We are pleased to announce that results of the Sentinel Literary Quarterly Poetry Competition (November 2019) judged by Oz Hardwick has been announced.
The Albatross at Langdon School – Paul Nash
Breakfall – Mark Saunders
Mycelium glioblastoma tarmacadam – Paul Sedgley
A Sojourn in Suburbia – Jacob Dengate
Return of the Green Man – Richard Westcott
Two Doors – Simon Tindale
Notes on disconnect – Andrew Muggeridge
As if Invisible – Jocelyn Simms
Buffoon – Michael Caines
‘… crossing the garden by the pale flowers’ – Jocelyn Simms
Stickmen – Jim Friedman
Ghost writer – Christopher James
By Oz Hardwick
The first part of judging any competition is fairly easy. I didn’t count the number of entries, but after reading everything a couple of times, I settled into the familiar process of winnowing. There’s a temptation amongst competition entrants – and, indeed, those who submit to journals or anthologies – to think of this as a process during which the majority of poems are rejected; however, while there are undeniably going to be some poor poems amongst any broad selection, it is more a case of allowing the strongest to assert themselves, and I’ve yet to judge a competition in which some very good poems didn’t quite make it. On this occasion, the relatively easy stage left me with eighteen poems, which I’ve lived with for a couple of weeks, getting to know them on their own terms, and then reluctantly saying goodbye to half a dozen. This last part has not been easy, largely because of the invigorating dissimilarities in subject and form across my final short list … and this is what makes judging a competition so satisfying.
First place: ‘Ghost writer,’ somewhat appropriately, has haunted me since first reading. There are many illness poems, many of which are skewed by too much specific medical detail or overstressing emotion. This does neither, employing the figurative to articulate both distance and discomfort, from the strange/familiar clothes of the second stanza to the ‘buried song of wrenches’ in the penultimate stanza, via the chillingly playful racing/gambling metaphor in the centre of the poem. The images are diverse, but held together by an impressive use of form, with everything locking together and moving inexorably onwards like the cogs which appear towards the close. The second-person address renders the poem more uncomfortable, placing the reader in the position of having to at least subconsciously assert their subjective distance throughout, which naturally has the precise opposite effect of drawing the experience closer still. Finally, so often a dull title can weaken a good poem, but this – a familiar phrase in an unusual context –really has a dynamic relationship with the poem it introduces.
Second place: The designation of cave paintings as ‘Stickmen’ isn’t new, but the poem that bears this name takes quite commonplace description and uses these sticks to support something much larger. It’s a poem in which the accumulation of small details and similes becomes an astute commentary on mortality, grief and heredity. It does this through beautifully controlled, concise and precise stanzas which pivot on the questions raised in the enjambed central stanzas which conclude with the surprising image of the treasure map. It’s a poem worth thinking about, line by line, stanza by stanza, as it builds towards the final tercet – once more self-contained after the extended sentences of the previous four stanzas – which imbues the purely physical with 40,000 years of shared humanity.
Third place: I have of late been despairing over the state of traditional verse forms – it gives me a break from despairing about politics and the environment – so it was heartening to find a number of very good sonnets amongst the entries. Not the strictest of the bunch – though I direct purists to Don Paterson’s wonderful introduction to his 101 Sonnets anthology – ‘… crossing the garden by the pale flowers’ is as good an example as one could hope for of why the form still works. The containment of observation and reflection, the subtle movements enlivened by surprising descriptions – the ‘clatter’ of crows, the ‘crackle’ of frogs – are beautifully handled in the precise line breaks and tightly focused expression. And that final line of the octave! This makes the sonnet look easy, almost inevitable – something that is only achieved through craft and really inhabiting the form.
