Sentinel Literary Quarterly Poetry Competition (April 2012)
An adjudication report
Why do we write poetry? There are lots of reasons: self-expression probably tops the list for most of us, followed by a desire to grow as people: writing is a form of exploration, of working out what is important to us. Poets are intent on the big themes: we dwell on birth, growth, love, and (very often), life’s shadow side – the themes of pain, loss, grief and the awareness of our own mortality feature in poetry frequently. Poetry is a form of consolation, but it can be witty, funny and sexy too. Every facet of human life is explored through poetry.
How we express these things, however, requires great care. The old adage ‘the devil is in the detail’ is especially true of writing. Writers who take care over every line and sentence are more likely to create strong work than those who don’t. In this competition, there were a number of entries that hadn’t looked closely enough at their own work. Some poems were poorly punctuated, with apostrophes used incorrectly, or contained spelling errors. Some sentences were long but had no commas. Correct use of commas and full stops is a basic requirement of decent writing.
Another common fault is cliché. Writers must learn to get rid of any elements of their work that may seem to be lazy. In the poems I read, there were several phrases which lacked originality, or came close to laziness. It sounds so obvious, but it’s important to think about the work. It’s when we stop thinking that we are more likely to include worn out expressions. Ezra Pound urged writers to ‘make it new’. This is not easy, but the rewards will be great lines that are fresh and enriching for the reader. In the entries I read, there were phrases such as ‘…you just ache to hold your loved one…’; ‘…sweep it under the carpet…’; ‘…the patience of a saint…’; ‘…struck dumb…’; ‘…derring-do…’; ‘…a godforsaken place…’; ‘…a heavy price to pay…’; ‘…enemy ground…’; ‘…life hangs by a tiny thread…’; ‘…swaying in the breeze…’; ‘…the stillness of the night…’ (etc). Such phrases come easily because we are so used to them, but good writing ignores worn out lines and replaces them with something fresh. I ruled out any poems with clichés in.
Another common fault, especially for less experienced writers, is to over-write a poem. Writers think they’re being smart by cramming in words of phrases that are redundant. Here’s a phrase from one of the poems in this competition: ‘…a sun blanched shaft of light gold edged warms us…’ Writing like this is confusing for the reader. Take out anything that clogs up the poem. Less is more. An example is William Carlos Williams’ great poem This is just to say – it’s simple and touching. In many of the poems I read, stricter self-editing would have helped. It’s like enjoying a good meal. A dish with four items on the plate is more enjoyable than a dish with twenty.
One way to improve, and to kill off the cliché, is to read widely. It’s important to investigate all the great writers of the last 50 years to get a feel for how poetry works. I can’t provide a universal list here, but names such as Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin, Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage, Jean Sprackland, Clare Pollard and Matthew Sweeney spring to mind. If you’re a bit skint, pester your local library – they often have access to a range of poetry. Or get hold of an anthology of modern poetry. (I recommend Emergency Kit, edited by Matthew Sweeney and Jo Shapcott. It’s a fabulous collection).
There were recurring themes, including the passage of time, ageing, mortality and the changes of the seasons. Several poems focused on tragic accidents or untimely deaths. A number were inspired by paintings. Several writers expressed concerns about ecology and man-made pollution. While I was sympathetic to these concerns, I could hear the famous quote from John Keats ringing in my ears: ‘We hate poetry that has a palpable design on us…’
Many of the poems used the rhyming form, which is very hard to get right. Sophie Hannah and Wendy Cope are great poets who use rhyme, but I felt some of the poems I read fell into the trap of letting the rhyme lead the intention or meaning of the poem, something that often happens with rhyming poems.
A number of poems had ambition and intention but I felt they were one dimensional. I was looking for something with subtlety. Mystery and surprise are key elements of good poetry, and to overlook these is to halve the power of the form. Philip Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings is a wonderful example – the end of the poem becomes something mysterious and elegiac.
I was asked to choose nine commended entries. These were as follows:
Hot Night – simple and effective, I wished more poems in the competition shared the elegant simplicity of this poem.
Safe Journey – this was one of the few rhyming poems that worked well. The funny punchline made me smile.
Dictionaries – this poem is already strong, but with some careful editing could be something very special. The image of burning dictionaries and burning language is a powerful one.
Justin - this is a poem that avoids cliché and uses language in a fresh and powerful way.
Fleet – one of several poems that dealt with tragic circumstances. The power of this poem lies in what is not expressed.
Mousetraps – another poem that is simple and elegant. The poem expresses the anxiety of its female character very well.
Beneath The Bridge – an intriguing poem, perhaps inspired by the three Billy Goats Gruff? I liked the air of menace present in this piece.
Queen – This monologue from the perspective of a mummified woman has a great line that shows the horror of her situation: ‘my hooked womb and brain flung in a bucket’. Wow!
Migrants – a good poem about migrating birds. A lack of sentimentality gives this poem added muscle.
Highly Commended Poems:
Feeling the wood of Father’s bequeathed desk.
A powerful poem focusing on the importance of intimacy, love and physical contact. (I agree with this writer. Talk to each other. Hug each other. Life is short.) However, it wasn’t only the sentiment that struck a chord with me. The details here work well: ‘my freckled hand’ and ‘the smell of your starched shirt’ lend an authority to the author’s writing.
This poem has some excellent images. I liked the way the gutter becomes ‘a gorgoyle, incontinent’ – a clever image that avoids cliché and gains the reader’s attention. This poem is full of atmosphere.
A strong poem about family and time passing. The image of Grandma’s hands ‘gritty like sandpaper’ is very effective.
First Prize Winner
I re-read this poem several times. Each time, its qualities appealed a little more. Its precision is terrific, and the way it uses the senses (the ‘thumbnail-slit cellophane’, ‘180 grams, black and pure’) is excellent. Unlike many of the other poems, it never mentions ‘I’, ‘You’ etc, but confidently shares the experience of devotion to records. This is well constructed writing and precisely expressed.
Second Prize Winner
The Secret Of Small Strawberries
This is a moving poem, focusing, as good poems often do, on a small moment with a subtle expression of emotion. Its poignancy comes from the fact that the writer has obviously experienced this moment (the same goes for the first prize winner) and, again, the details are great, especially the eyes of the woman ‘glazed cataract blue’. I loved the compassion and tenderness in this poem.
Third Prize Winner
Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait aged 63
This was one of the best of several strong poems in the competition. The sentence beginning ‘But he was doing…’ could do with some editing, as it is ten lines long, and should be split into smaller sentences. However, there’s no denying the power of the final lines, examining Rembrandt’s ‘bone-black suffering eyes and padlocked mouth’.
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Sentinel Literary Quarterly Poetry Competition (July 2012). Closing Date: 20 June, 2012. Judge: Will Daunt. Enter here.
Sentinel Annual Poetry Competition 2012. Closing Date: 30 November 2012. Judge: Roger Elkin. Enter here.