This year's Forward prize for best collection - one of the most prestigious poetry awards in the British literary calendar - has been awarded to David Harsent for Legion (Faber), his contemporary take on war poetry.

Harsent, who was shortlisted for the Forward prize in 2002 for his previous collection, Marriage, is a well-known figure on the British poetry scene. The author of nine collections, he has received numerous prizes for his work over the course of a lengthy career, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2000. In addition to his own poetry, he has translated the work of the Bosnian poet Goran Simic into English, and co-edited an anthology of British and Irish poetry commissioned by the Sarajevo Writers' Union with Mario Susko. The poems in Legion are despatches from a nameless war; Harsent uses them to investigate the idea of conflict, its protagonists and victims, and its consequences.

In winning the award, Harsent saw off robust competition from a shortlist that was generally recognised to be one of the strongest in years. He was joined by fellow Faber-ite Alice Oswald, whose latest collection, Woods etc, was a follow-up to her TS Eliot prize-winning river poem, Dart, as well as John Burnside, TLS deputy editor Alan Jenkins, and John Stammers, who took the Forward prize for best first collection in 2001. Tim Dee, chair of the judging panel, said the judges were "excited" by Harsent's "exceptional collection ... that looks without prurience at the countless horrors of war we choose to forget" and went on to describe it as "technically one of the most accomplished poetry books of recent years."

The Felix Dennis prize for best first collection - part of the Forward stable and worth £5,000 - went to Helen Farish for her smart, tough debut, Intimates (Cape), praised by the judges for its "immensely engaging voice and total confidence". The collection, which explores the complex nature of relationships and the moment of balance between youth and age, has received much attention from the poetry community and comes with enthusiastic endorsements from Bernard O'Donoghue, David Constantine and Paul Farley.

Farley, meanwhile, is celebrating his own win tonight: he was awarded the Forward prize for best single poem with Liverpool Disappears for a Billionth of a Second. Farley is a Forward oldhand; he won the best first collection prize in 1998 and was shortlisted for the best collection prize in 2002.

The Forward prizes for poetry, now in their 14th year, were founded by William Sieghart, chairman of the Forward Arts Foundation, with the aim of raising the profile of contemporary poetry in the UK. Tim Dee, was joined on this year's judging panel by poets Michael Symmons Roberts and Maura Dooley, novelist Romesh Gunesekera and Claire Armitstead, the Guardian's literary editor.

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