Highly Commended: ‘Notes on disconnect’ unnerves me, from the diminished subjective ‘i’ to the disturbing exchange and hopelessness of the final stanza. As with everything that bites deep into the psyche, though, there are equal forces of repulsion and attraction at play here, as the body becomes an object of fascination, then disinterested analysis, and everyday functions of living edge into superstitious ritual. The distinction between ‘i’ and ‘you’ becomes meaningless, and the reader is entwined with both: I – or i – have no idea what the penultimate stanza ‘means’ but I can feel it ticking beneath my skin. In contrast, I am all too clear of the gradually-revealed meaning of ‘As If Invisible’ which uses its short, irregular stanzas to dissect unflinchingly the way in which lives may be stolen, and subsequent guilt borne by those to whom it does not rightly belong. A collage of sharp fragments, this is another very uncomfortable poem, it perfectly articulates a retrospective view of not understanding oneself, not understanding the world, and, even years later, not quite being able to put the pieces together. By way of relief – at least in tone, ‘Buffoon’ bowls along to further demonstrate the versatility of the sonnet. Unrhymed, it uses half-rhyme and internal rhyme to push the poem along at such a lick that we’re half a line into the sestet before the volta catches us. But just look at that lovely stanza break after ‘rehearsal’! Indeed, it is the skill with which the line breaks are handled in this apparently conversational piece that makes it stand out for me.
Commended: One of my favourite moments in any judging or selection process is when a poem turns up that ticks one of my Deeply-Held Prejudices boxes but works in spite of this. Let me put it on record that I firmly believe that the increase in unpunctuated poems in recent years has nothing to do with aesthetics but, instead, is a simple by-product of people not knowing how to punctuate properly. That said, ‘A Sojourn in Suburbia’ – which also has capitals at the start of every line for no apparent reason (second box ticked) – works on its own terms, as it tips image onto image to create a scene in which no particular aspect is foregrounded, with details from door knockers to the incongruously blinking church sign lending specificity to the universal, while still allowing the reader that nod of recognition. Full disclosure: I have a personal partiality to the Green Man, who has popped up from time to time in both my poetry and academic writing. What is attractive about ‘The Return of the Green Man’ is its refusal to completely embrace the anthropomorphic or the spiritual, while allowing both aspects to swell beneath the description of burgeoning foliage. Even as we are told that ‘he has learned to walk // and take stock,’ the reader is under no illusion that this is anything but metaphor, by virtue of the botanical specificity in the early part of the poem. The neat structure articulates this control beautifully, and allows the poem to celebrate natural renewal precisely for what it is. Finally, and contrastingly, I have to include ‘Two Doors,’ purely for its bravura performance as a twenty-six line poem with twenty-five rhyme words, tight rhythm, a convincing voice, and no tortuous syntax to achieve any of these effects. It couldn’t be much different from ‘Ghost writer,’ but because of that it is a perfect final poem. All human life is here in these twelve poems, and the variety of ways in which the poets have expressed these lives – including three sonnets! – is just part of what has made judging this competition so absorbing and enjoyable.
Special Mentions: Another sonnet – this time fully rhyming, no less – was amongst the poems that just missed my top three. ‘The Albatross at Langdon School’ smudges the boundary between the observation and metaphor in a manner that some may find too confusing, though I enjoy the disorientation, revelling in the effective double vision of the quotidian and the world of portents and auguries. I’m not sure where this ungainly bird leaves me, but the uncertainty is, for me, one of the poem’s strengths. Martial arts and Modern Art are strange bedfellows, but ‘Breakfall’ shapes the two together in neat lines and angles which, like ‘The Albatross …’ leave enough room for enigma to crowd in at the edges: ‘left hanging / there, the indistinct shapes.’ Just as I needed to look up ‘ukemi,’ I had to check the whole title of ‘Mycelium glioblastoma tarmacadam’ – I wonder if I’d have embraced this poem so readily before Google? We all have our own borders at which typographical games become gimmicky, but being an old Dadaist at heart, this works for me, the flow and rupture of lines emphasising their spoken form (almost wholly subjective, I know), before the second half of the poem lays down its intriguing strata of weighted images leading to that most tentatively reassuring final line.
Sentinel Literary Quarterly Poetry Competition