There were nearly 600 entries in this year’s competition. It is heartening that so many older women are turning to poetry to share our deepest feelings, our most intense experiences and our pleasure in the world. Recurring themes included, unsurprisingly, illness, loss, death and grief, but also new relationships and the comedy of everyday life. There were many vivid portrayals of post-war childhood, grandparents’ households, the freedoms and restrictions of youth.
What we found immediately engaging in the poems we short-listed, separately and together – those that made what Neil Astley called ‘the jolt of a live connection’ – was a sense of control of both feeling and form. Emotional restraint is hugely powerful, as demonstrated in different ways in each of the prize-winning poems. Control over the chosen shape or form of a poem as the container of ideas or observations is also central to the quality of the whole. We welcomed consistency in the development of an idea through imagery, the skilful weaving of metaphor throughout the poem. We listened to the sound patterns of each poem, its musicality, admiring both energy and quietness, and the relevance of rhythm to feeling. It was hard to whittle down from our short list to the final thirteen, and other poems came very close. In the end we found certain poems just took up residence in our minds and stayed there, including one very clever and funny parody.
We experienced a similarity of effect unrelated to any similarity of theme in many of the entries when we were in the early stages of identifying those poems that made a particular impact. Finding out and saying what we mean in a poem is more difficult than it seems, and often the best way is through close attention to the cohesiveness of the poem. Sometimes a poem started well but lost momentum. Sometimes observations were added to the original but nothing was fully developed. There was a plethora of metaphor in some poems, garnered from different sources and not integrated, so that the result was a box of oddments, sometimes delightful in themselves but not amounting to a whole.
Many poets struggled to find a language adequate to deal with the huge themes they set out to address. Finding a fresh way of phrasing can bring new life to a concept, and detailed attention to matters of punctuation and line-breaks – small things, perhaps – are important for the sense and sound of a poem. Less is sometimes more when it comes to adjectives and adverbs – too many can act as a distraction and serve to weaken the impact of an idea or image. At times too the sheer difficulty of finding an effective rhyme can constrain a poem and make it less that it could be. Our intention in making these points is to be helpful rather than discouraging – reading so many poems produced valuable insights that we wanted to share.
In each of the three winning poems, the vocabulary held surprises, throwing fresh light on the subject while never wasting words.
Ann Alexander’s poem ‘To the front, as night is falling’ is deeply satisfying: it is beautifully crafted, the narrative is seamlessly developed with the help of list-lines as a kind of refrain, the metaphor in the brilliant and moving last line binding it all together.
Rosemary Doman’s poem ‘Raising the Dough – Bread Therapy for a Refugee’ is also powerfully moving, and impressive in the way it says so much through such modest means. It’s an intimate poem with carefully integrated imagery. Read it aloud for its strong heart-beat, its hard-working verbs.
Wendy Klein’s poem ‘Elysian Fields’ is also quietly understated, its apparent simplicity disguising its craftsmanship. It is neatly shaped, travelling in memory from the gentle life of the pasture to the town bustle of the horse-drawn hearse and back to meadowsweet and vetch. Read it aloud for the contrasting sound effects.
Thank you, Grey Hen Press, for the privilege of judging this competition, and thank you, poets, for such a feast. We have enjoyed it very much and learned much in the process.
Meg Peacocke and Elisabeth Rowe