A new voice, who judges say “will change British poetry”, has won the TS Eliot poetry prize. Sarah Howe, a fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute, was awarded the £20,000 prize for Loop of Jade, which explores her dual British and Chinese heritage.
Howe’s work – the first debut poetry collection to win the British prize since it was inaugurated in 1993 – triumphed over a particularly strong shortlist, which featured some of poetry’s biggest names, including Don Paterson, Claudia Rankine, Sean O’Brien and Les Murray.
“She is exploring the situation of women in China, but she doesn’t do it just like that; she does it in a very erudite and dense, rich, imagistic way,” she said.
Especially impressive were Howe’s different and daring forms of poetry, and her powerful use of blank space, said Petit.
“People will find it accessible, but it will need rereading,” she added. “That is one of its strengths. It doesn’t matter how often you read it, there is more in it. It is very rich and really does speak to what is going on today with the status of women in the world.”
The award was presented on Monday evening at a ceremony at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. “It is absolutely amazing that it is her first book,” said Petit. “It plays wildly with form, and at the same time it is dealing with very topical and difficult subjects – and from a culture which we are not used to seeing in British poetry.”
Howe, who has a British father and a Chinese mother, moved from Hong Kong to England when she was young. Her poems chart the journeys she made back to Hong Kong to rediscover her roots.
She has already won the 2015 Sunday Times/Peter Fraser and Dunlop young writer of the year award, while Stephen Hawking read her poem Relativity for National Poetry Day.
Organised by the Poetry Book Society, the TS Eliot prize was funded and presented by Eliot’s widow Valerie until her death in 2012. It is now maintained by the poet’s estate.
Petit’s fellow judges this year were poets Kei Miller and Ahren Warner.
• This article was amended on 12 January 2016 to give the full name for the Sunday Times/Peters Fraser and Dunlop young writer of the year award.