Report on the Grey Hen 2012 Poetry Competition

In 1960, the poet Stevie Smith remarked, ‘The human creature is alone in his carapace. Poetry is a strong way out’. There were many reminders of this in the wide-ranging 1,000 poems entered for this year’s Grey Hen Competition. Reading them was an illuminating experience.

All the poems submitted, even those that didn’t in the end make the first long ‘short list’ of forty, had something to recommend them: a real depth of feeling, an original subject or an unusual slant on a more familiar one. Often this was seen in a fresh and unexpected adjective, an arresting line or phrase, an interesting form. There was wit and irony. However, many poems, even some excellent ones which reached that first list of forty, were let down by a weak ending, or some over-familiar themes, or the occasional use of ‘received’ language and images. Only a few poems used rhyming forms which was surprising, given their increasing popularity these days. It was pleasing to hear a lot of music in the poems, evidenced in internal rhymes, assonance and other musical effects.

All the poems were read at least twice, and those on our short-lists, many more times than that. After a while, we were both agreed on the three winning poems, but choosing the ten Highly Commended ones was more difficult. We whittled down the forty poems to twenty. All of these were successful, original and often entertaining pieces which we enjoyed enormously. They deserve and will surely achieve publication; we were sorry to ‘lose’ those that, after much discussion, did not make the final ten.

The winning poem, Watching Grass Snakes, impressed us very much. It was an unusual subject, beautifully observed, using simple sinuous language with great skill to create images that lingered.

The Birds of Rhiannon, our choice for the second prize, achieved a wonderfully musical balance between hints of the ancient Welsh legends and echoes of James McMillan’s music which was inspired by them. Both the lay-out and the language were innovative: an original and very successful poem.

For the third prize, we chose The Rhythms of Water, a poem which played confidently with images of water’s physicality, and used a rippling lay-out to reflect it.

The ten Highly Commended poems all have that extra edge which made them difficult to ignore and they repeatedly went in and out of the final list. They are all memorable for their fluidity of style, imagery, and form and for their sharpness of effect.

Finally, however judging is about decisions: we hope you will enjoy our choices. We feel honoured to have had the opportunity to read so many wonderful poems combining originality of style, idea and range in this 2012 Grey Hen Competition.

Katherine Gallagher and Angela Kirby

View Results