16 September 2011

Judge's report, King Island Poetry competition 2011

King Island Poetry competition 2011 – Results (also see http://www.fawtas.org.au/results.html)
1st Prize: 'Behold the Lamb'  by Janeen Samuel
2nd Prize: 'Death in Venice'  by Graeme Hetherington, Czech Republic.
King Island resident prize: no award.
Highly commended: no award.
Commended poems by David Campbell (2), Mike Cooper, Phillippa Cordwell and Lorraine Haig.

Judge's reportAnne Kellas13 August 2011

I'd like to start with a question: are poetry competitions a lottery? Are judges biased about what they pick as winners? I used to think so but I have come across a simple mathematical ratio that explains things: on average, in any poetry competition, by and large, there'll be five to ten percent of entries that are going to be in the running for the prize, and about 90 to 95 percent flawed pieces of writing in the judge's opinion. This poetry competition was no exception: there were 37 poems, from which two poems, right from the start, stood out as the contenders for the winning places.

What made me choose them? I could say, well, their execution was more adept, or their form more polished, but it's because, after a first reading of all the entries, those two poems stayed in my mind. They piqued my curiosity. I walked about with their images in my head. Stray lines came back to me unbidden. I had to find these two poems and read them again.
The cathedral's domes look feathery when wet,
like birds without the use of wings.
I had to find the lemon-ribbed image at the core of the other that had drawn me to it.

I wanted to go back to read them again, and when I read them a second time, my opinion that these were the winners was confirmed. (By the way, I read all the entries a several times.) A poem has to stand up to a second and a third reading -- and still please. Why else do we go back to read poems from the past? What attracts us to our favourite poets? Besides achieving the status of being what I would call a poem and not a piece of narrative, as many entries were, these two poems succeeded in their marrying of idea and image with a certain necessary grace and effortlessness. They also had that something that transforms a piece of writing on a page into something new that has not existed before. All this using only words.

In a poem, everything happens at the surface. The poet has the surface of the page as his or her canvas, onto which words and punctuation marks are sprinkled, in patterns delineated by white space and paragraph marks. But it's not the ragged right margin that makes a piece of writing a poem, it's not the breaking words and lines at the margin that makes a poem, it's not stretching out the lines and concertinaing them in again that makes a poem. The mere use of rhyme does not make a poem. A poem employs a reasoning of its own in its use of many things: metaphor, image, musicality, colour, tone. If there is no meaning behind the use of these "tools" of poetry then the poem too easily collapses back into being a collection of words on a page.

The breaking up of a word or a line on that surface of white space, if done at the wrong place, or for no apparent reason, is like an awkward trip in rhyme or meter, drawing attention to the author's pen instead of drawing the reader into another dimension of meaning: words encode meaning. The words a poet chooses either suit or clash with the music and breath of the poem when it is spoken out aloud. For we don't only read poems off a page or screen, we also hear them in our mind; poetry is an aural medium, a musical medium. It is the musical joining of image to meaning to rhyme makes the poem a poem.

Some of the entries were the start of poems and I'd encourage their authors to go back to them and complete them. The end result might be a protest poem, or a philosophical poem or a nature poem. Some entries never got beyond being the description of an event. The story in a poem can be strong, but the form might need to be a prose poem then, and not a prose poem chopped into lines. An event might ignite the poet into action, and a narrative might weave its way through a poem, but in the course of the poem, something must shift, change. That event, that narrative, must help take both the reader and the poet somewhere new. Let imagination work to find what that is1.

Poems are often ruined because of how they end. Too often, the poem itself had already ended, but the poet put in a final appearance, rounding it off with “an ending" ... It's the poet's job to let the poem work its magic and get out of the way.

Some poems were ruined because, although they used rhyme and meter cleverly and even pleasingly, at some point the writer resorted to a contortion for the sake of rhyme or metrical foot: and like Churchill, that is something "up with which I cannot put".

In his judge's report for the 2005 Write Stuff poetry competition, Stephen Edgar said it all comes down to how a poet uses language.

Language. Not just sentiment. Not just plot. One poem found its way into the list of commended poems purely on this score -- because so few poems in this competition dared to let the tiger of language out of its cage. It's a poem called Sitting in the bush, a veritable thicket of stick-like words that bristle and battle their way as if through thorny undergrowth and it even invents a word or two to claw its way to a new meaning. It's not a perfect poem but it is striking because it does battle with words. Poems can be imperfect and still work. Like a crack in a glaze, a fault can let the light of meaning in (to paraphrase Leonard Cohen).

Another poem in the commended list, Dance, describes a relationship. It's an off-hand, slightly off-balance poem whose theme is matched by its off-balance line endingsYet another, Tumblehome, uses that seafaring image as it allows the words to roll and sway while it keeps its balance thanks to its own inner kind of tumblehome. Both Greyface, with its kindly dramatic tone, and Hitch-hiker tell a story interestingly within a poem's frame and sustain the reader's interest to the end.

Finally it is the use of metaphor and imagery, in a way that is integral to the poem's meaning, that made me settle on "Death in Venice" and "Behold the lamb" as the two winners. "Death in Venice" gets second place, for its wonderful evocation of the atmosphere of decaying, sad-angel European city, and first goes to "Behold the lamb" -- it wins for its sheer simplicity and its use of imagery. I was slightly repelled by the poem's subject matter at first, but the poem won me over. I will never forget it for its lemon-ribbed core, for the way the hooves of the little dead lamb are described as butter curls / innocent of earth. It lies there under the pines, unmourned by its mother:
Already, the merciful crows
have taken away the eyes
(no need to see your way
into darkness you do not comprehend)
have pierced the side
into a chest no larger
than a ribbed lemon, lung
dark and dense as liver,
where no air has been.
In the penultimate issue of Five Bells, Ron Pretty cites poet publisher John Leonard as saying that "poetry reading circles -- poetry book clubs -- should be established -- and that writers' centres and poetry organisations should consider setting these up2. I think this simple idea is excellent for an age of meagre opportunities and in cases where writers work in isolation both physical and geographic: especially writers on King Island would benefit from the adoption of Leonard's idea. Well, we all need to "hear" good poetry read aloud. I'd encourage the entrants in this competition whose poems didn't get a mention today -- and in fact everyone -- to read more poetry. I encourage poets to make the effort to read poems outside their usual comfort zone. There's still the public library -- the Visigoths of our dark ages have not yet confined all books to the tip. As long as we still have electricity to fire up the new Alexandria Library that our friends at Google and all the poets on YouTube are building, there's the plethora of poetry online to read, and to inspire us all.

1. On the topic of imagination, see Unless it moves the human heart, by Roger Rosenblatt. Rosenblatt who says great writing is often less about what happens than about how it happens. He encourages poets to strive for imagination rather than invention, for anticipation rather than surprise, and to write with precision and restraint.

2. Five Bells, v.17, n.1-2, Summer/Autumn 2010, p.53. (Contact the new non-government peak body, Australian Poetry Ltd. for copies.)

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