Sam Willetts, 48, came out of rehab in 2007 after losing six years of his life to addiction. He has been shortlisted for the poetry section of the prize against Roy Fisher, 80, who is up for the 30,000 award for his collection, Standard Midland, described as meditations on loss and ageing.
Judges described the Willetts poems, New Light For The Old Dark, as "a remarkable first collection … very moving, utterly gripping, and not a false note".
The poems reflect on his regret of the years wasted to drug addiction and his "redemption" through "detox and rehab, love and writing".
Mr Willetts, who lives in London, first came off drugs by going cold turkey, but "slid back into his old ways again".
Two other poets have been shortlisted, Jo Shapcott and Robin Robertson. Shortlisted for the novel section are Louise Doughty, Nigel Farndale, Maggie O'Farrell and Paul Murray.