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Judges summary for 2016

(click here for winning poems)

Steve Ellis

The general standard of writing in the 80 poems I read was good, and there were very few that I felt I could rule out straight away, though the more I read them the more I felt there was about half that wouldn't make it through to further consideration. On the whole I'd say the least effective poems showed two opposite tendencies: either a rather conscious overloading with 'poetic' images that clogged the poem's ostensible subject (in these cases a little under-statement would have been welcome at times), or poems that were too message-driven, and hadn't paid sufficient attention to the need to produce poetry (with regard to these, as Ezra Pound says in 'A Few Don'ts', 'don't be 'viewy''). The subject-matter of the poems fell broadly into four categories: poems based on paintings or photos, poems about relationships (successful or failing), representing the sonnet's traditional concern with love, humorous sonnets and finally what I would call walkers' poems, describing rural terrain and habitats (there seemed very few urban poems).

I found the poems that took on to varying degrees the form of the sonnet more effective, generally, than poems which happened to be 14 lines long, though some of the latter have found a place in my runners-up category. The poems written as sonnets handled the requirements of the form well on the whole, particularly in the use of rhyme, though I found cases where a lot of enjambment had been used across the rhyming framework somewhat self-contradictory: to establish, but then consistently disguise, the rhyme is difficult to pull off, unless you're e.g. Robert Browning. The sonnets that kept largely to end-punctuated lines seemed accordingly more rhythmically satisfying. A general criticism of a fair number of the sonnets would be the inadequacy of the final line (or final two lines), leaving me sometimes with a sense of disappointment or anticlimax: the tone here could be too moralising, or a little sentimental, or else too unambitious, as if the relief of getting the sonnet safely into port was enough. It's no bad thing for poems to leave you with a resonant or satisfying ending! (the final line of my first-prize poem is one of its impressive features).

In choosing my winning poems, I decided on a joint third place for Sons and Roses and Titanic. These are both Shakespearean in form, with the rhyming final couplet, and both present a clear and satisfying overall narrative. With reference to what I noted above, I like the way Titanic manages an effective ending that celebrates love without being sentimental. With Sons and Roses, the last line is arguably somewhat sentimental, but the poem overall focuses on a valid and arresting comparison which unfolds naturally as the poem progresses (some poems became diffuse in attempting too much). My second-prize poem, Danse Macabre, dispenses with rhyme, and is perhaps not faultless: the rhythm could have been a little more fluent at times and perhaps the use of rhyme might have aided this. On the other hand, the poem has evocative and engaging description at the outset and then moves up a level into a domestic scene that blends different sensory experiences powerfully and memorably, the combination of 'rough' and 'smooth' here justifying a rhythm that isn't always smooth. My first-prize poem, Pennine Waller, hits all the right notes for me and convinced me at first reading. A very assured handling of the sonnet form, with the enjambments that enter into the sestet effective in slowing the poem down, enabling the reader to savour the sensory detail, so that the poem mimics the deliberate placing of stones in the wall; the resonant ending, made up of restrained language that allows, however, the metaphors the 'stone' man, the wall being 'woven' to breathe; indeed the mixture throughout of simple discourse, technical craft and figurative power all subject to a degree of discipline that avoids 'with walls in mind' any going over the top.
Finally, let me say that I enjoyed judging this competition and the work it produced. Part of this pleasure lay in the humorous poems, and I wanted to include a number of these in the runners-up category because, if a little jaunty at times, their jokes worked well within the confines of the sonnet, and they avoided the strain of some of the more pretentious poems. Of course, there is no absolute 'correctness' of judgement, and my own prejudices and predilections in relation to things like subject-matter and tone have inevitably played a part in my verdict, which may offer consolation to the poets not chosen and qualification to the success of those who were.

Prize winning poems for the year 2016




£450 Joan Butler Pennine Waller
£200 Sharon Flynn Danse Macabre
£100 Kathryn Burke Titanic
£100 Ros Woolner Sons and Roses
Commended Glenn James No Place like Rome
Commended Sheila Spence Echo
Commended Catherine Edmunds now we are old
Commended Nicky Phillips On the edge
Commended Joan Butler Include Thyself Out
Commended Laura Thompson Snipe
Commended Sarah Doyle All through the winter time
Commended Doreen Hinchliffe Spring Journey
Commended Victoria Gatehouse Canned
Commended Keith Hutson Tiddly Om Pom Pom
Commended Rachel Plummer Rosamund
Commended Chloe Orrock Valediction
Commended Leonard von Hollander Ice age
Sonnet or Not
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