There was a point at which the analog world was overtaken by the digital, and I was right there, stumbling through puberty from childhood to adolescence.
I can’t resist ekphrasis. So when Gill Stoker of the Mary Evans Picture Gallery sent me a few pictures from the collection and request to (poetically) respond, I gravitated toward a stock image that summed up this formative time.
Owning to a family emergency, I was unable to attend the prize-giving for this year’s Ver Poets Ten-Liners Poetry Competition. Nonetheless, it was a pleasure to judge the entries, and a delight to discover who-wrote-what upon publication of the anthology (since I judged it blind).
What follows is my adjudication report. If this piques your interest, I am sure the Ver Poets will be happy to supply you with the fifty-page, staple-bound prizewinners’ anthology for a modest three pounds.
“A short poem need not be small”
— Marvin Bell, from “32 Statements About Poetry”
The short poems I like best feel longer than they are — not as a penance, but in the way that the poem seems to open out while, and especially just after, reading it. By this I do not mean that a good short poem necessarily tackles big topics with grand language. Consider, for example, one of Bashō’s most famous haiku (translated here by Jane Hirshfield):
hearing the cuckoo,
I long for Kyoto.
There is not too much difference between judging a prize like this and editing an anthology. The main thing is to play a little game with oneself, first selecting a longlist, then pretending the editorial requirements have changed and now you can only publish a short list, and so on — until you must ask that terrible question: “If I could only put forward one poem, which one would it be?”
If I were to hand over this year’s excellent competition entries to half a dozen well-established poets and ask that question, I am sure I would get at least three — if not as many as six — different replies. So, reading the poems under a variety of circumstances, in different orders, and at varying degrees of caffeination, helps this judge to feel that he has done service to the collective hundreds (perhaps thousands?) of hours that have gone into writing these poems. In the end, though, no matter how much we try to deceive ourselves about objectivity, selecting from amongst poems of this standard and quality is always to some extent a matter of personal taste.
Let me say that again: this year’s entries were all poems of quality. The theme of ageing — both facing mortality and reconciling with the past — was at the fore, and that is certainly a topic that focuses one’s efforts on addressing humanity in a meaningful way. I know no better language than poetry for doing so. Yet these poems were far from morbid or self-pitying. They were all of substance, and those that made the long list were poems that felt like they mattered to the poet, and this essential quality transmitted across the page.
It seems to me that no small amount of influence from Wendy Cope, Carol Ann Duffy, and Billy Collins made its way into these poems. Humour and pathos sit side-by-side, and in the most successful instances, sit either comfortably, or make that awkward contrast thrilling. Above all, in the tussle between ideas, images, and music, it is music that always wins. Rhyme, both end and internal, features appropriately and intelligently throughout. These are poets who have read their Tennyson and Wordsworth, and then moved on.
The commended poems range widely in theme: the loss of a partner, near-loss of a child, seasonal melancholy, and a twelve-days-of-Christmas-style countdown. Whether deeply felt or tripping lightly along, each has been carefully pressed through the editorial wringer, crafted and considered, and thus made to stand up on its own.
Our highly commended poems all lead up to a conclusion that stays with you, but they do so sure-footedly, line by line. They are also relatable. Who hasn’t tasted the chagrin of enduring “A [NHS] Waiting Room” only to be prescribed both “paracetamol” and “water”, mistaken a patch of sunlight for something more (and therein found a poem), watched Red Kites in rapt amazement, or resolved to be a bit more neighbourly in response to our ideologically-polarised world?
The two runners-up couldn’t be different from each other. “Perspective” makes use of the quiet music of everyday speech to meditate on the “sliding doors” nature of one’s past. “Pastorale” is an eco-political poem that never loses sight of clear imagery, strong language, and the insistent present tense. In both cases, it is the ending, its “ring of truth within the medium itself” (as Seamus Heaney put it) that clinches the poem.
Finally, the winning poem stood out from the rest for its sustained and taut imaginative focus. We are promised a goblin, but it never arrives. Instead, we are led on a chase through the clues and minor wreckage it leaves behind, as much a catalogue of the marvellous quotidian as it is a hunt for the creature itself. The real journey, of course, is a sifting through memory that leaves us with a smack of wistful nostalgia for the cosy and mundane.
There is neither a word going spare here, nor is the poem stilted and over-compressed. Our goblin “parachutes with an umbrella” and “muddles the gloves”, conscripting nouns into verbs. Truly, how could I resist a poem that ends (successfully) on the image of a mildewed sandwich? Here, perhaps, is a cousin of Lorca’s Duende or Milosz’s Daemon, an anarchic spirit that nudges a welcome bit of mischief, wonder — and above all, poetry — into our everyday lives.
It has been my pleasure to read and re-read each and every poem, a wrench (as always) to be forced to select only a few, but also a privilege to put forward those poems that leapt off the page at me, in hopes that it may do the same for you. Ten lines is not a lot, but as so many of these poems have shown us, it’s enough to make a world.
I received my contributor’s copy of what I suspect will be a very important book — for me, surely — and perhaps for others. How to be a Poet strikes me as not only “a twenty-first century guide to writing well”, but also a guide to living well as a writer.
I also quite like the alternative title proposed in the introduction: “A Poem-Writer’s Guide to the Galaxy.” After all, we contain multitudes.
It features the wisdom of two of my favourite poetry people: Jo Bell and Jane Commane, interspersed with excellent guest contributions by Mona Arshi, Jonathan Davidson, Clive Birnie, and many other well-known names in UK poetry. I thought I’d spend a moment or two thumbing through it on the couch when it arrived. I couldn’t put it down.
My own essay represents a manifesto of sorts — again, not about how to write, but how to be as a writer in this mad, mad world. It is called “Making Peace with Poetry”.
If you’re writing poems, or have secretly wanted to, know someone who writes, or are just curious to lift the curtain on the writing life — I can’t recommend this book highly enough.
The book is available from Nine Arches Press, with options for international shipping.
I have had the pleasure of giving two readings at the Dugdale Centre in Enfield: a straight reading last year for the Enfield Poets, and a poetry-and-jazz collaboration evening in 2015. It is a wonderful venue, and I was delighted to contribute my new poem “Ancestral Memory” as part of their poem-of-the-month programme.
If you find yourself near Enfield in North London, do have a look in the window for the poster-sized print. Otherwise, you can read the poem from this photograph (with thanks to Anthony Fisher for taking it).
Two very different poems have appeared in the same week on opposite sides of my native continent.
The poem “Reading Dostoevsky in the John Lewis Café” is available at PoetryBay, along with many other excellent poems.
Wishing you all a lovely Christmas, whatever continent you’re on.