Judge’s Report by Noel Williams
I thought it was going to be easy. One poem jumped out at me early on, clearly making a claim as a winner. It stayed close to the top of the pile pretty much throughout the exercise. “Just two more like that”, I thought, “and my job here is done.”
No such luck.
The problem with judging poetry is that you’re comparing apples with chairs. On the one hand here is a heartfelt, confessional lyric which the poet has clearly agonised over writing but paid little attention to the music of language. On the other here is a deftly crafted villanelle, perfectly formed, exquisitely structured but pretty much lacking any real emotion. Then there’s a witty piece of absurdism that makes me smile each time I read it, though no-one’s going to claim it has any serious purpose. Whereas this delicate lyric drawn straight from natural observation is accurate, intense, particular, yet entirely descriptive.
Some things make better poetry, some worse. A surprising number of entries have small weaknesses. Let’s remove those that have clear defects: forced rhymes, unnecessary syllables introduced to pad rhythms, archaic vocabulary, clichéd expressions or ideas, images so extreme they’re merely intended to shock, even errors of grammar, punctuation, spelling – I’m quite surprised by the lack of proofreading in some cases, though I know mistakes can happen (I once submitted a poem about oranges that had the word “peal” instead of “peel” in three different lines. It didn’t win.)
By being brutally unfair to some poems I pare the total down to around 60. Each of these has something in it that works for me, something I’m attracted by. Now let me simply focus on the poems I especially like. Why do I like them? What is the particular attraction? Do they sustain it completely from beginning to end? This one starts well, but loses its way. That one has some wonderful imagery then stumbles with a vague ending. This one over here has some lovely lines within it, but the poem doesn’t seem to have any overall direction. Here’s one of the most powerful images I’ve seen in a long time, but does the rest of the poem really offer much more?
This is not easy at all. But, eventually, after nearly two weeks of going round in circles, finding different virtues, putting poems aside then reconsidering them, I’m finally, down to fifteen contenders.
Of these, the poems I’d like to commend are these:
“Night Waves” creates a soft pattern of gentle images and gentle sounds. I like the way the poem breaks a relatively conventional rhythm with unusual, even awkward, line breaks (on “the” and “at”, for example) which, for me, creates an echo of the arrhythmia of the sea.
In “The Window” we’ve a relationship very frequently found in poetry, that of patient and carer. Usually the poet’s voice is that of the carer observing the decline of their loved one. In this poem, this is inverted, with the voice of a patient contemplating her or his exit, in a voice that is tentative, barely heard and almost entirely dependent on the kindness of others.
“Singing” seems at first like another sad carer and patient poem, as it begins that way, but it makes a clever sideways move a third of the way in, using the idea of reading an alternative lifeline in the patient’s palm to imagine a happier life, with rather different seminal moments: “this time you open/the letter he sent after the argument”. I enjoy the way this poem simultaneously is upbeat, in the imagined life it relates, and yet full of regret, because that positive tale concerns the life that got away.
“Lumber Room at the Twilight Hotel” uses the sustained imagery of old furniture for people in their latter days. The sustained imagery is wonderful in its concreteness and detail, though the parallels perhaps could be more fully drawn out.
“Grandmothers in the Garden” focuses on an unusual vision of “dark-clothed grandmothers/performing tai chi” in a Beijing street. We get glimpses of a lively, happy, city, where the idea of dance seems to permeate the air. I particularly liked here “The grandmothers look up and wave/and I want wings” because of the ambiguity of “want”. It simultaneously seems to mean both “I lack” and “I desire”, at one and the same time both setting the observer apart and offering them an aspiration.
“An Exercise for a Writing Group” seems a perfectly ordinary poem – in fact, it is almost prosaic – until an unexpected ending leaps out of nowhere: “tendrils/rise from cloud/south of the A66/and I dream/I can see the kraken.” I couldn’t shake that surprising image, so had to have this poem in my list.
“Rise and Fall” attracted me with its opening: “We listen to Debussy all afternoon/and to the yawn of saws in the shop downstairs”. The setup of a mini-story in these two lines is succinct, and the combination of Debussy’s music and the interference of the saw-noise, conveyed through the musicality of the lines themselves, was one of those openings that stayed in my mind through all the readings. The poem conveys a particular Sunday afternoon very well, and manages also to suggest something deeper in its account of balloons which eventually “drift away from each other”. I think this poem might have been even higher in my estimation if it hadn’t opted for a rough and ready rhyme scheme which seems rather oddly applied.
“Things you should be able to talk about without politics intruding” is arguably not even a poem. Can a simple list be a poem? (Poets do like to debate the most peculiar things). I like it because it is simply wonderfully absurd and, along the way, the oddity of the collisions of the items in its list prompts the occasional equally surprising thought, as in “Peanuts: dry roasted versus salted/Grief, gallstones”. Here triviality and profundity rub shoulders. One thing that poetry can do which few other art forms can match is to jostle ideas together in a way which prompts thoughts you might never otherwise have had (or perhaps wanted!)
“Pay Attention” is also a strange little poem, a quirky love poem, I think. I’m not sure that I quite understand it, but that’s actually one of the things I like about it. A poem which somehow works on you without you quite knowing why can be something of a find. Clearly at its heart is a series of wonderfully odd and tender images: “I will set loose my memories of you/on the wind. No one will hear them pass.”
