Monday, 15 February 2010

Late again - points mean prizes

Back from Cafewriters in Norwich at Jurnet's Bar, where I was handing out cheques to the winning poets in a national - nay international - competition, and some applause to the shortlisted ones. The best were very good indeed. Here are three of the young ones to keep an eye on: Helen Mort, Thomas Warner and Richard Lambert - all outstandingly talented. I have a feeling that the next generation is going to be quite something.

Here is part of the judge's report which may be of some use to people entering poems for competitions.

A very high number of entries - c. 1600 – meant it was bigger than most regionally offered prizes. It is, in many ways, encouraging to have so many poems since it indicates that poetry is a natural recourse for far more people than we would think.

However, if you want to write good poems it is essential to read some of the best poets, both historical and contemporary, and to form some notion – conscious or unconscious – of what makes the good ones good.

It is also good to be aware that poems are not statements about life, they are explorations, and the best poems don’t simply tell us what the poet thinks in verse but explore what might be thought and felt while listening as keenly as possible to language. No listening: no poem. The apparent simplicity of the best poems is in fact a distillation of different, sometimes even contrary feelings. And that, after all is true to life because, as people, we can feel several ways at once in trying to understand the world.

I say ‘verse’ but must add that the great majority of the poems were in free verse. Free verse is not free for those who write it well. It is as difficult as formal verse if you do it properly. You think you are let off the leash, that there are all those unimportant elements you need not worry about, but poetry itself is a leash, as is language as a whole. Poetry doesn’t run everywhere: it still has line and length and development, and you have to attend to those all the time. Cadence, rhythm, phrasing and development are all part of it, as they are of music, from which these terms are taken. Nowadays people tend to go in mortal fear of writing doggerel. Doggerel does at least impose shape. Where and how do you break a line? Why there? Push harder. Think harder, feel harder. In any case some of the more competent formal poems held their shape better than most of the relatively competent free verse poems.

Or so it seemed to me. The rest of the report - and it was quite long, discussing everything commended - was about specific poems. Quite splendid poems too, the best of them. And very well read on the night.

Tomorrow, I am at home, doing the necessary things.


Poet in Residence said...


in the end

it's all about

what follows what

The villager: said...

Like lorries on the motorway....

joehebden said...

It's a shame most folk in the UK are not enthused by the 'craft or noble art' of poetry.

George S said...

I feel somewhat more optimistic than you, Joe, regarding the craft or noble art of poetry. There are always only going to be a few who can practice the art nobly and with deep craft, let alone grace, but the fact that the idea of poetry is deeply embedded in people who never read it, suggests to me that it will go on as long as there are people living. Just as poetry predated the age of general literacy, indeed of literacy itself, so it will go on because it's hard wired in the central nervous system. The selling of poetry books is a different matter.

Gwilym, you're right. It is making the choice that's difficult.

And 'villager' - some lorries, some bicycles, some fancy caravans, some tanks, some horses, some plain feet. But, noting what Joe says, I don't think there's a traffic jam on the road to Parnassus. Never has been. Only on the approach roads.

Poet in Residence said...

'Like a polluted river flowing'
(Charles Bukowski)

the freeways are a psychological
entanglement of
warped souls,
dying flowers in the dying hour
of the dying day.

old cars, young drivers,
new models driven by
aged men, driven by
drivers without licenses, by drunk drivers, by drugged drivers,
by suicidal drivers, by super-cautious drivers (the worst).

drivers with minds like camels,
drivers who piss in their seats,
drivers who yearn to kill,
drivers who love to gamble,
drivers who blame everybody else,
drivers who hate everybody,
drivers who carry guns.

drivers who don't know what
mirrors are for,
what the turn signals are for,
drivers who drive without brakes,
drivers who drive on bald tires.

drivers who drive slowly in the fast lane,
drivers who hate their wives or their husbands,
and want to make you pay for that.
unemployed drivers, pissed.

all these represent
humanity in general, totally enraged, demented, vengeful, spiteful, cheap denizens of our culture, vultures,
jackals, sharks, suckerfish, stingrays, lice ...

all on the freeway along with you
cutting in and out,
cheating themselves,
their radios blaring the worst music ever written,
their gas tanks nearly empty,
engines overheating,
minds over the next hill,
they don't know how to drive
or live,
they know less than a snail crawling home.

they are what you see every day
going from nowhere to nowhere,
they elect presidents, procreate, decorate their Christmas trees.

what you see on the freeway is just what there is,
the funeral procession of the dead,
the greatest horror of our time in motion.

I'll see you tomorrow!