Bedford Open Poetry Competition 2009 – Judge’s Summary
‘Of course I’d be happy to judge the competition, Merryn’, I said to the editor, ‘provided you don’t think I’m too mainstream’. She didn’t think I was, or that it would matter too much. My apprehensions were allayed. It was strange to be a poacher turned gamekeeper, for nearly forty years a submitter of rather formal poems (so a bit of an outsider), transformed into an adjudicator of other poets’ submissions. Submissions, it quickly became evident, which deployed no little variety of metre, form, theme, outlook and attitude (and, agreeably, ‘attitude’). I hope the list of winners and commended poets reflects the variety.
Competitions are about individual poems rather than books or chapbooks, though I did note that the winner and two runners-up each had at least two poems in the final shortlist (in two cases, three). My original hope was that I would come across resonant poems such as Ann Drysdale’s ‘Nuns, Skating’, or Andy Croft on Ellen Wilkinson, or the best work of Duncan Forbes or John Whitworth or, in the United States, Tim Murphy, or, to be less mainstream, Paul Durcan or a witty, quirky poem like Les Murray’s ‘Black Belt in the Marital Arts’. This hopeful notion indicates my own bias or predilection for economy, point, clarity and structure and, no doubt, the Cleopatra of wit and humour (we need its ‘bonus’ to help us down Cemetery Road). I didn’t want, however, personal tastes to determine my choices. I resolved firmly to be fair to the Quoofish, to Ashberydom, to the post-modern, to psycho-geographical poetics (should they turn up), to the subversive; to be open-minded about the deeps or shallows or rip-tides or white-water sections of the poetry river system beyond the mainstream.
I reread the report of my predecessor competition judge John Fuller with relief ‘….. since good poems can lose, does that mean the winners are better? Blame the chance of one man’s taste …. another judge would, I am sure, have chosen differently …. I know that I myself might well have chosen differently last week, and differently again next week …. Preferring this or that good poem is influenced by mood and whim, and I would not like to think that my difficult decisions were set in stone ….’. My own judging experience leads me to endorse this frankness.
My shortlist did, in fact, stay relatively stable. But it was interesting to note how one or two poems, on the edge of inclusion, slowly impressed themselves on the mind (and in the affections) during the rereading, reconsideration process, advancing into contention. Consistency and structure lay behind this, asserting their power. Conversely, brightish pieces that appealed at first reading could begin to disclose flaws; once or twice, say, concluding lines or couplets did their job all right, but not convincingly enough, compared to other submissions.
I did insist on reading all the poems (more than once, too). There was no ‘weeding-out’ stage. If you paid your dues and sent in, I read your piece/s – out of democratic, or protestant, conviction. Rumours do circulate about competitions where submissions are first read and weeded out by some understrapper, with only a percentage of the (fee-paying) poems arriving on the desk of the nominated judge or judges. I hope this is only a rumour.
As far as subject-matter is concerned, there were a good number of poems on illness, hospitals, grief and bereavement — touchingly so. A good deal of nature – woods, hedgerows and beaches – as backgrounds or stages for incident, meeting or reflection; not a lot, though, about global climate change anxieties, which surprised me. Commuting to, and life in, the office, featured, as did family life, especially descriptions of aunts, uncles or grandparents whose vivid characters were often set in their particular age, sometimes recalled from the writer’s own childhood. Afghanistan featured too and, at the opposite end of the scale, some jogging and keep-fit poems. On the credit-crunch, bank-managers, ATMs, mortgages or investment advisers, there was curiously little. Computer technology was also in short supply as a topic; little of cyberspace, laptops and mobiles, an area Don Paterson mined for one of his poems in Rain. Several poets saw contemporary life with exasperated, tolerant irreverence, often amused, quizzical and in some cases creating surreal landscapes. The judge could chuckle over these. That overused but I suppose useful poetry review adjective, ‘wry’, comes to mind.
