By ROGER ELKIN
This is the fifth consecutive Sentinel Annual Poetry Competition Nnorom has given me the honour of adjudicating. As in previous years, the standard of entries was high, and the task of choosing very challenging, but simultaneously pleasurable. I hope folk won’t mind if I use the occasion to explore the writing of free-verse, the chosen form of over 90% of the entry.
Throughout the Competition Adjudication the definition of poetry I used as the most relevant in giving a focus for my reading and choice is by the American poet and critic, Louis Simpson:
Poetry is thought expressed in rhythm.
What I like about this definition apart from its directness, its brevity and its memorability, is its comprehensive generosity, ideal for an Open Competition. It does not proscribe the type, quantity, quality or intensity of thought. There is no limit to its subject matter, either in type, scope or area – it can be philosophical, descriptive, narrative. Similarly, there is no delineation of its form or structure; no suggestion as to its audience, or its purpose. So the resulting poem can be about nuclear physics or feeding the cat; a religious experience or a political diatribe; an epitaph, sestina, sonnet, villanelle; aimed at the pre-school child, the adolescent, the lover, the mature reader …. It can be serious, questioning, challenging, shocking, humorous, amorous – whatever … But what is important is that the poem reveals and demonstrates processes and explorations of thought. And by thought, I infer that Simpson also includes emotion and imagination: both of which are realms of and/or adjuncts to thought. Thought possesses the dynamic of creative vitality: it moves, shifts, changes, clarifies, muddies, grows, shrinks … It doesn’t stand still. And thought, when shared with others, changes again, and takes on different and subtle levels and nuances of meaning according to the sensibilities and experiences of the reader. The writing of poetry, like the process of thought, is a dynamic activity, growing from an embryonic flickering (mood, phrase, emotion, notion, insight) and developing almost organically into different shapes via the varied processes of recording those very processes of growth and change. These explorations of creativity and emotional intensity, the writing down of thought, become simultaneously both the vehicle for the poem and the vessel in which it is contained. In other words, FORM and CONTENT are interdependent. And this is true in free-verse as well as poems in traditionally-structured prosody such as sonnets and villanelles.
The most important element of both that vehicle and vessel is what Simpson identifies as rhythm. And it is significant that he chooses this single stylistic device from a whole battery of formal constraints and techniques. But let’s be clear what we’re talking about. As I understand it, rhythm is not to be confused with metre. Metre is concerned with the repetition of patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables; whereas rhythm is the tempo of the movement of the words set in conjunction with thought and emotion, sense and feeling. Alter the context in terms of sense and/or emotion – say in an elegy or an ode as opposed to a satiric villanelle – and the same words containing the same number of syllables (stressed and/or unstressed, patterned or not) will be delivered in a different tempo, a varying pace: one that suits the content, and therefore the meaning – not one that suits the patterned structure of syllables. This subtle playing off of the movement of words to underpin sense and emotion constitutes rhythm. Integral to this is the fact that that the choice of diction for such (poetic) purposes as assonance, alliteration, or even just for the pure sound quality of the words as companion to sense/feeling, or for the effects to be gained from the juxtaposition of monosyllabic with polysyllabic words – this choice is in itself central to the tempo of the movement of the words, and contributive to the poem’s rhythmic quality.
What became apparent during the Adjudication process was that too few “would-be” poets have a “good” grasp of this, and in attempting to compose free-verse end up with a product that lacks rhythm and which constitutes little more than prose chopped-up arbitrarily into lines: the sort of stuff that gives modern poetry a very “bad” name. In free-verse what is crucial is the process of lineation (the splitting of the content into lines) a feature which has to be undertaken carefully. It is in no ways arbitrary or to be executed cavalierly. Lineation controls the shaping of the poem’s intellectual and emotional content, its pacing, and rhythmic pulse. Lineation, line-enjambment (the running-on of sense via broken and incomplete phrase or clause over the end of one line or verse-paragraph and on to the next), and the sensitive use of punctuation are essential in controlling the rhythmic pulse in free-verse and help to give it its special musical qualities that distinguish it from prose. All these affect the rhythm and the sense of the line, and, ultimately, the rhythm and sense of the poem. A simple way of monitoring this is to read the lines out loud and introduce the slightest of pauses on an upbeat at the end of the line even though the sense is continuous. Doing this will help to confirm the cadential rhythm or breathing pulse of the lines. Checking this rhythmic integrity will also simultaneously confirm matters of sense: you’ll be able to see whether the line-breaks work against the meaning by emphasising the “wrong” word or part of the sentence, or such things as the auxiliary verb being broken away from the participle, the (in)definite article/possessive pronoun/adjective left hanging mid-air from the noun. Once identified, such matters are easily rectified. This is why it is necessary to “listen” to the rhythm of the lines – a practice which I always apply as part of the adjudication process by reading the submitted poems out loud. (Hearing this from distant rooms, my close family think I’m on the verge of losing the plot!)
