I have, over the past couple of years or so, been involved in a number of conversations in which someone has bemoaned the dearth of political poems. My response has invariably been a bemused What? From the lone poem in a regular journal, through individual collections, to issue-based anthologies and epic projects like 100 Thousand Poets for Change, poetry – like all the arts – is articulating local and global political concern, engagement, anger, fear etc. on paper, on-line, and on walls.
It is of course legitimate to ask what use such poems are against the often overwhelming insurmountable-seeming challenges we – regardless of race, religion, or any other differences – face, both politically and environmentally. To the despairing (and I occasionally fall into that category myself), I’d suggest that poetry can give voice to the voiceless, can distil the core of human experience into engines of visceral communication at the sharpest edge of language, and in doing so can remind us of the strength of our shared humanity. It can also do a lot more, of course, but these are perhaps the most pressing calls upon the arts at present.
I was heartened by the number of poems submitted for the competition that focused on issues from the wilful decimation of the British NHS by a self-interested government, to human displacement on a global scale: and, beyond this, they were very good poems indeed. Both ‘Lethal Theory’ and ‘In transit’ are excellent examples. The former employs military acronyms and the impersonal language of medicine, perfectly balanced around the human tragedy of those caught up in events within which they are barely acknowledged. Specific, yet chillingly universal, the poem’s strength lies as much in what is avoided as what is said, culminating in the blunt negative of that unforgettable final line. The latter is a very different poem, but no less powerful, the second-person address and controlled vagueness concerning detail places the reader uncomfortably into a limbo without full stops that continually stacks the odds against the shadow of hope that is desperately introduced mid-way through the final stanza.
Lest all this imply a single-mindedness of approach to subject in my assessment of the range of poems submitted, the ekphrastic ‘Vanitas’ stood out as a beautifully tight response to a painting that – as with all the best poems of its type – goes way beyond its descriptive surface, tapping into questions of faith and very corporeal connections and absences, resolving into that rich image of the ‘thick and wrinkled’ wax. Additionally, of course, it vividly evokes the private, domestic space and the dangerous unknown without, as – in their own ways – do the previously discussed poems. And if there was one overriding theme that arose time and time again in the submitted poems, it was this idea of the home, with all of its connotations of security and fragility. Indeed, of those dozen poems that made my short-list, more than half directly addressed the theme in one way or another: an indication, perhaps, of a shared response to uncertain times in which we are more conscious of our need for the safe and the known – and, I hope, for a place in which to welcome and be welcomed.
The pleasure in judging this competition was the difficulty of the task, and in the reaffirmation of poetry’s – and art’s more generally – importance.
Labile – Sharon Phillips
Surrender – Kelly Nunnerley
Your windows – L Thompson
Our Father – Michael Brown
Swinger – Kathleen Strafford
Some have entertained angels unawares – Inky
Frozen Ringtone – Maria Isakova Bennett
What does the heart mean in popular culture? – Sharon Phillips
The Softening – Diane Cook
Vanitas – Gabriel Griffin
In transit – Greta Ross
Lethal theory – Noel Williams