. Children need to know that they are loved and that they belong: she was brought up in Trinidad on British stories, British poets and British history, and was taken by surprise by the hideous rejection of families like hers by the mother country in the sixties. It confirmed her belief that ‘Education is your passport to life’ – a belief that was strengthened by her work on ‘Playschool’ and later as the Chancellor of Exeter University. She ended by reading ‘Love’s Philosophy’, which she dedicated to her husband of 46 years, and by singing ‘Smile’ with such bluesy charm that the motley crew of monarchs and politicians adorning the walls were no doubt enchanted.
Floella Benjamin is thanked by Giuseppe Albano, Curator of Keats-Shelley House
Giuseppe Albano, Curator of the Keats-Shelley Museum in Rome, gave a brief illustrated talk about what had been happening at the house over the past year.
The finale was provided by Sir Bob Geldof, who after commenting aside that he ‘had never heard a politician being poetic yet’, read two of his favourite Keats sonnets from Poems 1817: ‘On first looking into Chapman’s Homer’ and ‘To one who has been long in city pent.’
It was a truly unforgettable evening.
Bob Geldof, Harriet Cullen (KSMA Chair), Floella Benjamin