As usual, I found the business of judging poetry a difficult one. There’s such a range of different kinds of poems, different styles, subjects, forms and approaches, and you want to give each of them a chance in their own terms, so you go round and round in circles trying to decide whether a comic poem about a spaniel is worth more than a heartfelt sonnet about lost love.
But, as always, I found the poems fell into three piles – exactly as they always do when editing Antiphon, in fact. Firstly, the largest pile contains those poems that I know simply won’t please me enough. Usually, whatever their virtues, they have some flaw which gets in the way of the poem: they’re too concerned with finding rhymes, so damage sense; they use too many clichés; they’re built around a sustained metaphor which leads to static comparisons without any development or progression; they deal with subjects I’ve seen many times before, in a way I’ve seen many times before. It’s a shame, because I find myself putting aside some clever ideas, some striking phrases, some original images, because the poets haven’t concerned themselves with every aspect of their work. There’s even a surprising number which make simple grammatical, spelling or punctuation errors, or use the wrong word. This may not be enough to reject a poem outright, but it doesn’t help.
The second pile is much smaller – perhaps only half a dozen poems – those which leap out at me on first reading, announcing themselves as almost certainly candidates for commendation at the very least. These are the poems that astonish me, that take me by surprise, that do something I’ve not seen before, that are full of striking images, emotional heart, precise observation, music, life. These poets have a sense of what poetry is. Their work is not simply well-formed words on a page. They offer an experience, one that I want to come back to, once I’ve found it, like the peaks around Rydal Water, the humanity of a Leonardo painting, the passion of La Boheme.
The third pile is the difficult pile. Every poem has a question mark against it. Too diffuse? Too trivial? Heartfelt, perhaps, but is it particularly poetic? Is this one too concerned with being poetic, maybe, to the detriment of clear expression? An original slant on a clichéd idea? Interesting, but is it interesting enough? Striking, but does it actually justify its length? Clear observation, but maybe too static? Fun, but perhaps too odd? Each of these I read again and again, trying to balance the contradictory impressions, and come to some final judgement about which of the other two piles it “really” belongs on.
Eventually I’ve a pile of twenty-one possible poems, each of which I feel is offering enough for a potential commendation. But I’m only allowed to identify nine of them. First to bite the dust is a poem that tags too many of its nouns with unnecessary adjectives – each of them works alone, but the overall effect is too clogged, I think. Second is one that is almost a sonnet, has some interesting internal rhymes and sustains a clever analogy between lust and gluttony, but seems to push the idea too far. Then there‘s a poem which begins strikingly but develops into pomposity and I wish the poet had cut the final stanza. There’s a sestina, admirable technically, but the poet has chosen six words which make the structure very loose, so that it actually reads like prose. Here’s a sparse lyrical moment, watching the sunset, but perhaps not quite original enough. Then there’s quite an elegant, tight narrative, but it seems to use line endings in an arbitrary way – if you read it aloud, they feel wrong. A heartfelt poem about books is probably just a little too archaic in its language. This poem is too didactic in its tone, as if the poet knows all there is to know on the subject, and this poem uses wonderfully sensuous analogies for sex, but pushes the idea for far too many verses without development. Here’s a great imagining of the fall of Icarus, but there are simply two lines which get in the way of the emotion for me. A poem about a short cut is good on detail but perhaps the subject matter isn’t strong enough. And this poet has a clever idea, linking Norse myth with a contemporary air flight but seems, in the end, to go nowhere significant with the idea.
And that leaves me my nine.
Beached: this poem made me laugh out loud, which is unusual for poetry. It’s amusingly written and conveys a very lively picture, with a great opening line: “Walruses are lolling in the lounge again”.
Reading Whitman at Stonington Island: this is a complete contrast to “Beached”, being serious, erudite and allusive. It contains some strong phrasing and strong images, if a little too dry, and perhaps is a little too keen to exhibit erudition. A quality poem which rather overdoes its approach, I feel.
The Stuffed Man: another poem crammed with detail. There’s a great deal of physical description, particularly strong where action takes place, and the poet uses some excellent language, even in the two static stanzas which perhaps slow the movement of the poem down too much. This was a real contender for me, but I felt it might benefit from being pared down a fraction more.
These poems all pleased me very much, and I think many people would like them, and they might well have ended up amongst the prizes, had the remaining three poems not edged themselves forward.
Anchor: this poem is a restrained account of the penalties of aging, as the world we’ve known and built around us gradually falls apart, and death comes to those we’ve loved. Its great strength is that it avoids histrionics (except in one line) and instead conjurs images that connote suffering endured (“the hailstones/ clattering on the balcony/ like bones and teeth”), so that the impression we’re left with is one of “mild despair”, if there can be such a thing.
