Poetry London 2017 Competition: Judges Report

Judging a poetry competition is like putting your ear to a seashell to hear what the sea has to say: a strange, choric and slightly unreal experience, a multitude of voices rising up and washing over you from out of the dark. All the time you are waiting for a voice that sings, a poem that refuses to fade or be quietened by those around it, a poem which feels like it has to exist.

The hundreds of poems submitted for this year’s Poetry London competition were tremendously and dauntingly varied in tone, form and subject – tender and unflinching, intense and fragmentary, beautiful and at times utterly baffling. As ever, there were patterns and recurring themes. There were very many ekphrastic poems and poems about artists or other writers; a higher than average amount of epigraphs; and an awful lot of violence. Is this a sign of the times, I wonder, or something lurking within us that poetry allows us to conjure up and explore?

Competitions piles are tough places for poems and this one was especially tough as the standard was so very high. I know how much it means to win a competition like this – that lovely strange thrill of knowing your poem has shone out – and so I read the entries carefully and repeatedly until little by little a sheaf of poems rose to the top. It was a hard job. There were many poems which I felt very sad to leave behind – great poems full of fine writing which would be a gem in any magazine. Often I found myself wanting to read more, to see the poem as part of a pamphlet or collection, to enjoy the way a poet can take their time and build momentum and theme there. But that’s not the way a competition like this works so I just want to say a secret bravo for those wonderful poems and their poets who, though sadly they will never know, have given me great pleasure and kept me company on this judging journey.

So here are the winners, the bobby dazzlers that I fell for. I chose them with a mixture of head and heart, guided by that electricity and ache I feel when I discover a poem I love. Many of the poems in the final pile have something magical about them, some strange mystery that I can’t quite explain or put my finger on but that drew me back to them again and again.

Crocodile – This poem haunted me. I woke up in the night thinking about it, fretting about it. It’s taut, intense and disturbing. From its compelling opening, ‘I know how I will die then/in a death roll”, the lines roll into each other with an unstoppable force, as powerful and violent as their subject, pulling us under. The voice is ambiguous and compelling. There is nothing easy about this poem but it fizzes with electricity and is unforgettable.

Cages – This poem took me by surprise as at first glance it seemed tricksy. However, I returned to it again and again and each time read it differently and more deeply. A perfect cage on the page, the shifty form is cleverly used and draws you to read and reread, remaking the narrative and reassessing its meanings. Its conversational, casual style is deceptive because the question it asks is an urgent one in these divisive, difficult times: “What if… I was left pinning all my hopes on a passing stranger?” What is our responsibility to others, our responsibility to show empathy and compassion in our everyday lives?

The memory-foam pillow – There were very few truly joyful poems in the bunch but this delightfully surreal ode to a pillow bought me an enormous amount of joy! It’s odd, playful and beautifully written; magic made from a most unlikely subject. I just wanted to read it again and again. That lovely baffling ending sealed the deal.

I need the Courage of a Cremated Woman – Oh I so liked this strange clever poem and its wry, intriguing voice. It’s full of beautifully surreal lines, wit and mystery. The voice and character the poet creates is just irresistible – “Merciful Margaret with the fireball/in the centre of her earth”!

Dare – There’s something lovely and against-the-odds sexy about this plain speaking poem. The details of the frosty night streak are vivid – “the sugar spoons/ of privet leaves” and conjure perfectly the chill of the flit. Then all of a sudden comes the heat and melt of the final couplets with their gorgeously bold come on.

The Twilight Sleep II – There was something about this poem (part of a sequence) which made me think of the wonderful and unsettling poems of Selima Hill in ‘Lou Lou’. It’s a poem that haunted me from the beginning as it seems to say something very relevant about the ever present threat to women’s rights and control over their bodies. The voices of the mothers in the two final stanzas are chilling in their fear and vulnerability as death, life and consciousness are suspended for these “bright spring flowers/picked during a gale.”

Orgasm as Lapwing – Beautiful and puzzling, this taut little poem takes the metaphor of its title and conjures something wonderfully dramatic and fresh.