Bhanu Kapil has been crowned this year’s winner of the TS Eliot Prize for poetry, taking the award for How to Wash a Heart. Written at a time of rising hostility towards immigrants in the UK, it’s an eye-opening and raw collection of poems that interrogates and considers the limits of hospitality and the prolonged stress that migrants experience.
Chair of judges for the prize, writer Lavinia Greenlaw, said: “We unanimously chose Bhanu Kapil’s How to Wash a Heart as our winner. It is a radical and arresting collection that recalibrates what it’s possible for poetry to achieve.”
The shortlist “celebrated the ways in which poetry is responding to profound change and the stylistic freedom that today’s poets have claimed”, Greenlaw added.
Bhanu Kapil beat nine other finalists in a shortlist that presented an exciting mixture of established names and relative newcomers, including three debut collections, with all the books described as being “as urgent as they are artful”.
The TS Eliot Prize was inaugurated in 1993 to celebrate the Poetry Book Society’s 40th birthday and is widely regarded as the UK’s most recognised poetry award, celebrating the best new collection published in the UK and Ireland.
It has also been described by former poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion as “the prize most poets want to win”. Previous winners include Carol Ann Duffy, Alice Oswald and Ted Hughes.
Often the very best poems are the ones that have the ability to inspire an emotional response, as well as respond to the world’s pertinent issues, as demonstrated by the young American poet Amanda Gorman, who shone during Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration.
In honour of the TS Eliot award announcement, we take a look at How to Wash a Heart and the four top titles that preceded it.
You can trust our independent round-ups. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent.
2020 winner: ‘How to Wash a Heart’ by Bhanu Kapil, published by Pavilion Poetry
Responding to the prolonged stress of an immigrant’s experience, How to Wash a Heart is told in the second-person, where the immigrant speaker talks to her white, middle-class, liberal host. Despite the host’s attempts to create a hospitable environment, the power dynamic is steeped in inequality. In this collection of poems, Kapil fearlessly interrogates the dynamic between immigrant and citizen.
Buy now £9.99, Amazon
2019 winner: ‘A Portable Paradise’ by Roger Robinson, published by Peepal Tree Press
Moving from topics such as the Grenfell Tower fire, to the Windrush generation, to the legacy of slavery, this collection of moving poems works to balance anger and love. By writing about these political issues, Robinson hoped A Portable Paradise would foster deeper levels of empathy for the struggles of black communities in Britain.
Buy now £7.99, Amazon
2018 winner: ‘Three Poems’ by Hannah Sullivan, published by Faber & Faber
Covering a lot of ground, including themes such as morality, sexuality, gender and movement, Sullivan’s debut is made up of three lengthy poems: “You, Very Young in New York”, “Repeat until Time” and “The Sandpit after Rain”. With a unique perspective, this has been touted as an astonishing collection from a brilliant new female voice.
Buy now £10.99, Waterstones
2017 winner: ‘Night Sky With Exit Wounds’ by Ocean Vuong, published by Random House
Another debut collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds is deeply personal and historically informed, exploring the refugee experience and three generations of conflict in Vietnam. As a member of the LGBT+ community, Vuong’s voice is unique and inspires empathy.
Buy now £8.48, Blackwell’s
2016 winner: ‘Jackself’ by Jacob Polley, published by Pan Macmillan
By turning nursery rhymes, fables and folktales on their head, Polley recruits a number of Jacks – Frost, O’Lantern, Sprat – to craft a fictionalised autobiography that is equal parts playful and terrifying. Using lyrical narration, he explores childhood in rural Cumbria in an innovative and experimental way.
Buy now £9.29, Bookshop
Amanda Gorman’s books are now available to buy in the UK, read our round-up of her titles