It was a privilege to read these poems, and there were far more good ones than we could acknowledge. When we found out who had written what, I was struck by how many names – including all three winners – were new to me, which suggests that too many older women are nervous about sending out their work. Women over sixty have lived through enormous changes. Some of their poems carried me decades back into a world where people had coal fires and sewing boxes, and boys read the long-defunct Eagle, and teachers were allowed to hit children. There were many sad reflections on widowhood, dementia, and old age. There were not so many poems inspired by the pandemic, but I was glad to discover ‘Red Stars’ and ‘Reflecting on a friend’s letter written on New Year’s Day 2021’, both about isolation. Then there were all the ‘condition of women’ poems, which boldly go to places where no man has gone before. Two which stick in my mind and which we couldn’t find room for were about bright little girls whose fathers kept putting them down. Then there is gaslighting by a husband (Janet Porteous), and missing one’s youthful body (Rosie Jackson), and Kerry Darbishire’s new mother suffering from postpartum psychosis. All brilliant.
But it would be sad if women poets wrote only about ‘women’s issues’. I loved Sally Kennedy’s paean to a fine wine and was happy to meet another Leftie. ‘The Death of Socrates’, our third prizewinner, is a very powerful piece, contrasting the harmless-looking hemlock plant with the evil use to which it’s put, and praising the few people who challenge received opinions.
‘Going Home’, our second choice, could have been written about my Welsh mother-in-law (and here I should mention Sue Davies’ ‘Nights’, another sad and strong poem about Alzheimer’s). This elderly woman can’t ever share her life experience with her carers, and you know that if she went back to her childhood home she wouldn’t recognise it.
But in the end both Pat and I felt the outright winner had to be ‘An Eagle Friday’, a perfect little snapshot of a primary school classroom decades ago. You feel the powerlessness of the children, especially girls and invalids, and the too much power of the teacher – probably a war veteran, only interested in ‘boys’ subjects’ and ready to slap down any sign of creativity. It’s what Dickens described in Hard Times, and a hundred years later, before we learned to respect children, it was still going on. Congratulations to all!
There was a good handful of poems about getting older, bereavement, the destruction of our planet, betrayal, memories and dementia. I share these preoccupations, but always I was searching for insight – a fresh way of looking at something that is already familiar. A poem has a job to do from the first to the very last line. Language is important too. It’s the medium through which poems communicate. It shouldn’t be necessary to attach an adjective to every single noun if the poem is doing its job. A judicious choice of verb will frequently be more effective. It’s not just the poem that has a job to do. Words have to earn their keep, too.
But the winners. Merryn and I had no disagreements over the top three.
‘The Death of Socrates’, placed 3rd, adopts an unusual perspective. Its subject is integrity and it’s a poem for our times (politicians take note!). Not a single word is wasted.
In 2nd place is ‘Going Home’ which is a fine example of a poem that knows where it’s going. The details are vivid, rich and authentic, which makes the conclusion even more devastating.
‘An Eagle Friday’, 1st prize, held me from its opening line all the way through to its unexpected ending. The poem builds steadily to this moment and each stanza is finely tuned to its purpose. Terrific writing.
Congratulations to all the winners and to our commended poets.