Poetry competition winners and adjudicator’s report
Our grateful thanks to George Szirtes for a thorough and thoughtful adjudication, and congratulations to the winners:
The entry had already been sifted once so all the poems I read had solid virtues. Mostly the virtues were those of control and economy as applied to anecdotal memory, the sense of personal or public history, or the understanding of a particular occasion. Had I had just those poems it would have been hard to choose a clear winner. I suppose I was looking for something with edge, ambiguity, ambition, a kind of multiplicity, perhaps even the sense of falling off an edge. It is these things that send shock waves through a poem, that suddenly almost lose the reader in the chaos of the world. I sometimes think of the poem as a game for high stakes, the poem only just surviving by taking a leap into some place by gut instinct, a place it couldn’t have predicted at the start.
My first prize – ‘Sand Burial’ – has those qualities and was a clear winner for me. There is a memory but it is transposed into the second person singular which is generally an invitation to the imagination. The scene is of danger of burial and drowning, a fear on the borders of reality. There is the idea of losing “your whole face”; of the mouth being “a scream filled with water”. The poem could have moved into cheap self-indulgent horror here (the edginess I meant above) but while the horror remains, it quickly enters the sphere of the imagination and the universal. Even so, if it had stopped there it would have been no more than a promising poem, albeit one still stuck in a specific dimension, one specific incident. It is the second part of the poem that raises the stakes. There we shift to the act of love, or sex, which is now informed by the earlier sense of being buried and drowning. The balance here is beautifully held. The poem continues to surprise us, this time with the image of the mother and the gingerbread man. But it is the coming together of the experience of drowning and the sexual act that is so potent here. I wasn’t quite sure of the use of the “unbearable lightness of being” phrase. It took me into literary territory for a moment and it lost a fraction of the suggestion of physical presence but the poem itself remained outstanding. Best of all, it took my breath away.
The second and third prizes, as well as the highly commended poems were harder to separate. They all had something strong going for them.
‘Facebook Profile’, in second place, goes about understanding the significance of a ubiquitous type of image. It isn’t a purely intellectual enquiry: the heart too wants to understand, but it is understands primarily through intelligence and form, that form being a residual kind of terza rima. Such forms are not a fetish, or a way of showing off. They are ways of inventing the poem, of letting the coincidences of language have a nicely dangerous say in the development of a feeling-idea. The form is not particularly high profile here but it guides the poem into interesting areas, from Gerhard Richter, through Wikipedia, through ciphers and the idea of truth. The form is constantly suggesting change and change can be exciting. I wasn’t quite so sure of the need for “halfway open, halfway shut” since the two terms imply each other, and the poem is a little more talky at the end than it was at the beginning, but I was taken by its fully felt-through understanding of the subject.
The third placed poem, ‘Views of Love’, starts at a personalised life-drawing session, nicely written but apparently going down a straight route. Then in verse 5 it changes, and we are in a world between memory and fable, with “There was a man who fell in love / with a lock of hair”. This could be recalling Alexander Pope’s ‘The Rape of the Lock’ but the tone is different. It is where the poem takes a chance and gains by gambling. The change is like the change in the two halves of ‘Sand Burial’, but not quite as physical. The end of the poem performs what is often the trickiest third part of the three-part-lyric, shifting from the story of a lock of hair to a question about something glimpsed, the perception of the ending suddenly general, clear, touching and unsentimental.
Briefly, the three commendeds (I know I wasn’t asked to pick commendeds but I am always aware of how much people put into their work and it seems mean to ignore it) are quite different from each other but of similar high standard so I am not mentioning them in any specific order.
‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp’ is a very skilful and intelligent meditation on the presentation of the human corpse, moving from Rembrandt , through Holbein and Mantegna, to a photograph of the body of Che Guevara, then it remains with Guevara and his fate to the end. So the poem moves from art and morality to revolution and finally to irony about the revolutionary brand. The rhyme is very adroitly used in stanza length clusters. Maybe the poem cuts too straight a path to what it really wants to talk about, and maybe Dr Tulp’s anatomy lesson is not directly enough connected to the Christ / revolutionary theme as presented through Holbein and Mantegna but it’s a strong bravura piece of work.
‘Hide Seek Find Further North’ is original in terms of form (triplets with an xAA, rhyme scheme) and full of lovely energy at the beginning, rolling out the names of nostalgia with real gusto. It does this for most of the poem until it gets a little tired at the end. It is after all a list poem without a strong narrative structure so the danger of tiredness is there from the beginning, but I loved the way it bombed along at the start.
‘After the Break’ uses no rhyme but is more like a song in its tone and register as well as in its fine musical ear. It is in three quatrains, a reflection about forms of prayer that moves beyond commonplace. Hope snags “its jacket on January’s unvarnished frame” and at the end a veritable shower of ‘g’ and ‘p’ sounds drives the poem into a kind of ecstasy of sound.
The following poems came close:
‘Lorsica’ by Julian Stannard
‘Ordinary, like cabbage’ by C.J. Allen
‘Slamming the Years’ by Tom Jameson
‘In Another Life’ by Nicola Timmis
‘Looks about fourteen’ by Richard Schwartz
‘After the Burning’ by Corrinna Toop
‘Between the Lines’ by Martin Bennett