Of the Highly Commended poems, “This need of foxes” is starkly pessimistic in the way it combines closely observed fox imagery with the more apocalyptic ideas the fox-cry brings to mind: “a need, a moaning desire”, seemingly animal and human in “this need of foxes coming together”. This poem is peppered with excellent effects, such as the dynamic movement of the creatures reflected in the shifts of language and sometimes wonderful phonic effects, as in “their terracotta pelt with welted black/ on their backs”. This might have been a prizewinner, except for my feeling that it somewhat overeggs the pudding in the very last line.
“Journeys” is evocative, clever, lyrical, very well crafted, witty, with each word precisely selected for its purpose but slightly spoiled in my mind by the need for a footnote. I’d rather poems stood on their own two feet, and this one could have, I think.
“The Rescue” offers images of struggle and survival, getting through “the month/of the hunger”. This poem is particularly good at choosing images which in themselves are ordinary but have been transformed to express struggle. For example, “ice in huddled puddles” (I enjoyed the internal rhyme here, too) or “The veins are obvious on everything”, where “veins” are at once a symbol of life, of blood, of healthy leaves, and yet, in being so “obvious” are unnaturally prominent, pronounced, as if tense, tight, fighting.
I found the hardest part of judging I found was to decide which of the poems jostling in the Highly Commended category really deserved second or third place. (First place, I realised, had been settled very early on, almost without me realising it.)
Third place eventually fell to “Scaling the Mountain” a poem in terza rima. I was partly attracted by the deft way this form is handled, particularly in rhymes such as “helter-skelter/Delta/swelter” and “upsetting’s/spaghetti/confetti”. However, it’s the overall movement of the poem that I found most compelling, as it builds detail and story to a climactic image of swallows enslaved by freedom. I’m not sure it works quite as perfectly as it might at the end, because it seems to overplay its hand a little, but the core conceit of tourists themselves being the instruments of the misery they come to witness is a powerful one, and the final ambiguities of smiles that might be forced, serene, happy, sardonic, hypercritical or much more seemed rich with undercurrents of meaning to me.
“Listen” achieved second place because it was the best example of a tight, pared-down lyrical poem among the one hundred and sixty eight poems submitted. But what particularly lodged it in my mind were the lines “place my fingers/in the memory of yours” a beautifully elegant summary of both the physical and metaphorical, which at the same time tells us something about a relationship and something about loss. The intimacy of the moment captured here is excellently conveyed through suggestion rather than statement – the poem works as much due to what is left out as what is included, which is a difficult trick to get right.
“Late May” was pretty much top of my list from first reading. It’s a sonnet, which makes it a risk in a competition – some judges hate traditional forms, and it is difficult to pull off such a well known form in a way which offers something new or is otherwise interesting. Sonnets tend towards the “safe”, the rounded sentiment, the pre-packaged idea. But this poem has sensitivity and subtlety, as well as a poet willing to take a bit of a risk (perhaps to grab the judge’s attention – if so, it worked) – how many times have you seen “wisteria” set up for a rhyme, for example (it’s rhymed here with “hysteria”) or compared with “an ex-wife’s compliment”? There’s much subtlety in this poem. This link of the wisteria, for example, as an image of middle-class contentment, with hysteria, and both together with the “ex-wife” is an instance of how several threads are wound together, yet none of them in an obvious or heavy-handed way. We get the sense of a depressed middle-aged speaker, of a failed relationship, a marriage gone sour, of a poet who, both desires and dreads to be alone, isolated, perhaps, by her or his own comforts who has perhaps even driven her or his partner way. Yet this is all done in pretty simple language, as in the final couplet:
“The ice-cream tune of someone else’s phone
chimes bleakly out, cuts off, leaves me alone.”
The ice-cream tune is at once a snide note which tells us the speaker is perhaps a little snobbish, a little “above” such things, and also a hearkening to a lost life, ice-cream being an innocent, perhaps lost, pleasure, a childhood gratification. The phonecall is necessarily someone else’s: the speaker knows it’s not for them, because the speaker knows there’s no-one who will bother to ring, suggesting people lost, one way or another. The chimes are bleak, almost oxymoronically, with their false brightness and optimism. The phone cuts off as the speaker is cut off. And then, the speaker is left alone. He wants to be left alone. He gets his wish. He seems to deserve all he gets.
The succinctness and suggestiveness of such devices is little short of brilliant. A superb piece of work and very worthy winner.
Bryan Marshall - Night Waves
Alyn Fenn – The Window
Maeve Henry – Singing
Linda Burnett – Lumber Room at the Twilight Hotel
Idore Anschell – Grandmothers in the Garden
Alan Nolan – An Exercise for a Writing Group
Victoria Kennefick – Rise and Fall
Richard Schwartz – Things you should be able to talk about without politics intruding.
Frank Dullaghan – Pay Attention
Roger Elkin – This Need of Foxes
Daniel Knibb – Journeys
Victoria Kennefick – The Rescue
Tim Ellis – Scaling the Mountain
Celia Baines – Listen
Daniel Knibb – Late May