The most difficult thing about decision time was having to say a regretful no to some poems on the short-list. From re-reading, I had become familiar with and, in cases, fond of lines, insights and moments in them. Let me credit the ‘near misses’ and ‘not quites’ (I am not a stranger to rejection slips of that type myself!), ‘A Fortnight’, (Dorothy Pope), ‘Duke Senior’s Song’ (Robert Nisbet), ‘Never too late for a key to the door’ (Grahame Young), ‘Chimney Crazy’ (Peter Wyton), ‘Stabbing’ (Laura Garratt), ‘Office Workers’ (Ashleigh John), ‘Infidelity’, ‘Hospital Appointment’ (two by the runner-up), ‘Bull’, ‘With Love?’ (two by the winner), ‘Illustrating the Past’ (Jenny Morris), ‘The Documentary Model’ (Ed Reiss), ‘Before the Flood’ (by the third prize-winner), ‘Trust me, I’m a Doctor’ (John Whitworth), ‘Sleepwalker’ (Howard Wright) and ‘The Future of the Wind’(Alesha Nicholson). There were others. They bear out John Fuller’s point that a competition like this is not a matter of ‘rivals for a prize’ but a ‘communal enterprise’ and shared endeavour.
The winner was ‘Diagnosis’, an accomplished and confidently-phrased poem with good narrative line and a surprise ending, coolly brought off. The fourth verse, for example, is assured in its grasp of the nuances of a conversation between partners, each with their own concerns. Full of black humour and witty, it made me think of the work of Raymond Queneau. A spirited and original piece.
‘Logging’ came second. A bright and engaging poem in terza rima, the nature description is lively, and I like the way the poem moves from icy beach onto a different level, into a more personal dimension or landscape, speculating on the psychology of quest and, it seems, acquisitive desire.
‘A Zoo Full of Unicorns’ came third. Like ‘Logging’, it is economically written, more conventional in tone, scene-setting and outlook. I like its cadences, and its sense of the strangeness of, and wonder at, the mythical animals. The ‘strength and delicacy’ ascribed to them might be applied to this attractively evocative poem.
Among the commendations, ‘Passenger’ is a poem of Hardeian drama and sadness, told, to use Hardy’s word, in an ‘impersonative’ way. The poem grew on me after I had taken in the tense, busy first verse. It is underpinned by discreet skilful rhyme, and crystallises a life-story (an economic one) and life-crisis into the train journey.
‘The Poetry Reading at Under Orchard Moon’ is very different, an intriguing exercise in the comic-surreal, with a matter-of-fact flowing account of odd events, setting and characters, with crazy details such as the rugger socks and motorbikes. It undermines expectations, then, without losing its buoyancy, smuggles in a sense of loss (of spirituality?) at the end, as the quiet poetry-writing nun addresses the visitors.
‘When I Heard the Learned Professor’ works in an altogether simpler, direct, satirical mode, clearly-written in respect of its comic genre. It doesn’t overegg the pudding, and uses a nice change of metre for the good pay-off final line. One knows, as well, how the poet feels.
‘Saddleback’ is a realistic, well-sustained, lively ‘nature’ description (of a pig). I liked the image in verses three and four, its assured control throughout, and witty ending. The poet seems to have enjoyed his depiction, and the creature stays in the mind.
‘My Mother’s Medicine Cabinet’ overcomes the risk or temptation of nostalgia through its control and economy. There is something of a restrained, accurate still-life in its atmosphere. It has resonance. The jars and bottles in the cabinet trigger memories of a childhood past as well as the self-reliant character (probably a parent?) who supervised the medicines.
‘For a Dead Princess’ is a more discursive memorial piece, its congenial voice tolerating the disastrous conduct of the mother’s funeral (the awful insensitive organist and then the loss of the urn!) with a kind of long-suffering scepticism. The speaker is unfazed, as a full portrait of mother (and family circumstances) emerges.
‘Mnemonics’ is precisely conceived, a closely-argued poem which reflects on the processes of infinite-seeming geological time on a gravestone (it seems). I liked the cool, succinct ending. The cadences worked for me when I read the poem aloud.
‘Into Winter’ is a free verse conversational narrative. It starts with an everyday local landscape of woods and concern for an independent old fellow who goes for country walks alone. Then it moves onto a strange level where, in the snow, the man’s transformed not so much into a ‘green’ as a ‘white man – but is safe. Is this consoling or discomforting? I’m left pondering.
I hope that the winning and commended poems will please and/or challenge – stimulate, anyhow – readers of The Interpreter’s House. May I conclude with a word of thanks to Merryn Williams for asking me to judge the competition? We readers of ‘little magazines’ owe a big debt of gratitude to tireless and dedicated editors like her.