By Roger Elkin
Adjudicating poetry competitions is like reading and re-reading a well-packed and un-themed poetry anthology, in which poems covering a wide range of subjects, lengths and approaches are juxtaposed. And, of course, an added attraction is that all the poems are by that famous and productive poemiser, Anon! This means that attention is closely focused on the poems, and not distracted by reputation: what matters is what is in front of the reader. And what a wonderful offering of ideas, thoughts and worlds to feast on in these lean January days!
As with previous years, what impressed was the strength of the entry. However, as with previous years, very few folk offered traditional forms, though there were a handful of sonnets, one villanelle, one sestina, and one (slightly faulted, and forced) mirror, cancrizan or specula poem, in which the lines of the first half of the poem are repeated in reverse order. This needs particular skill to bring off without the end product seeming too contrived.
Apart from this, the entry divided into two quite clearly distinct categories. The former contained many poems (usually lengthy) written with strong metre and usually in rhyming couplets or in patterns reminiscent of nursery rhyme or birthday-card doggerel, so that the need to satisfy the requirements of metre and/or rhyme led to automatic and predictable writing; the second (and by and far more popular) poems written in free verse. These two approaches have different problems: the former an aura of amateurish predictability which might be addressed by the use of half rhyme and more subtle metrical patterning; and the latter by the realisation that free verse is more than a matter of arbitrarily divided prose, but rather a subtle use of cadential rhythm, anaphora and parallelism.
Might I make a suggestion for future competitors to read the annual and quarterly adjudication reports for the previous years, supplemented by as wide a range of contemporary poetry as possible. Indeed, a sensible start might be any or all of the poetry publications from Sentinel Poetry Movement, All the Invisibles by Mandy Pannett; Letter Home & Biafran Nights by Afam Akeh; The Bridge Selection by Nnorom Azuonye; Nine East by Uche Nduka; Marking Time by Roger Elkin; Triptych by Obemata; and the poems in the Sentinel Literary Quarterly magazine, Sentinel Annual Literature Anthologies, and the archived Sentinel Champions magazines which are all still available in print and eBook. I would also suggest you get hold of The Genesis of Falcon – the Sentinel Annual Poetry & Short Story Competitions 2012 Winners Anthology available through the SPM Publications website, all Amazon channels and other bookstores.
Now to the adjudication results.
Commended Poems in alphabetical order by title:
A Roomful of Cupboards - Angela Croft
Another Life – Meg Gannon
Ardnish Peninsula, Scotland – Christopher Delaney
At the Last Minute – Alan Dunnett
Axis Mundi – Eilidh Thomas
Beneath – Josh Ekroy
Eating Oranges in the Car – Carolyn King
Five Go to Ipswich – Carolyn King
Fox Song – K. Clifton Mason
Full Moon – Christopher Delaney
Gamekeeper's Law – Eilidh Thomas
Hell is a pit of burning sulphur – Gabriel Griffin
Holding Ladders – Sue Sims
Les Gorges du Gardon – Sharon Black
Machair – Eilidh Thomas
Names – Margaret Gleave
Order Carnivora – Seth Insua
Revisiting – Brian Clark
Skua – Eilidh Thomas
The Cornish Hedge – Philip Williams
The Way She Scratches - Eoghan Walls
Tom Thumbs – Pat Borthwick
Wassailing – Diane Cook
Here are the 5 Highly Commended Poems, in alphabetical order by title:
Most poems about the natural world tended to present aspects of Nature devoid from mankind. In two free-verse stanzas Hummingbird by Mingjuan Tan successfully contrasts the delicacy, fragility, beauty, speed and single-mindedness of the bird by comparing it with man’s incompetence, indecisiveness and sluggishness. Thus, the first stanza depicting the bird's qualities is one involved but accessible sentence that unfurls to emphasise the creature's positive attributes – he’s on “fast-forward”, “dancing for wives”; while the second stanza depicting man's behaviour is made up of by 3 bluntly hesitant sentences replete with negatives and indecision. So that while the bird is seen to "flash", man can only "stand and gawk" - what an effective use of the vernacular!
Last Fish by Christopher Delaney, written in seven unrhymed quatrains, sensitively captures the relationship between two closely-linked people (father and son?) engaged in the watching and guarding of a garden pond with its koi and their offspring, and the process of their being protected from a visiting heron. The close focus on detail and the poem's gentle symbolism help to frame the concerns, anxieties and impending loss of the relationship. The careful choice of diction - "sudden flurries", "sunken havens", "frustrate", "breaking", "distress", "faltered" - prepares us incrementally for the element of threat and sense of loss of the last three lines:
fled through weedy runnels,
like panic signals
along damaged dendrons.
