Competition 2014: Judge’s Report – Michael Symmons Roberts

Such is the reputation of Poetry London, and its poetry competition, that I knew the standard would be high and my choices would be tough. I had the privilege of judging this competition once before, when Kathryn Simmonds won with ‘Sunday at the Skin Launderette’. I’d read some remarkable writing that year, and hoped (dreaded) that my job would be as hard with this year’s poems. It was.

What was I looking for? There is no tick-box list for a prize-winning poem. Of course there must be an engagement or negotiation with form, an awareness of where and why to break a line, an ear for the music. But beyond that it gets hard to pin down. The best poems remind you that a poem is a made object, not just an act of self-expression. They read as exploratory, not simply as an account of pre-formed ideas or feelings. Every time you judge a competition like this, it reminds you that some themes never go away. I saw a lot of elegies – some very moving – a lot of love poems, or loss-of-love poems, and a lot of reflections on childhood. Again, I had no preconceptions about subjects I did or didn’t want to read about. I’d be worried if we felt all the love poems and elegies had been written now, and I was delighted to place a beautiful love poem in my final three.

And then there’s the strange zeitgeist sense I’ve had before with poetry competitions, that the same images tend to come up in different poems by different poets. This year, for some reason, there were lots of cows and dogs. And perhaps more surprisingly, a scattering of nightjars. The winning poem was not the only place I met a nightjar in this batch.

So it was tough to get down to a final few poems. I had to let go of a number of poems I really admired, but the final seven insisted on being kept in the frame. They are accomplished, ambitious and surprising. I hope Poetry London readers enjoy them as much as I did. It was very difficult to tease out a 1st, 2nd, 3rd and commended order to those poems, but that was the job, so I had to do it.

The four commended poems – by Geraldine Clarkson, Bethany W Pope, Paul Stephenson and Tim Turbull – could hardly be more varied. They are, by turns, witty, daring, tender, playful, moving and profound. When the names of the poets were revealed, it was no surprise to find that these were poets with work already out in the world, already winning over readers and audiences.

But I had to come up with a final three, and in the end I gave third prize to Stephen Sexton’s ‘Elegy for Olive Oyl’, second prize to Beverly Nadin’s ‘6 a.m.’ and first prize to Jon Stone’s ‘Nightjar’.

‘Elegy for Olive Oyl’ is – as its title suggests – a lament for Popeye’s famous sweetheart. It goes with a lick and a swagger, a cartoon conceit but a genuine elegy too.

‘6 a.m.’ is a beautifully judged love poem, deceptively simple but built on intricate patterns of rhyme and rhythm. Like the best love poems (whether the lover is real or imagined), it reads like eavesdropping on a personal letter. As Eliot puts it ‘private words addressed to you in public’.

And finally, ‘Nightjar’. This had me hooked from first reading. Dense and lyrical, this short poem is wound so tight that it kept calling me back to try to tease out more of it. An extended metaphor beginning with the German phrase ‘Du hast einen Vogel’ (meaning figuratively ‘you’re mad’) it conjures a tipping-point in the mind of the narrator – a heady mixture of elation and despair. The music is striking – it sings! – and its play with the imagery of bird and moth took my breath away.