Judges Report

Judging a poetry competition of over 550 poems was a daunting prospect, but a highly encouraging sign for the world of women’s poetry. Grey Hen’s submissions certainly provided a wide range of topics, styles and forms of poetry, and poets didn’t shy away from controversial or “difficult” subjects. There were many fine poems among these, and reducing a long longlist to a shortlist was a challenge. However, poems that made that shortlist were all exceptionally well-written in fresh, original language and effective figuration. They had stood the test of reading (aloud as well as on the page) and re-reading to discover whether further layers of meaning or feeling emerged. They did, and the top three poems were unanimous choices.

‘Tell Me About the Silence’ uses a question and answer form to explore the abstract notion of Silence with clear, concrete images. It is a dramatic poem, whose lists and to-and-fro images build to create suspense and tension as the form unrolls, with bold stanza breaks (stanzas two to three and three to four) and astonishingly original yet absolutely appropriate visual imagery. And then that chillingly open final, single line. Wonderful.

‘A Physician Refuses to Palliate Himself’ could not be more different in approach, tone or subject. A perfect sonnet, set in a historical past – 1645 – and in the language of the Physician of the title, it creates a vivid sense of place, time and of voice, of the physician’s terrible daily work with realism and acceptance. The poet allows us to experience this atmosphere through the senses – scents, smells, visual descriptions of the plague’s effects and treatments. The sonnet’s turn at line eight is telling – Rae knows his life will be shortened, he will “succumb”, but carries on, he does not “flee this Sisyphean task” and we are left with that simple but beautiful description of his looking to the stars, and “breathing out fear”.

We were drawn to first prize winner, ‘Ignis Aurum Probat’ right from the start, and kept coming back to it to read and enjoy it over and again, its scene and central character are so simply yet lucidly described. This simplicity is deceptive – the poem is very carefully constructed, it unfolds, like the daily round of this woman, like the passing of her day, it has a past a present and a future. The poet’s use of monosyllables, of smooth, gentle rhythms, of lists adds to the atmosphere of steadiness; there is not a word wasted in this poem. By the end, we have, with the narrator, followed the woman’s “patterning”, watched her, felt her quiet strength, and are finally referred back to the poem’s title with that
beautifully-chosen closing phrase “the quiet strength of trees”.

Thank you for submitting these fine poems to Grey Hen and giving us the privilege of reading them.

Wendy French and Susan Utting