Judging Ver Poets Ten-Liners Competition

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):

In Kyoto,
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.

Robert Peake
Whitwell, Hertfordshire
January 2018

Poem Online for Sustainable St. Albans Week

St. Albans, our nearest market town here in the English countryside north of London, has been holding a week-long series of events focusing on sustainable living. As part of the proceedings they solicited poems from the local Ver Poets group on an environmental theme. They have been posting a new poem each day, and all are well worth reading.

Today, hot on the heels of America electing a climate-change denier to its highest office, you can read the short poem “What Will Survive Us“, my prognosis for unchecked human exploitation of the natural world.

Read the poem.


Why Poetry Workshops Matter

The following reflections appeared in the recent print edition of the Ver Poets newsletter.

“Revision is not cleaning up after the party; revision is the party.”
-Source unknown

“Sometimes the best revision of a poem is a new poem.”
-Marvin Bell

“You must be careful not to deprive the poem of its wild origin.”
-Stanley Kunitz

“You must revise your life.”
-William Stafford

Poetry can be a lonely art. Yet the best poems are rich in influence, and poets seeking to improve their writing (that is, all of us) do well to read widely and solicit feedback. One place we can all help each other is in workshop groups the likes of which I recently attended at the home of Ver Poet Simon Bowden.

The appreciation of poetry is largely a matter of taste, and therefore ultimately only the poet herself can decide what constitutes a “better” decision in relation to her poem. And yet, paradoxically, it is through input from other self-aware readers that poets can often develop most quickly, learning through feedback how their decisions affect a receptive reader. Through both giving and receiving input on poems, the poet also increasingly learns to act as this receptive reader for herself in both composing and revising her own poems. It is useful, therefore, not only to the poem in question, but to the poet over time.

The temptation for the author to explain something in the middle of a feedback session can be great. After all, we often write to be understood — if not intellectually, perhaps emotionally. Yet the greatest benefit a willing author can receive from her writing group is the opportunity to be a silent “fly on the wall” as a group of intelligent readers speak their thoughts aloud in response to the poem. It is a privilege they will not have once the published poem is read silently and more widely in the minds of others.

The best thing a feedback group can do, then, is to reflect their honest experience as a reader. You can reflect on the form of the poem, and what you understand about how it is working. You can try to answer the question, “What happens?” (far more useful than “What does this poem ‘mean’?”), giving insight into where the practical details are ambiguous or clear. You can reflect on what is evoked by the poem, what lines stand out, or where you felt your attention starting to dwindle. You can be curious and inquisitive about what you would do (if the poem were your own) in relation to these observations. All of this can be helpful.

The American poet Billy Collins once quipped that the greatest mistake of the journeyman poet is “being mysterious where one should have been clear, and clear where one should have been mysterious.” It can be hard to tell when and how this is happening on your own. A good group holds up a mirror. The best workshop groups operate in this spirit of confraternitas — all on the journey together, and I saw much evidence of both talent and familiarity in the recent meeting.

[For more tips on getting the most out of poetry workshops, including a list of useful questions, see “The Joy of Revision“.]