McMillan is the first poet to win the £10,000 prize since it began in 1999, replacing the Guardian fiction prize with an award open to debuts of any genre.
Born in 1988, McMillan is the son of another poet, Ian McMillan, presenter of the long-running Radio 3 programme The Verb. Though he has kept quiet about the connection, Andrew dedicated the collection to his parents. He grew up in a small village outside Barnsley in south Yorkshire, studying English at Lancaster and University College London before becoming a lecturer in creative writing at Liverpool John Moores University. As well as magazine publication, his poems began appearing in pamphlets in 2009, with Red Squirrel Press publishing an early version in 2013 of the long poem Protest of the Physical, which is the centrepiece of the prizewinning collection.
Set in the wastes of a northern industrial town, a “town that has lost something … that sunk from its centre / like a man winded by a punch”, Protest of the Physical circles around many of the concerns that animate the rest of the collection – the sudden closeness of an encounter with “your hoodie / halfway up your body / and my cock half out in your hand”, the deep engagement with the work of the poet Thom Gunn, the stark realisation “the fear is to die untouched love lost” – arriving at the conclusion that “there is beauty in the ordinary / the row of shops on Shambles Street / the day chasing its own shadow”.
Physical explores the anxieties of modern man, reaching out from the experiences of gay men wrestling with their emotions and each others’ bodies to chart the gaps between appearance and reality in contemporary culture. Strongman describes bench-pressing a young nephew, lifting him towards the artex ceiling “because / what is masculinity if not taking the weight / of a boy and straining it from oneself?”. The Fact We Almost Killed a Badger Is Incidental paints a relationship falling apart because “I still could not have sat through one more night of silence”. The Men Are Weeping in the Gym imagines men “swearing that the wetness / on their cheeks is perspiration / that the words they mutter as they lift / are meaningless”.
Writing in Guardian Review, McMillan explained that all he ever hoped for his poetry was that it should “live sincerely in the world and take everything that happened, turn it, distil it, and give it back to the reader – in the hopes it might move them, or be ‘useful’”.
“It’s always seemed to me that being direct, being honest, would get us closer to the truth (to the ‘poetic truth’),” he wrote, “which is the mark I hope to find.”
The Guardian’s books editor, Claire Armitstead, hailed the first win for poetry in the prize’s 17-year history, adding that it was “only the second time a poet has even made the shortlist”.
“It’s a thrilling development for us as poetry so rarely breaks through in generalist prizes,” she said. She cited Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1821 Defence of Poetry, in which he argued that “poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thoughts of ever new delight”. Shelley’s assertion that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” might seem “a bit optimistic in our prosaic times”, Armitstead said, “but Andrew McMillan’s breathtaking collection shows that good poetry can and does still enlarge, replenish and delight”.
“It is wonderful that a collection so tightly focused on masculinity and gay love could have such a wide appeal, across age and gender,” she continued. “It surprised us all with the best sort of ambush, emerging from an extremely strong and vibrant shortlist as the unanimously agreed winner.”
For the broadcaster Emily Maitlis, another judge for the 2015 award, McMillan’s collection was “curiously conversational – which I loved – and macho, a word I use advisedly, but they are genuinely a celebration of the muscular male”.
Maitlis paid tribute to the depth and variety of the entries, hailing Diane Cook’s “poignant, absurd and funny” collection of short stories, Man v Nature, and Max Porter’s “genre-defying” Grief Is the Thing With Feathers. “Even after I finished it – and wept – I couldn’t have told you quite what it was,” she said, “but it worked.” Chigozie Obioma’s novel The Fishermen, Peter Pomerantsev’s study of contemporary Russia Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, and Sara Taylor’s collection of interlinked short stories The Shore made up the rest of the shortlist.