Probably the best way to demonstrate this issue of lineation and rhythm is to put these ideas into practice with an example. Using the approach outlined above, read these lines out aloud, at least twice:
A snake came
To my water-trough
On a hot, hot day,
And I in pyjamas
For the heat
Now, adopting the same strategy, read these lines again but with their original lineation:
A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.
I feel sure that readers are able to identify that there are subtle differences in texture, mood, and feeling between the two versions. And this is encapsulated in and emphasised by the differing rhythm of the lines – i.e. in the tempo of the movement of the words. Given that the tempo is dependent on the context of the sense and feeling behind the events being described, this particular lineation, subtle and pointed, has helped to communicate the thoughts and emotions that D. H. Lawrence wished to convey. And such subtlety lies at the heart of the poems chosen in the final stages of this competition – a clear indication that their authors had an effective understanding of this finely-nuanced creative process, and the way in which the HOW of the poem (its technical means) affects the WHAT (its message and meaning); and vice versa!
Now to the adjudication results:
New Year’s Day
Postcard from the Algarve
The View from 92
Yeavering Bell Meets Goat Hill
Highly Commended Poems
First Sight of Leeds after Leaving the M1
Knots and Hitches
Night Notes on Sea (British Coast)
War Graves, the Devonshire Cemetery, Mametz
In 12 lines the poet creates a night-time landscape, and a sense of separation and loneliness that are made tenable and acceptable by a feeling of mutual trust, belonging and wonder. The description delineates with accuracy and precision the relationship between the sheep “like boulders rolled at random”; and the visiting narrator/owner “a statue at her gates”. Interestingly it is the capturing of the correspondents as made of stone and non-animate material that confirms their bond, even to the final recognition that while others move and depart, “we hold on”. What supports this admirably is the mix of diction: from the quasi-philosophical - “trapped in the antique, silent protocol / of mutual, mute stare, an equipoise” - to the physical and vernacular as one sheep “scrambles, shining, to her pins” and marks her ground with a “rushing piss”. There is an acute awareness of the sharing of two very different and distinct worlds in a level of understanding that inhabits the sense of time and place. This understanding is made more focussed initially by the light shining from distant car headlights which “bleach the nearest ewe to brilliance” and bring her to the narrator’s world, only then to be placed back in the darkness when “car roars away”, leaving poet and sheep in an even tighter bond, “far from home tonight”. This is mature writing, beautifully poised and pointed, in which what is not said is as articulate as what is said: it is the absence of verbal communication that the poem celebrates in its awareness of the presence of a relationship that can know no language.