Cotswold rumbler ram: I particularly enjoyed the language in this poem, the way it is used to describe an encounter with a ram, and the consequent music within the lines, such as “Other sheep sleep and crop / as if on stairs” which feels apt and is made physical by the alliteration and internal rhyme. The poem may be only a snapshot, but it is an accurate one, and one which I found very pleasing to the ear.
The Colour of Nana’s Bohemian Libretto: A Noh Poem: There’s much to admire in this poem. It is well crafted and appears driven by a strong and well-read intelligence. Its approach to its subject is quite subtle and sophisticated, though it makes several demands on the reader. Whilst it is one of the most well-made and intellectually demanding of all the poems in this competition, it didn’t quite make it into the prizes, for me, as I felt the three I’ve chosen had stronger emotional hearts.
Third prize: At George Allen’s Sawmill
As a fourteen line poem, with some interesting almost-rhymes at its line ends, I thought this might be a sonnet, but it’s not. However, its structure is spot on for purpose, as the first two stanzas describe the activity at the mill, the next brings that activity to an end, the fourth changes perspective, and gives us the poet and a companion, watching, and the final gently rhymed couplet steps out into impersonal darkness. I enjoyed the concreteness of the observed detail in this poem, especially the way that working men are conveyed through the bustling activity of the mill. Yet it’s the changing perspective which makes it work, as the gradual movement from active mill to inactive mill to the two watchers to the impersonal night means that it does more than merely describe. It seems to evoke a particular memory, and then to suggest that all such lively, human activity no matter how vital or particular, nevertheless disappears into darkness. But it does so through its structure, not through any explicit pontification.
Second prize: Beautility
As the poet intended, I was struck by the novelty of this title, unable to decide for a while whether it was clever or forced. Either way, it made me read the poem with special attention, and I found it rewarded that attention. I think there’s a full stop missing, which perhaps affects sense, and this made me hesitate for a long while as to whether I could include it in the prizes. However, its deft, visual and colourful writing appealed to me. The poet makes the ordinary feel extraordinary, and conveys some of the irrational sensory experience of childhood directly, without trying too hard to explain it, and also manages to convey the immediacy and, indeed, amorality of childhood without resorting to moral commentary. A child seems to be exploring the aftermath of a party, getting her or his own gratifications from the combination of debris, leftovers and magic: “The child licks candied lemon and glace cherries”.
I like such poems, which transform what might be called everyday experiences to make them strange, and this hit the pleasure button very hard each time I read it. It’s hard for me to pin down what works for me in this poem but the fact that I keep wanting to re-read it is a good guide as to its richness. I suppose it has to be regarded as, in fact, personal taste, but I think the way the poet has given us a particular experience, quite possibly a real memory, and yet made it surreal, works very well indeed.
First prize: Larches
As with “Beautility”, I had to think long and hard about whether this was really a prizewinner or not. It’s only ten lines, and only thirty two words, so shorter than almost every other poem submitted. I kept asking myself: “Is there enough here to justify a prize?” In the end, with both the top two poems, I decided that they were the poems I liked best, whatever my rationale, so they had to merit prizes.
This poem is a short, delicate nature lyric, a moment of observation which, in its minimalism, reminds me of Chinese poetry (specifically, the poems in the Penguin volume “Poems of the Late T’ang”). The potential problem with such poems is that they have to do a great deal of work in very few words, so they often end up being merely descriptive, or offering the reader a moment, but nothing more. When they work, they offer not merely the beauty of nature observed, but also an internal music and an evocation of something beyond the words on the page. Successful poems of this type are really aesthetic objects as much as accounts of the world.
What actually carried this poem high into the prizewinner class for me was this little stanza:
remembrance of footfall –
fragments of ragwort
I felt that couplet was the most effective pair of lines in the entire competition. It is elegant, contains some delicate internal music (between, in different ways, “membrance” and “fragment”, “footfall” and “fragment”, “fragment” and “ragwort”), presents a natural image that is clear, accurate yet succinct (ragwort often appearing torn and ragged, as the name suggests), evokes memory in a physical way (e.g. one can imagine the feet of a wanderer amongst the flowers) and, by linking these things in these ways, we also get a sense of fading memory, too, of the memory being fragmented and ragged, so a mood is subtly evoked without any direct statement.
Although this couplet is the heart of the poem, the rest of it is visually and verbally effective in a similar way. Overall, there’s not a word that’s not been carefully placed to have maximum effect, like the brush-strokes of a delicate watercolour. It’s the poem I came back to most often, so it has to be top of the pile. I want to congratulate this poet on the intuitive care with which these words have been chosen and laid out.
Frances Baillie – Beached
Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé – Reading Whitman at Stonington Island
Kathryn Smith – The Stuffed Man
Marinca Kaldewaij – Anchor
John Gallas – Cotswold rumbler ram
Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé – The Colour of Nana’s Bohemian Libretto: A Noh Poem
Joan Gooding – At George Allen’s Sawmill
Kathryn Smith – Beautility
Kate Gething-Smith – Larches
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