Judge’s Report – October Poetry Competition

SA Writers’ Circle Poetry Competition

Thank you for asking me to adjudicate this poetry competition for you. I have found it an interesting – and somewhat difficult! – exercise. Not easy at all. But here are my reflections, comments and ultimate decision, which I hope you will find helpful.

The clear theme in (nearly) all of the poems was ‘anger’, and the emotion was dealt with in several of its manifestations, from the resentment of damaged personal relationships to the seething frustration of how the world is socially and politically. Sometimes, however, it was simply that shapeless, nameless, day-to-day anger that we all experience from time to time.

Many of the submitted poems seem to have come from a writing workshop on the theme of ‘anger’, so there are a number of similarities between them. For example, rhyme was very much in evidence throughout, often in rhyming couplets, and although I sometimes use rhyme in my own work I am wary that it can sometimes become too obtrusive, leading the poem instead of responding sensitively to what the poet is trying to say.

All the poems showed occasional nice touches, with some lovely phrases in evidence. Here are some I liked, in no particular order (and without reference to the poem):

He sedated my senses / like a stinging nettle

Shallow breaths / like little deaths

And all that’s left: A tell-tale frown

Shadowing / no army of fools

My heart is hungry

I was a wistful / someone

There was no need to ruin / that which was peaceful…

where is the education? When the core is hollow?

Please dear Honourable Judge / Don’t listen to their plea

needles drawn across your eyes

he loves the taste of anxiety

walk away broken from the wreckage

I hate that you left it so long to brew

the kernels of hatred, mistrust and anger simmer

my face is a funeral pyre

the sun rises to breathe

a world lean on empathy

this pliable clay of life

I’ve mourned with mothers whose dear ones are dead

That weed grew seeds of anger

So there is clearly much love of language here, of its rhythms and musical possibilities, and I applaud all the poets for finding ways to express feelings so well. I sincerely hope you will continue to practise and develop your poetry further, finding your own distinctive voices to say what needs to be said.

A few general words of advice, if I may:

One of my favourite poems (by the American E.E. Cummings – or, as he always signed himself, e.e. cummings) begins with the words “since feeling is first…” To me, all good poetry begins with ‘feeling’, a strong sense that something needs to be said. It may be deeply personal, it may be universal, but the poet begins with a powerful emotional impulse to express something. Not a thought, not an intellectual point, but a feeling.

But that feeling on its own is not enough to be a poem. A genuine poem certainly begins with strong feeling but has to undergo a long and sometimes painful process of crafting before it is ready to be called a true poem. And the proper crafting of a poem is not an easy process. It takes time, determination and experience.

There is no doubt in my mind that the contributing poets in this competition have all felt anger at some time – real, hurtful, damaging anger. They’ve been there; they know what it’s like. And that is the important raw material for their writing. Getting that anger down on the page is the crucial first step – but it’s hard!

My advice to all poets (and I include myself in this) is:
Don’t sit down to write a poem: just sit down to write.

‘Free writing’ is a valuable way to get started. Spend a few minutes quietly recalling the anger you want to write about. Don’t talk about it, just sit and let the feelings, the memories, the emotions come into your head. As soon as you are ready, start writing – not a poem, just get the feelings down on paper. It may be a few phrases or sentences, a story, a letter, a rant, even just a list of words. Forget about writing a poem, just write whatever comes into your head as it comes. You don’t need to share it with anyone else if you don’t want to – but get your true feelings out. If you want to swear, do so. If you find yourself picturing things that disturb you, write them down anyway. Be truthful to yourself. This is private stuff; no one else need know about it unless you choose to tell them.

What you are left with is not a poem – but it could well be superb raw material for one.

Leave it for a while, let it ferment. When you come back to it, the crafting can begin.

Crafting is not easy, but it is absolutely necessary to all good poetry. It comes with practice and experience and it can certainly be learnt, but don’t expect to be an ‘instant poet’. That’s not how it works.

Here are a couple of suggestions to get you started:

Forget about rhyme. Too often (and I’m afraid it happened in some of the submitted poems) the effort to find rhyming words leads the poem away from the true feeling it began with. Some poems rhyme, yes, but rhyme in itself doesn’t make a poem – it is definitely not essential. So stick with the feeling and leave rhyme to find its own way. Write what you feel, not what the rhyme scheme tells you.

