Sentinel Literary Quarterly Poetry Competition (November 2018)
Adjudication Report by Dominic James
It’s a curious thing to make the close acquaintance of so many poems over a short time without choosing them or knowing who wrote them, only accepting they must be heard and, to a greater extent than usual, judging each on its own merits. I should approach more the same. Before getting to the substance of the report, a few words on my own house style; spelling and grammar. I am disposed to take a poem as it comes. Misspelled words are a distraction, misplaced or missing apostrophes wrinkle the surface and the reader must iron them out, but no matter. I wouldn’t want to lose good spoken work for want of formal regulation on the page, and grammar can pretty much look after itself, so long as the meaning or impact is clear enough; we are dealing with poetry here.
After a first, slow read, trying out impressions, I gave the work a few days then returned to apply myself to each poem’s intentions, style and imagery. There were many arresting moments and kaleidoscopic impressions as my reactions were directed this way and that. This was anticipated, a second reading is often required to open up a poem’s meanings. At this stage I began separating those I wouldn’t keep. I was figuring the mechanics of the work, for instance, how a last line diminished the overall effect, just as sometimes it would redeem a poem that seemed to be losing its way, bringing it to a cogent end. And inevitably my personal preferences had begun showing through.
At this point I would like to indicate some of my thoughts on poetry – nothing too surprising I hope –as applied to my criteria in approaching the competition. Firstly, on content and delivery: a poem can be in the first person, declaring, I, I, me, so long as the effect allows the general to be placed over the particular. That is to say, a poem should allow us to match it with our own thoughts, letting it give words to our perceptions, whether it is Milton’s Samson: “you’ll find me/Eyeless in Gaza at the mill with slaves,” blind among his enemies, or Owen, shelled by gas in the Great War: “Dim through the misty panes and thick green light/ As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.” A poem should raise our common awareness: its sympathy is lost if the piece belongs too particularly to the writer.
Then, at least according to its own intentions, a poem should read well. With that in mind I’m afraid that what are clearly typos, or unedited mistakes have damaged the impact of some entries. Again, I must take the work as it comes, it is not my place to apply even the simplest corrections. Further, tone must be considered, rhyme is not an end in itself and, allowing that the measure of a piece is beyond my understanding, I would still like to enjoy some fealty of sound, a well-turned phrase – and there have been plenty of those. This more or less reaches the limits of my office as a judge. Of other qualities, not that it applies here: even if a poem is a fabrication from start to finish, as a reader I should still like to sense the truth of it. Otherwise, it’s hardly worth the trouble of its making.
If your poem failed to progress further, that is not say I didn’t respond to its heartfelt pride or grief, to the validity of its wry humour. With about 30 poems selected as I approached my shortlist, I would like to mention some poems which didn’t make the final selection. Outpatients, conjuring mortality with spicy food was dark indeed, the vehemence of Streetwise derailed as the urgency of its despair overtook the writer, as with several other poems received, I would suggest that it would gain from another work through. Finding the real Ireland was highly enjoyable but lost its thrust with a few lines I found out of place or unclear and Remembering You, which I liked very much, particularly for its figure of the wall flowers, could not quite find its own pace. Biro from the Nymphe, I read three times before the penny finally dropped. Must we read a poem’s title as its first line? Can a title be assumed an integral part of the whole? I have my doubts, but in any case, I’m not sure the poet played fair: and quite right too. My thanks to all entrants for sending in their work.
The results below, with the top 3 followed by the highly commended and then the commended listed in no particular order.
Mooncalf – Catherine Rose
This poem succinctly measures out with great presence its compassion for the fading senses at a death bed scene. The arrangement of the verse carefully orders its pace and sense and the tone suits very well the accuracy and hardship of its thought. A fine poem, the first stanza as follows:
She gazes or sleeps;
there is no between.
Her milk-glazed stare
in the space where a thumb was moistened,
the page turned.
We Lived in a Beautiful House – Hannah-Lee Osborn
I am a little bruised to have come across several poems where it appears men take a bashing, but, fair enough. There is no stepping off point with this poem, it works very well. There are shades of Goya’s awful gargoyle sitting on the sleeper’s chest, the very picture of mental distress. Even the first line has menace, it puts me in mind of Jane Eyre’s bedroom, though with a dangerous visitor of the same sex, also with recall to a once beautiful house. Sometimes verging on the overblown, this poem supplies just enough self-confidence to level out its inner turbulence.
Third Culture Kid – Harsh Ramchandani
Set in a modern fruit market with produce …Foreign yet/somehow familiar… this poem reveals its nature obliquely among the pears – “How bland and miserable they are” – and in doing so suggests what has been stomached to achieve it. As a proclamation it is not precisely understated, it even baulks against the language, still, its subtle balance of sharp and mild is well achieved and its metaphor well taken.
Migratory – David Crann
It soars, troubles and settles lightly on the mind. The necessary comparisons are timely, of course; I think the poem’s lasting impression, between flight and landing will be its reminder that we do right to consider the birds. Home to roost always sounds right.
Manifest – Sean Boustead
Man is a rum animal. It is fairly well established that we inform ourselves of ourselves in dreams and though we might resist their direct reportage in verse, still the tightening rhythm of this atmospheric and characterful poem nicely compacts its own meanings. Though the poet might not fully comprehend the material, we are directed to the sane understanding that we each consist of “So many gods”. An engaging poem.
The Migraine – Lizzie Smith
This short verse ably supplies the condition, and certainly earns its high commendation.
“…pounding left temple/Left temple…
Turns bowels to water,
Reduces me to a jellyfish
Craving cover in a cave.”
Bombardier to Captain – David Lohrey
A rendition of childhood from an older perspective. This ranging poem focuses on Dad, “gone now, thank goodness” and touchingly maintains the affections of familiarity despite all. And childhood is rich:
“How large the Pippin loomed over the police academy. German
shepherds lunged at padded arms as men in black set fires
with smoke as thick as cotton candy…”
Albedo – Rob Sanders
like the implacable blankness of the page,
with its need to be filled.
A glacial mantle negates and re-establishes the world, and we are moved on a grand scale as human qualities merge with their global counterparts in freeze and thaw: great scope this poem.
Gideon – Harsh Ramchandani
A ballade. It is easy indeed to read a rhyming poem. The form suits well the subject; love here in its intimate affection of a shared life. To describe it as a poem of adoration wouldn’t be pitching it too high, and I judge it knows well enough what it purports to the outside world. A well-crafted piece.