No Natural Predators by M V Williams is written in irregular stanzas which plot out in a sinisterly-humorous manner the problems connected with controlling species which have no natural predator and all of which are at home in the water they inhabit - mink, otter, coypu, the American crayfish. The fact that the poem’s narrator is sharing a boat with the pest-controller is underlined in the concluding stanzas of the poem. The spatial isolation of the final line
I wondered where he kept his gun
adds point to humankind as being beyond the realm of natural predation, but being rather the prey of his own species. Is it any wonder that the "boat wobbled a bit"!
Spring Wedding by Anne Lawrence is a disturbing poem exploring the aftermath of a youth's motorcycling accident. At the poem’s centre is the contrast between the invalided struggle - beautifully realised via strong sense description and exact verbal skills - and the exhilaration of his pre-accident freedom of action. The poem opens out to explore the pain and hurt of an entire family to include generations and the local community. This is assured and purposeful writing.
What I Know About That Morning by Fiona Ritchie Walker similarly deals with an event handed down generations, and which caused disaster and death. The writing is spare, and structured with two unrhymed couplets sandwiching five unrhymed quatrains each verse beginning with "that". This gives a distant, removed, almost unemotional feel to what is a traumatic event. This is compounded by the absence of qualifying words – throughout the poem there are only three adjectives, and one adverb – a solid example of disciplined writing which echoes the courage of its subject matter.
October Web by Philip Williams, the Third Prize poem, is a sensitive exploration of the task of removing a spider from the house, and "fling or tip" it outside, "where sage and fennel and night-breath thickens",
to take her chances
with the dusk, the dew, the sharpening stars.
Throughout, the description is accurate and exact, allowing the reader a clear visual picture of events, even though there is no explicit mention that a spider is the subject of the quest apart from the use of "web" in the title, and incidental details effectively described related to size. - "elbowed lift", "scuttle clear", "scrambling legs", "sprawls". Just a caveat re pronouns: the movement from the first stanza's "they" to a focus in the rest of the poem on an individual "she" is disconcerting, and perhaps even disingenuous, though the use of the feminine gender helps to contrast with the male window-cleaner, and thus remove any ambiguity!
The Second Prize, My last duchess by Caron Freeborn takes the conversational stance, the use of short sentences, fragments and dashes of Robert Browning's poem of the same title and successfully moulds them into a sestina. We are introduced to three quite distinct characters: the elderly deceased "duchess", an avid and arty collector of "little bits and bobs", "clock, box, cushions"; the caller/collector/ putative purchaser of "her odds and sods, her good stuff"; and the go-between agent, the poem's wonderfully-realized narrator, by turns engaging, encouraging, sycophantic, toadying, scheming, nasty, and finally dismissive. The growth of this shifting and developing portrayal is a real achievement within the complex and demanding sestina structure. Here the repetitions that are integral to the chosen form add tension to the poetic argument. Well done!
The First Prize poem, Green Sun by Sharon Black, is also built on a series of contrasts: this time between negatives and positives. The former catalogue of uncertainties, threats and strangeness - "alien heat", "wasn't sure", "strange commotion", "different", "panicked", "wouldn't make", "wilted", "burning plastic", "lop-sided", "shouting a warning" - is balanced by a more assuring list - "bodies warming", "pale and smooth", "firmer", "led us winding", "hanging like lanterns", "showing the way". This contrast helps to flesh out the enigmatic nature of the poem, with its arresting title, and its suggestions of other lives and situations. The poem treads a careful path - suggestive without being overly sensual, explicit or dramatic in expression - the emotional impact held in place by the clear focus on precise visual detail, and the open-ended final couplet:
as if one voice had given up shouting a warning
and the other was showing us the way.
This is a powerful, understated poem about loyalty, loyalty broken, love and commitment at the point of challenge.
Congratulations go to all the authors of Commended and Prize-Winning poems, and my thanks to all competitors for allowing me to share from the comfort of my home their worlds, thoughts, concerns and ambitions. Especial thanks as always to Nnorom for his continuing confidence in my judgement and for honouring me with this especial assignment!
Three cheers for poetry!
A big thank you to Roger Elkin for doing a good job with this year’s competition.
Please note, this competition was judged blind and I have inserted the names of the authors in the body of this report to make it easier without a need to create a separate document.
We will be in touch with the winners within the next 7 days and by tne end of March we will announce when the winners anthology will be published. All the winning, highly commended and commended poems will be included in the anthology.
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