Avoid abstract nouns or the names of emotions such as frustration, joy, misery, strength, honesty, fear – and anger! There’s an old adage in writing: “Show, don’t tell”. If you’re writing about anger, try to do so without mentioning it by name. Instead, write in such a way that the reader feels your anger, shares in it, rather than being told about it. Show, don’t tell.

A writing workshop that asks you to write, say, about love without mentioning the word itself (or any of its derivatives, such as loved, loving, lovable) might make for an interesting exercise. Try it.

Leave any poem you have worked on or crafted for a time. Put it away in a drawer for a few days and come back to it later with a fresh mind. Then see if you can do any more with it. I’ll bet you can. Consider shortening it by removing half of the adjectives. Ask yourself whether any of the words you used in your first draft aren’t earning their keep. Is there a better (shorter) way of saying it? Think of all the different ways of saying ‘she went’, for instance: departed, walked, strolled, ambled, sauntered, crept, sprinted, climbed, stumbled…etc. Don’t be shy of using a dictionary or thesaurus: it’s a useful tool.

Coleridge once described poetry as ‘the best words in the best order’. Are all your words ‘the best’ you can find? Are they in the best order? Be prepared to change words if necessary and to experiment by moving words, phrases, even whole stanzas, somewhere else if that helps the poem. It can be hard work but this process can improve a poem immeasurably.

Enough!

I’ve been asked to make a decision. Thank you all for allowing me to read and enjoy your work. The decision has not been an easy one but here it is.

4th PLACE COMMENDED

Anger – Eff Kay

I liked the brevity of this three-stanza poem, whose simple a-a-a-a/b-b-b-b/c-c-c-c rhyme scheme fits the clear sense of sadness of the message. In fact, I would suggest making it even briefer by omitting the first stanza entirely. For me, the poem works very well with just the second and third stanzas. And I might change the title too: ‘Prayer’.

Lovely, gentle and rhythmic work.

3rd PLACE

Anger – Jeffrey Philpott

I suspect that this poet owes a small debt to William Blake’s ‘A Poison Tree’ but it works for me anyway. Again, it is a brief three stanzas with a regular rhyme scheme but the end-rhymes, though evident, are not intrusive. In fact, I like the half-rhymes of anger/rancour and afar/war. I don’t feel that I am being instructed to feel anything in particular but the sense of profound sadness underpinning our world is well expressed – and I very much like the symmetry of the final line.

2nd PLACE

Anger (An attempt to illustrate the angry side of Post Natal Depression) – K Quin

This is a lovely meditation on a topic that no man can truly comprehend, but I find myself enthralled by its gentleness, its sensitivity and apparent willingness to ‘let me in’. There are some delightfully simple phrases – “my offered thumb”, “this pliable clay of life”, “a drowning version of me” – that are effective because they don’t try to say too much but are quietly confident in themselves. This poem shows more than it tells, and that is its strength.

If I were to make a suggestion it would be this: take out “imposing” from the first line (“engulfing” is more than powerful enough, I feel), and try to find a replacement for “anger” in line 13. But please keep writing!

1st PLACE

Anger – August Baxter

What I find most appealing about this poem is its allusiveness, its subtlety. Nothing is really stated clearly; everything is hinted at rather than explained. From the originality of the opening line’s ‘burning amber’ sky, through to the strange, repeated image of the lighthouse (which eventually becomes “I” in the final stanza), the poem is carried along by images of the sea and the sky, with hints of burning and drowning. The poem’s discomfort is brought to life cleverly, yet we are never (apart from in the title) told what to feel, only helped to feel it. It’s really well achieved.

This is an excellent poem that I believe might be even better if it were to be shortened by six lines: I respectfully suggest that the author considers removing the last two lines of each of stanzas 2, 4 and 6. This would keep the poem’s nicely crafted shape (the stanzas would then consist of 4, 2, 4. 2. 4, 2, 4 lines) and tighten its overall effect.

Of course, this is only a suggestion, an opinion, and it is for the poet to make the final decision.

Thank you all once again for sharing your work with me. I hope that our paths may cross sometime in the future.

Please keep reading and writing poetry.

With best wishes,

Harry Owen
18 November 2016