Initially I almost overlooked this entry, considering that its title was a “cop-out”, the penning of someone who hadn’t thought about the importance of titles, and who had little idea of the nature of poetry and poetry competitions. But how wrong could I have been; the title is so apposite that to have an alternative more attention-grabbing one would have done the poem a disservice. This is a superb example of an extended metaphor, skilfully, cleverly and adroitly created, through its use of parallel worlds of meaning, wordplay, puns, verbal ambiguity, cliché and imaginative probings. To explain its intricacies fully would be to undermine the poem’s artistic integrity and achievement: and, at times, such is the poet’s referencing that the reader has to supply his own interpretation of the parallels; and that’s a clever ploy, if not risk. In the hands of someone less skilful, this strategy might have backfired. Suffice it to say, the poem explores the birth of poetic creativity while simultaneously drawing on a religious context referenced, though not stated as such, by the Biblical emphasis on the link between God/Christ and language/word/belief: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” For Word and God, the poet asks us, read Poetry – hence the title. So, the miraculous birth of Christ (“factotum, carpenter, / weaver of words”) becomes the crucible for this poem produced in “a workshop”. There are times when the sheer mental agility of the poet’s imaginative creativity brought a smile to my face. However, more exemplary is the movingly- understated characterisation of the role of Mary and poet in this birth: the origin of poetic creativity shares similarity with the notion of the Annunciation: “where the seed came from was hard to tell”; so since “No-one accused her of cribbing it”, she “went along with something someone had told her”; and the “poem, true to its humble roots, hid its light / under a bushel”. There is something tremendously moving to the point of being unbearable in the concluding two lines:
Left her lonely at the last,
his hands full of nails.
I am humbled by this achievement: the birth of this poem.
136 Jones, Paper-Boy
The title prepares the reader for the poem’s seeringly-critical analysis of the way in which humans are reduced to machines; and identity becomes a number and/or job-descriptor – one more man named Jones in a catalogue of enlisted Joneses - “the apprentice paper-hanger down from / Bawtry, or the newspaper lad from Leeds”- how effective are those place names in “locating” the poem’s 24-lined remit. Individualised only by civilian-profession, and a simultaneous reference to youth, this is the dispensable cannon-fodder of war; these “so many wonderful men”, the essential ingredient in social Darwinism. The adoption of the first-person soldier-narrator allows the use of a bluff sense of humour touched with class-jibing, and sarcastic probing. There is a clear growth of character here, including the use of a four-letter expletive, in no way gratuitous; and, despite the emphasis on the reductive nature of the war-machine, the creation of this individual soldier as a totemic young working-class combatant is masterly. This gives the poem tremendous authority and realism. The poem’s opening line, in its employment of the block capitals and diction of a boy’s comic, “Howl, HOWL, Whizbang!” immediately fixes the element of surrealism in the puerile and facile nature of the reality of war. Such is the layering of meaning throughout the poem that this “Howl” refers not only to the sound of war, but also to the shrieks of the soldiers, and the poet’s commentary on the waste of young blood. Similarly, the way in which class conflict is delineated and continues even during warfare is captured in the depiction of military order and discipline: “No Loitering / says my sergeant. Expectoration Forbidden / says Second Lieutenant Phipps”. The irony here resides in the fact that they cannot help but loiter for though “There is a bit of jostling, a little shove”, and “Chalky is upside down”, the soldiers “fall together, as if on feathers”, their “various pieces” “all present and incorrect, Sir”. The pacing, tone and sarcastic realism are captured skilfully in the use of casually-shifting sentences in which grammatical and verbal ambiguity coupled with the use of the demotic serve to underpin the satiric comment; and any anger is made palatable by the sardonic humour and litotes: “I feel a bit put out and want to pull myself together.” Such strategy means that the horror of events is understated: hinted at rather than graphically portrayed. And any reservation that the soldier/narrator being dead means there is an element of awkwardness or unreality in the poem is countered by remembering that Wilfred Owen’s Strange Meeting offers a precedent. Indeed, the ironic resolution and realisation of the poem’s final lines “the voices / whispering, ‘Sleep!’ … the body now beside me is my own” share elements with Owen’s strategy of the suspension of disbelief. The poet’s overall commentary about the lost seed of mankind, the demise of hope and youth, and the resolution of death as peace combine to create a disturbing work, which is both intellectually and emotionally questioning, and simultaneously life-confirming in its concern for humanity. This is an impressive poem; enviable in both its conception and its realisation!
Congratulations go to all the authors of Commended and Prize-Winning poems, and my thanks to all competitors for allowing me to share their worlds, thoughts, their laughter, tears and concerns: I learn such a lot from their writing. Finally, my thanks to Nnorom for honouring me with this assignment and for his continuing confidence in my judgement!
Three cheers for poetry! Long may the Sentinel Poetry Movement flourish!
Roger Elkin, 1st March 2015