Judges report, Grey Hen Poetry Competition 2017

It was extremely interesting to read 400 poems written by women over 60. At first we were not sure exactly what we were looking for in terms of prize-winning quality, though judges and editors say again and again how much they want to be ‘surprised.’  In the end, that element of surprise became an issue for our adjudication.  It was not surprising that women of our generation wrote about memories:  memories of childhood, memories of the death of parents, spouses, siblings, and the occasional pet.  It was the way so many poets executed these memory pieces that did not quite evoke the level of surprise/wonder we were looking for.  There were gorgeous, moving poems, saturated with deeply-felt loss, but evoked just a bit too similarly.


The first three prize-winners fell out so naturally, and not one of them was a personal evocation of memory. Hurdle-maker, was captivating from the first line.  Here was history, relationship, and internal dialogue between a small daughter and a father on a subject so difficult for any parent to manage.  It held the universality that raises a poem topic above the everyday.  The repetition of the word ‘mercy’ is threaded through so delicately: ‘errands of mercy’, ‘works of mercy’, ‘cradles of mercy’, and even the little girl who is named ‘Mercy’.  Congratulations to this first prize winner.


Not far behind was What Price a Diamond, upon which we agreed in our initial long-lists.  It is a theme not infrequently explored in contemporary poetry.  To quote Norman MacCaig, “There’s more truth in a fisherman’s jersey than in the works of Hegel…’, (Discolourations). The evocation of the woman knitting the garment, which will identify her drowned husband or son is precise and almost matter-of-fact, but a knitting exercise fraught with emotion: ‘You purl up a jewel close / to his heart…’  The repetition of ‘the playing of the bones’ in the first and final stanza is chilling.  Congratulations to this worthy winner.


Not as fraught with emotion, but every bit as finely crafted is Lang Lang’s Piano Tuner. This poet has a keen eye for the particular:  a theme, a character slightly off the radar and metaphor to develop it.  The blurring between the tuning fork and the man who tunes his piano played out delightfully as a bird who ‘pings the tuning fork till it sings like a bird;’, the hands of pianist hover over the keys ‘splay-fingered as wings’ as ‘birdsong flies from the piano’s throat/note after perfectly-tuned note.’


Choosing the highly-commended and commended poems was more difficult. There were many which could have been selected and did not make the final sift.  Equally, the first two highly commended poems, The Day the Farm Sold (an image of the heron standing where its pond used to be in the final line), and Stefan’s Confession, which is held back so beautifully until the final tercet, might have made the sift into prize-winners, as they were both exquisite.

The final eight commended poets all have much to be proud of in an impressive long-list of 30 poems. We found immediate agreement on four, and had sufficient overlap in our lists to agree quite readily on the remaining four.

Denise Bennett and Wendy Klein