Competition 2012: Judge’s Report – Neil Astley

The process of judging a poetry competition can feel like a bombardment: hundreds of poems all clamouring for attention, almost crying out Choose me! I’m the poem you want! It’s something of an emotional rollercoaster too: being suddenly sucked in to so many people’s lives, sharing their grief, heartbreak or regret. A recurrent theme in this year’s poems was familial love between children, parents and grandparents, observed from one or more of those perspectives: here the anonymity of the writers can make the poems feel even more universal when read en masse.

There’s usually a ‘review of the year’ element in annual competitions, but apart from a few poems referring to Obama, Bin Laden and the bankers, most of those submitted were thankfully not poeticised journalism. That’s not to say that poems responding to recent events are necessarily bad, it’s just that most are, because so many people are prompted to write them. I’ve probably only read half a dozen decent 9/11 poems in ten years but thousands of dreadful attempts, and none, incidentally, that were half decent; there seems to be no half way. The passage of time can help: there was one good poem relating to the 7/7 London bombings of 2005 among this year’s entries.

However, the big surprise for me was that while these highly literate poets eschewed the journalistic mode, ekphrastic poetry was very much à la mode, with numerous poems written in response to paintings and sculptures named in or after the title. The difficulty here is that the poem has to work on the page without the reader being familiar with the artwork which inspired it. Too often I found myself more interested in trying to imagine the art I was blindfolded from seeing than I was in reading the poet’s imaginative response to it.

Having read previous competition-winning poems in the magazine, I had expected that my own finalists would turn out to be similarly excellent, but what I hadn’t realised was that the overall quality of the entries would be so high that reducing the stack of photocopies to three winners and four commended poems would be so difficult. The final whittling down from two dozen possible candidates to seven was like a blind-tasting: each poem identified only by a number, each to be tasted again and again to try to identify those with the fullest and most subtle flavour.

There was also a problem in that I recognised the poem ‘Bird’, with its Black Country glosses, as clearly the work of Liz Berry, who won second prize in last year’s competition – judged by Paul Farley– with another poem using Midlands dialect. With the anonymity rule unintentionally broken in her case, I had to be even more rigorous in judging her work. Fortunately I had also shortlisted a second poem with the same entrant’s code number entitled ‘Scenes from the The Passion – The First Path’, and had it not been evident that this was the work of the same writer, I could easily have given these two poems the first and second prizes. Given the quality of both her poems, I felt that Liz Berry had to be awarded first prize for ‘Bird’, a poem which takes flight in language to become fully fledged in its own distinctive song.

All the poems I ended up selecting take the reader on a journey, with the final lines or images often being quite different from how the poems might have been expected to finish. ‘The Fish’ is remarkable for the way the fish imagery which carries the narrative swings between familiarity and alienation, enabling Amali Rodrigo to turn the poem on its head as the focus changes from unwilling mother to miraculous child. In ‘Blasket Sound’, Ellen Cranitch holds opposing forces in balance throughout: the boat tossed by the rough sea as the child is hugged by the comforting mother, the human pitted against the forces of nature, as the poem’s language enacts the difficult passage across the water to a place of safety.

My four commended poems too all start out in one place and end up in another; all are transformative. It also turned out – when the poets’ numbers were translated into names – that all seven poems I chose were by women writers. While poetry competitions are judged anonymously, that isn’t the case with books submitted to publishers or for prizes, or poems selected for anthologies, where the gender and ethnicity of the poet is known – and sometimes the writer is known personally. I leave the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about prejudice. But my own take is that when judging a competition, you are looking for poems which are complete in themselves, with a clarity of language and a fine balance of thought and feeling, and I think all my choices have those qualities. The old cliché about women’s poetry being more emotional doesn’t stand up in the case of the most crafted work; here – and in these poems certainly – it is more a question of emotional balance and sympathetic humanity, and the directness of address and clarity of language have a lot to do with this. The opening lines of all seven poems command the reader’s attention: you’re immediately drawn into the poem and you just want to keep reading, or listening (I did feel I was listening to these poets as I read them), and to go wherever the poem takes you.