We each read all 549, without pre-discussion. Coding mine with a tick, a cross, a question mark, or combinations of these took about two days. From that we each drew up a shortlist of about 25, among which, mercifully, were four in common. Our longlists, however, contained no overlaps. None of my straight ticks appeared in Janet’s list, or vice-versa. Gulp. And there were dozens of good poems. Well conceived, well sustained, well structured, well restrained. Brave. Witty. Intelligent. Important. Impassioned.
To reach a consensus we each chose five from the other’s list – carefully re-thinking our criteria. Over a four-hour meeting we then discussed every poem on a shortlist of 25, giving us two-too-many leaders, and one-too-few runners-up. Damn! Our brains hurt. We had vague misgivings about the originality of some, and ransacking long memories, each identified specific antecedents which, laudable influences though they were – and accepting that most art plagiarises or steals – still made the poem less original. This eliminated three more. From there it was even more important to clarify exactly what distinguished a poem or let it down.
Only one of the four we had had in common came through all this, to first place. ‘Compline’, whether experienced or imagined, opens metrically, lyrically and movingly onto millennia of human displacement. A positive spin on dementia though unusual is not new, but we found ‘Forgetting’ particularly life-enhancing: deceptively simple yet formally adept. ‘The Smell of Being Free’ is a vivid, sustained piece of synaesthesia, further amplified by its title. The runners-up we could not begin to put in order; none was perfect but all were distinctive in either form, content or both, all repayed re-reading and imparted something valuable. To everyone who entered and taught us so much, thank you.
1st Eleanor J Vale – Compline
The undisputed winner, this refugee’s prayer for safety, warmth, food and the opportunity to tell their story, is so musical it could be sung. But there is irony in the title: compline is normally said or sung in the safe haven of church, convent or monastery; this refugee is out in the bitter cold with a child. The description in the poem moves from the pastoral – tamarisk, swaying grass, grazing cattle, to the visceral – crusted throats, bellies, and finally to the fantastic ‘where mountains once touched stars’ which wonderfully evokes the homeland before it was destroyed: a place of free aspiration and imagination.
2nd Annette Isles – Forgetting
We loved the hopefulness of this poem: forgetfulness – perhaps even in dementia, might be good, freeing us from fears and inhibitions. The playful tone created by the perfectly managed rhymes is a delight.
3rd Anne Hay – The Smell of Being Free
An informal piece, this poem enthusiastically details a family’s many insalubrious pleasures.
Eventually we see that indulgent freedom came at a price: children’s play-fights ‘veered towards Lord of the Flies’, the parents died young. The final sentence makes us reconsider the hardworking title: although the children are free of the freedom-givers they aren’t free of their earlier lives: the smells linger.
Heather Cook – Disappearing
Particularly vivid free-verse depiction of old age with its losses and indignities prompting us to ask whether they are worse for the mother or the observing daughter.
Judith Drazin – Lambing
Subtly observed contrast between the natural and the artificial as a delicate lady is asked by a farmer to care for new-born lambs in her home.
Pippa Little – West Acres
Very vivid re-creation of a child’s un-soothed night-time fears.
Judith Priestman – Big Cats
Hughesean evocation of animal grace, power and ferocity both real and mythic.
Fokkina McDonnell – Self-portrait with beret, wide-eyed
Effective collage poem juxtaposing medical forms, reports and letters with titles of works by Rembrandt in the British Museum.
Lindy Newns – Chattels
Entertaining, rhythmic and rhymed meditation on attitudes to possessions.
Helen Scadding – Making the Bed
Lovely ‘sharp tender shock’ poem with bed-making as metaphor for the un-making of a relationship.
Andrea Small – Ora Pro Nobis
Six engaging four-line stanzas tell how Mrs. Brunty remembers stitching the cloth which now covers the tabernacle; she was in an orphanage where there was ‘needling out’ of sins.
Lynda Turbet – Does your mother know you’re out?
The significance of ‘out’ gradually emerges here as we’re given painful details in the life of a woman selling sex in order to buy drugs.
Jenny Vuglar – Speaking to the Bees
Unusual free-verse poem of bereavement and ‘choosing’ of response.
We thought these poems were the best, but there were many more which we also found thought-provoking and enjoyable. We hope you’ll keep writing.