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.