Jo Shapcott Competition 2007 Judge’s Report
The large parcel of poems for judging was passed to me quietly, almost secretly like an exchange between spies, at a poetry reading in London in the first week of July. I sat listening to the (excellent) reader with only one ear, distracted by the package under my chair, wondering what was in there. When I finally came to open it, it was raining. In fact it seemed to be raining throughout the weeks I was reading through the contents of the parcel. Raining water outside and poems inside. But
the poems were good fresh rain. Growing rain, as I’ve heard it called. In the end they brightened things up because the overall standard was high, with more consistently good poems than in any other competition I’ve judged.
The quality of the poems made them a pleasure to read, like a giant anthology put together by someone with an eclectic and sometimes startling range of taste. But this made it harder than usual to sift through to my shortlist of twenty or so poems, from which I would choose the winners. The only way to approach the task was to reread all the poems, and then read them again. And again. Every time I judge a competition, I worry about the treasures which I may have missed – because I was tired reading the first time through, or simply distracted, or just not reading as well for a moment. However hard you try and however many readings you manage, it’s inevitable that something good will slip away. Because of the general high standard for this competition, I was even more aware of this possibility, which I tried to counter with as many readings of the big pile as possible. I carried sheaves of poems with me everywhere, popping a few in my handbag if I went out, to read on the bus.
Eventually my shortlist emerged. This group of around twenty by now dog-eared sheets became very familiar, and are all poems that I still think about from time to time and won’t forget. Robert Frost said that ‘writing a poem is discovering’. The three prizewinners and four runners-up which I finally chose all share this sense of discovery, of excitement in the language, and a useful tension in the line which never lets up during the downward momentum of the poem.
The four commended poems include: an exquisite sonnet, which is almost an elegy to smoking, to the old-fashioned romance of it which we hesitate now to mention; a daring double-bluff of a poem which pulls us into a landscape at the same time as deconstructing it as text; a psychological study of two people pulling each other too deeply into talking about death, with the harrowing image-world of the poem doing the real talking; and a surreal and startling encounter between doctor and patient.
Third prize went to ‘Wild Flowers’, a tightly realized villanelle. Within the strict parameters of the form wonderfully wild things happen. From the unexpected opening line, ‘I will be sober on my wedding day’, an almost gothic listing of matrimonial events follows. The poem is full
of exaggerated images of fecundity, and febrile sexual and religious ardour. At the back of all this hyperbole is a feeling that the frenetic dance masks the loss of so much; with the brilliant repeated line, ‘my tongue sleeping in her tray’, the silenced narrator lets us know the cost.
The fractured language of the second prize poem, ‘Syllable’, is brilliantly evoked to create a voice in stereo. The narrator peppers his/her own thoughts and responses to the hostile community with his/her own ‘translations’ of the voices he/she hears around. The poem holds up a mirror to contemporary western society, showing the inadequacy of understanding even for the most well-meaning of us, the ‘church boy’ and the ‘art girl’. The music of the fractured English is intense and strangely, shockingly beautiful.
The poem which won first prize was ‘Seven Weeks’. I was struck by the way the writer achieved the complex shape of the sestina with the minimum of staginess, making the form work for the poem. She has made the structure suit the circularity of bereavement, the heightened awareness of time passing, as the narrator counts the weeks since the death of someone close. The poem runs backwards, too, starting with the seventh Sunday since the death, every stanza representing a week, and each week a different character and colour of mourning, until the final short stanza which beautifully and solemnly evokes the moments immediately after a death.
The prizes were awarded and the poems read at our Autumn Launch on Wednesday 17th October, at the Gallery at Foyles, 2nd floor, 113-119 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H.
Finally, Poetry London is very grateful to all the people who entered the Competition.