About the Michael Marks Awards
The Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets were established in 2009 and now include four awards and a Poets in Residence program. From their inception, the Awards have aimed both to promote the pamphlet form and to enable poets and publishers to develop. The Awards celebrate the poetry pamphlet as central to innovation in UK poetry and offer prizes for: ‘Poetry Pamphlet’ and ‘Publisher’ (£5,000 each), ‘Illustration’ (£1,000) and ‘Poetry Pamphlet in a Celtic Language’ (£1,000). Two places on the Poets in Residence program in Greece, which includes a cultural tour, are also awarded. The Awards are funded entirely by the Michael Marks Charitable Trust.
Since their inception, the Awards have grown to include four partners, each of which is crucial to the Awards: The British Library, The Wordsworth Trust, Harvard University and The TLS. The following history describes how and when each of these partners became involved and the development of the Awards since 2009.
History of the Awards
2009 – 2012
The Awards were founded in 2009 by the Michael Marks Charitable Trust, in a collaboration with the British Library, which continues to this day. At this point, and until 2016, there were two Awards: for ‘Poetry Pamphlet’ and ‘Publisher’. The inaugural 2009 Awards were presented in partnership with the Poetry Book Society.
The Awards came out of a shared conviction that the poetry pamphlet is of importance. The British Library is one of the most important and informed libraries internationally and amongst its vast repository of the published word, boasts one of the most extensive collections of modern English poetry pamphlets in the world. This fact complemented the view of the Michael Marks Charitable Trust that the poetry pamphlet should be better known and more widely celebrated. From their inception, the Awards aimed both to promote the pamphlet form and to enable poets and publishers to develop. To this end, the ‘Poetry Pamphlet’ and ‘Publisher’ Awards have both carried prizes of £5,000.
The Michael Marks Charitable Trust also created and supports the ‘Michael Marks Poet in Residence’ at Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies’, in partnership with Harvard University. Winners of both the ‘Poetry Pamphlet’ and ‘Poetry Pamphlet in a Celtic Language’ prizes are awarded places on this program as well as the financial prize. The residency includes a cultural tour of various locations in Greece and runs through a two week period each spring. The aim of this program is to help the poets enrich their imagination and open their horizons in order to develop their creativity.
Run as part of Harvard University, The Harvard Centre for Hellenic Studies was established in Washington DC after WWII, with a donation from the Philanthropist Paul Mellon. It was Mellon’s hope that the Center would promote the Hellenic ideals of democracy, philosophy, poetry and the Arts in the United States, and this ethos underpins the Center’s partnership with the Michael Marks Awards.
2012 – 2016
The Wordsworth Trust joined the partnership of the Awards in 2012, and an additional judge with a connection to the Wordsworth Trust—initially the Poet in Residence at Dove Cottage—was introduced at this time. The Wordsworth Trust aims to develop activities that fulfil Wordsworth’s own wish, that his poetry would ‘live, and do good’ for the “Poets, who among these hills, / Will be my second self when I am gone”. It is in this spirit that the Wordsworth Trust embraces the Michael Marks Awards.
Also in 2012, ‘The TLS’ joined the Awards as partners, encouraging acolytes and experts alike to take up the pamphlet form. Each year since 2012, they have selected one of their regular poetry critics (who are often also poets themselves) to sit on the Awards’ judging panel, and have published a round-up of the year’s best poetry pamphlets to coincide with the announcement of the prize.
Around this time, the Awards celebration at the British Library became a dinner event.
2016 – 2019
The Award for Illustration launched in 2016, to celebrate the artistic creativity of many pamphlets and to encourage the quality of illustration as distinct from the overall production or textual content of the pamphlet.
The ‘Poetry in a Celtic Language’ prize was introduced in 2019, to celebrate the rich tradition of poetry in Celtic languages in the UK, and to encourage publishing of poetry in Celtic languages in pamphlet form. It is run in association with the National Library of Wales and the National Library of Scotland.
Beginning with the 2020 Awards, a fourth judge for the ‘Poetry Pamphlet’ and ‘Poetry Pamphlet in a Celtic Language’ prizes will be selected by the Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies.
“These inspired awards recognise that the pamphlet has a fundamental importance in literary culture far exceeding anything suggested by the dictionary – “a brief publication, generally having a paper cover”. For many of the best poets now writing it was not only their first means of distribution but the first ratification of their gift.”
– Seamus Heaney
It is the conviction of all partners involved in the Awards, and of the Michael Marks Charitable Trust, that the poetry pamphlet as a form deserves wide recognition and support.
Pamphlets are one of the first places a reader can encounter new poets. Arguably the best way the public can discover very recent work, the pamphlet offers a concentrated burst of poetry for its audience. Whether it’s a well-judged showcase of a new poet’s range or the powerful concentrate of a themed sequence, the short book, the pamphlet or “chapbook”, is a compact universe, an art-form in itself.
It’s often the poet’s publication of choice: it may be as portable as a passport but it quickly crosses so many more borders – real borders but checkpoints of the imagination as well.
Pamphlet publishers help new authors emerge while giving established poets the thinking space for new ideas. They match text with sympathetic graphics, well-judged typography and visual panache. They invest in new writing and new ways of presenting poetry and promoting it to readers, helping to develop a wider audience for the form.
Leonard and Virginia Woolf knew this when they published new poetry by TS Eliot and Robert Graves in the little books of the Hogarth Press. The only poetry book Edward Thomas published in his lifetime was a pamphlet, Six Poems by ‘Edward Eastaway’.
WH Auden’s first book, Poems (1928) is another remarkable example. It was printed by his friend Stephen Spender on the kind of press used for printing prescriptions. As history has shown, its contents did turn out to be strong medicine in a small bottle.
All traditions are represented by the pamphlet : Philip Larkin, Bob Cobbing, Ted Hughes, J H Prynne, Carol Ann Duffy, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Penelope Shuttle, Tom Leonard, Kathleen Jamie, Simon Armitage, Daljit Nagra, Jen Hadfield and Nobel Prize winner, Seamus Heaney, to name but a few, have all used the very slim volume with aplomb. Across the decades the pamphlet has announced new poets and new poetry, and the tradition continues today.
With thanks to Richard Price, whose piece ‘The Pamphlet: A Compact Universe’ is used in the above text