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Judges summary for 2018

(click here for winning poems)

Jo Bell

You would expect poets submitting work to a 'Sonnet or Not' competition to be fans of that old and lovely form - and you would be right. Of the hundreds of entries, most fell into the Sonnet category; far fewer chose the Not category. The winners and commended poems come from both tribes.
Judging a competition is always a chance for the judge to learn more about craft. Those generous enough to offer up their work have reminded me that a traditional form can be replenished by new ideas and experiences, but also that a long-loved and well-worn form can overpower the writer. After all, this is the form that Shakespeare, Yeats, Eliot and Carol Ann Duffy have used before us, and that's stiff competition. Hordes of writerly ancestors are looking over your shoulder as you write a sonnet, each making their own suggestions. It's unhelpful, and you should try to ignore them: many entrants were handicapped by a too-faithful adherence to the form, and even the phrases, of an admired predecessor. The entrants who got best value out of their fourteen lines moved away from their poetic pinups. Some chose to be light-hearted rather than reverential, some to touch on something deeply exposing or to look anew at an old subject.
All the entrants had the willpower to engage with an old and endlessly rewarding form, to write to the height of their powers and above all, crucially, to send in their entries. Congratulations then, not only to the winners, but to all who made that small but difficult gesture of good faith in their own work.

'Free verse' doesn't mean shapeless or haphazard verse. In fact, a poem without rhyme or form has to be particularly well crafted to stand up alongside so many sonnets. It was a sign of its integrity that this one, of all the entries, came back to me again and again. A poem without punctuation has to use line-breaks carefully, to supply the instruction that we normally take from commas and full stops. The language is light and commonplace, but the ideas deep; 'the rhythm/ of my children's names' is not a random pattern of sounds, but one with resonance. The house 'tea-cosied in snow' is perfectly right and fresh. This poem tells a story, much of which we have to fill in ourselves. We don't know who the 'He' of the first line is until the very end. We don't know if the passing winter has been cold and dim in purely literal terms, or if the thaw is an emotional release too. The last line of any poem is the one that stays with the reader as s/he walks away from it: this writer trusts to the simple, strong gladness of 'we made it through to spring' to stand for all kinds of release and delivery. Finally, the perfectly plain title is not just a label but a signpost. The important thing, it says, is not the bird or the winter, but the thaw; not the cold times, but the possibility of a warmer future.

There are poems that reference classical mythology to show how educated the poet is - and ever since Carol Ann Duffy's The World's Wife, poems that use classical mythology to deliver a bathetic punchline. This poem avoids both in its perfect choice of myth. Sisyphus' endless task (concisely explained here) really is 'like this: / A woman washing dishes, endlessly'. The line breaks are careful, and the rhyme expertly handled. There are perfect rhymes like meanwhile/ file or affairs/chairs but the poet isn't held hostage by them, using lighter rhymes like Sisyphus/ this or legal/full to give structure without rigidity. The use of & instead of 'and' might seem gimmicky, but adds to the feeling of quick jotting-down, as if it were a thought process written between episodes of laundry. It's nice to read a formal poem which has wit and a lightness of touch in addressing a serious subject - the endless, wearying triviality of repetitive tasks.

The poems which worked best used the patterns of everyday speech, not stertorous Victorian phrases. For those thinking 'This is not a sonnet!' - oh yes, it is. It's mostly in iambic pentameter, and uses perfect rhymes from beginning to end in the classic model. Those neat pairs - Wish/ fish, face/place etc - are kept from overbalancing the poem by careful use of breath. Enjambment like 'I wish/ I did, though' means that the sound carries on where the line stops. Read it aloud and it feels fluid, vernacular, despite its formality. It's a bleak piece, free of cliché and above all, it allows the narrator to be imperfect. This speaker is not righteous or strong but full of uncertain phrases 'I don't know' and 'If' and 'I should'. The uncertainty carries on to the last line and beyond. 'I should pack your things, force you out of bed.' But does s/he? We've all had moments like this at the end (or even in the middle) of a relationship, and we're left wondering what the poet will do what we would do.

Prize winning poems for the year 2018




£500 Ama Bolton Thaw
£250 Jonathan Greenhause Home Safe
£125 Beth Flynn Wavering
Commended Linda Snell Hands Upon the Glass
Commended Alan Hawley Thoughts for the Day
Commended Lee Prosser Sonnet for Those Things Lost
Commended Colin Pink Fragments from the Croc's Mouth
Commended Guy Russell A Test
Commended Tim Koehn Of My Little Animal Life
Commended Ian McEwen Collapses in Public
Commended Laura Jenner Premonitions
Commended Robin Gilbert Schrödinger's mole
Commended Olga Dermott-Bond summer just gone
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