Helen Bowell: Young Critics Scheme – 18-25 year olds review the T. S. Eliot Prize 2022 Shortlist

“Taking part in the Young Critics Scheme has helped me to try things I’ve never done before: recording and editing audio as well as filming within a time limit using the basics I already have at home. The world of reviewing feels more accessible to me than ever, like a potential career avenue.” – Young Critic Holly Moberley

At The Poetry Society, we do a lot to encourage young people to write poetry – from the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award for 11-17s, to Young Poets Network’s year-round writing challenges, and Poets in Schools inspiring children and teens in classrooms across the UK. But we know that reading poetry can be just as life-changing as writing it. So when the new Director of the T. S. Eliot Prize, Mike Sims, asked whether we could run a project for young people together, we thought about poetry criticism.

There have been many schemes to support emerging poetry reviewers over the years, from the Ledbury Poetry Critics to the Forward/emagazine Creative Critics competition. Ours had a few new spins: ten 18-25 year olds in the UK and Ireland would participate in online workshops, build a community, and create short videos reviewing each of the books shortlisted for the 2022 T. S. Eliot Prize.

We hoped the scheme would enable these young writers to be a part of the critical conversation around these books, catch the attention of readers online, and gain the skills, confidence and network to continue reviewing beyond the scheme.

From sixty impressive applicants, we selected our ten brilliant Young Critics. In online workshops, they explored what excited them about and alienated them from reviews, considered presenting their critical opinions to camera, and formed a community of engaged young writers. Critic BookTuber Jen Campbell gave a guest workshop and we published two features on Young Poets Network for anyone to use: a guide on how to write a poetry review, and an article with top tips from fifteen leading critics.

And when the critics sent in their video reviews, we were totally blown away. Every one gave an insightful and personal response to each book, looking at both the minute details of word choices and the large-scale structural and thematic decisions. Two of the Young Critics (SZ Shao and Holly Moberley) even played creatively with video footage to illustrate their reviews.

We released the videos ahead of the T. S. Eliot Prize Readings, and excerpted them for social media. Altogether the films were played more than 25,000 times. It was especially lovely to see established critics like the Telegraph’s Tristram Fane Saunders and prize-winning writer April Yee shouting about the videos, and even some of the shortlisted poets themselves, too.

Since the scheme, we’ve been supporting the Young Critics further – one of them will have a review published in an upcoming issue of The Poetry Review, and Poetry London’s Reviews Editor is in touch too. Over half of the Critics told us they’re already working on their next reviewing project, so keep your eyes peeled for what they do next.

You can watch all the videos here:

If you’re a young person or a teacher looking for tips on how to review poetry books, performances, films (etc!), check out the guide we published and start by considering these questions, as the Young Critics did in their first workshop:

  • What is your favourite thing about this text? Why?
  • What is this book trying to do? Answer a question? Further a conversation? Tell a story? How far does it succeed?
  • Who is the audience of your review? How does that change your review? How would you talk to a friend about this text? And a stranger?
  • What else do you need to research before you start writing your review, such as the history, culture, experiences or poetic forms explored?

Find out more about the Young Critics Scheme here.

Helen Bowell is an Education Officer at The Poetry Society. She is also a Ledbury Poetry Critic, a co-director of Dead [Women] Poets Society and the author of The Barman (Bad Betty Press, 2022), which was a Poetry Book Society Pamphlet Choice.