Poetry London Clore Prize 2018 judge's report

JUDGE’S REPORT by Kwame Dawes

I avoided counting the number of poems I would have to read, depending, instead, on a crude system of treating the slowly shortening pile as evidence of my diligence and industry. I read poem after poem, making quick notes on each sheet – the notes included a brief comment, a kind of justification for the score that I gave the piece in my own shorthand. I would draw lines under the lines that caused me to wince, and almost always a poem stumbled around diction, syntax, and cliché of language or idea. Where a moment was arresting or appealing, I would make a mark. Of course, I knew that what I was doing was simply giving myself brief reminders of what I needed to pay attention to when I made my second round. I had worked out the plan for this judging before starting. It was not complicated.

My remit was to select seven poems. Seven. And among that seven would be one winner, two runners-up and four commendations. After reading about ten poems, I assessed the quality of the work to be decent – meaning I would need to read with care each entry before eliminating it. Of course, the core task was elimination. It is possible, it seems to me, to be at once open to be startled and delighted by high-quality work, even while plowing through with the goal of reducing the number of poems that would require greater scrutiny and consideration.

Dutifully, I scanned those poems that started off badly. The quality was of a decent sort – the first editors who screened the pool to this current pile before me had eliminated those poems that seemed unlikely to enter into the fray of the best work. I have no idea how many entries came in the first place, but given what I had before me, I could only assume I was spared reading work that simply would not contend.

My first cut brought me to forty poems, all of which scored five or above out of ten. I had also tagged several additional poems as contenders. These scores were made quickly and impulsively. I also was making note of the poems I needed to work on some more; this is what I did with the forty poems. Here the styles varied, as did the themes, and the landscapes ranged from London’s underbelly to rural Jamaica, to South Korea, to Italy (a lot of Italy, go figure), the American west, Australia, India, Chile, Ireland and on and on. London, after all, is a global city.

I believe that what guided me most in cutting that longer list down to ten or so were the notes I made that were identical to those I would normally make on a manuscript as an editor.  The fewer notes, the fewer instances where I would have tested a word choice or the clarity of an idea or the consistency of form, the more likely it was that the manuscript would be among the contenders. But the overriding guide for me was just how much the poems moved me or how much they seemed fresh and original in thought and feeling, and how they managed, in some way, to let me feel that I was reading the work of a poet whose form matched their passion and imaginative energy.

The obvious needs to be said, in the end. I can’t claim to have selected the ‘best’ work. The winners are what I can safely call the poems that, after repeated readings, hold up as fully realized works with layers of meaning and texture, poems that prove rewarding and satisfying after each reading. These are generous prizes and they speak to the value that Poetry London is placing on poetry for our time. I pluck these moments from the three top poems, and smile at how they continue to delight.

My mother
hides in the staff toilet
to make long-distance calls
(from ‘Names’, by Romalyn Ante)

‘Names’ is a sprawling meditation on themes of emotional and familial exile. There is in this poem an enactment of Elizabeth Bishop’s question ‘Should we have stayed at home?’ For Bishop there seems to be a choice; for the poet of ‘Names’ there is no choice, really, but the ritual of discovering home, a place of belonging in memory and in the names that are given to us. It is a complex poem of tentacles that plait themselves together beautifully.

Then there is this sliver in the poem ‘Children of the Revolution’.

stripped pine-trees to chew the green inner bark,
picked pigweed, hogweed, horseweed, wort,
pounded acorns into a pulp –
(from ‘Children of the Revolution’, by S K Kim)

The first-person plural is a tricky voice for a poem that is at once trying to create a collective sensibility – a people, if you will – while still ensuring an intimacy that is vulnerable and disarming. The true achievement of this poem is technical, it lies in the use of details, the close-up that is represented, for instance, in the litany of weeds – there is texture, smell, a truly sophisticated sense of place captured with deftly chosen words. In the end, the historical is achieved without succumbing to the impersonal.

In ‘Heaven’ there is the lyric persona, the first person who sits in the middle of family history and doggedly stays there. In the end, what keeps us alert through this poem of gentle narrative description are the surprises, like ‘bewilderment’ as the contagion that kills an aunt in Africa, or the raspberry-flavored cough syrup secreted in the other aunt’s bag. And then this, early in the poem:

We take a yellow cabbage to the hens
then carry on downhill to the boats
(from ‘Heaven’, by Selima Hill)

Everything seems so familiar here, and then, thus lulled, we are awakened by surprise.  It’s lovely for being so deftly executed.

Kwame Dawes
Lincoln, Nebraska,
July 2nd, 2018

See the Competition page to read the winning poems.


Poetry London is delighted to announce that this year the Poetry London Competition is generously funded by the Clore Duffield Foundation and match-funded by Catalyst Evolve, Arts Council England.