|The Parcel by Maggie Davison
|Read Judges Report
|The Art of Laundry by Miriam Patrick
|Read Judges Report
|The Housekeeper by Doreen Hinchliffe
|Read Judges Report
Chanctonbury Cup Winner
Highly commended poems
- Jenna Cazalet
- Dominic Weston
- Pauline May
- Georgina Titmus
- Richard Smith
- Alan Gleave
- Mark Totterdell
Highly commended West Sussex poems
- Harriet Booth
- Diana Mitchener
- Mandy Pannett
Commended West Sussex poems
- Rose Bray
- Lin Lundie
Adjudicator’s Report – Roger Elkin
I hope folk won’t mind if I use this adjudication occasion to explore the writing of free-verse, which to be successful imposes almost as many demands as the writing of rhymed verse.
Throughout the Adjudication process the definition of poetry used as the most relevant focus for my reading and eventual choice comes from the American poet and critic, Louis Simpson:
Poetry is thought expressed in rhythm.
This definition with its directness, brevity, memorability, and comprehensive generosity makes it ideal for an Open Competition. It does not proscribe the type, quantity, quality or intensity of thought. There is no limit to its subject matter, either in type, scope or area – it can be philosophical, descriptive, narrative, or whatever. Similarly, there is no proscription in matters of form or structure; no suggestion as to its audience, or its purpose. So the resulting poem can be about nuclear physics or feeding the cat; a religious experience or a political diatribe; an epitaph, sestina, sonnet, villanelle; aimed at the pre-school child, the adolescent, the lover, the mature reader …. It can be serious, questioning, challenging, shocking, humorous, amorous – whatever … But what is important is that the poem reveals and demonstrates processes and explorations of thought. And by thought, it can be inferred that Simpson also includes emotion and imagination: both of which are realms of and/or adjuncts to thought. Thought possesses the dynamic of creative vitality: it moves, shifts, changes, clarifies, muddies, grows, shrinks … It doesn’t stand still. And thought, when shared with others, changes again, and takes on different and subtle levels and nuances of meaning according to the sensibilities and experiences of the reader. The writing of poetry, like the process of thought, is a dynamic activity, growing from an embryonic flickering (mood, phrase, emotion, notion, insight) and developing almost organically into different shapes via the varied processes of recording those very processes of growth and change. These explorations of creativity and emotional intensity, the writing down of thought, become simultaneously both the vehicle for the poem and the vessel in which it is contained. In other words, FORM and CONTENT are interdependent. And this is true in free-verse as well as poems in traditionally-structured prosody such as sonnets and villanelles.
The most important element of both that vehicle and vessel is what Simpson identifies as rhythm. And it is significant that he chooses this single stylistic device from a whole battery of formal constraints and techniques. But let’s be clear what we’re talking about. Rhythm is not to be confused with metre. Metre is concerned with the repetition of patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables; whereas rhythm is the tempo of the movement of the words set in conjunction with thought and emotion, sense and feeling. Alter the context in terms of sense and/or emotion – say in an elegy or an ode as opposed to a satiric villanelle – and the same words containing the same number of syllables (stressed and/or unstressed, patterned or not) will be delivered in a different tempo, a varying pace: one that suits the content, and therefore the meaning – not one that suits the patterned structure of syllables. This subtle playing off of the movement of words to underpin sense and emotion constitutes rhythm. Integral to this is the fact that the choice of diction for such (poetic) purposes as assonance, alliteration, or even just for the pure sound quality of the words as companion to sense/feeling, or for the effects to be gained from the juxtaposition of monosyllabic with polysyllabic words – this choice is in itself central to the tempo of the movement of the words, and contributive to the poem’s rhythmic quality.
All the above has particular relevance to the writing of free verse, which in the hands of an unskilled writer often ends up lacking rhythm and reading like prose that has been chopped-up arbitrarily into lines. In free-verse what is crucial is the process of lineation (the splitting of the content into lines) a feature which is in no ways arbitrary or to be executed cavalierly. Lineation controls the shaping of the poem’s intellectual and emotional content, its pacing, and rhythmic pulse. Lineation, line-enjambment (the running-on of sense via broken and incomplete phrase or clause over the end of one line or verse-paragraph and on to the next), the sensitive use of punctuation, and the structural use of blank space are essential elements in controlling the rhythmic pulse in free-verse. They help to give it its special musical qualities that distinguish it from prose. All these affect the rhythm and the sense of the line, and, ultimately, the rhythm and sense of the poem. A simple way of monitoring this is to read the lines out loud and introduce the slightest of pauses on an upbeat at the end of the line even though the sense is continuous. Doing this will help to confirm the cadential rhythm or breathing pulse of the lines. Checking this rhythmic integrity will also simultaneously confirm matters of sense: you’ll be able to see whether the line-breaks work against the meaning by emphasising the “wrong” word or part of the sentence, or such things as the auxiliary verb being broken away from the participle, the (in)definite article/possessive pronoun/adjective left hanging mid-air from the noun. Once identified, such matters are easily rectified. This is why it is necessary to “listen” to the rhythm of the lines, their breathing pulse – a practice I always apply as part of the adjudication process by reading the submitted poems out loud. (Hearing this from distant rooms, my close family might think that I’m on the verge of losing the plot!)
Probably the best way to demonstrate this issue of lineation and rhythm is to put these ideas into practice with an example. Using the approach outlined above, read these lines out aloud, at least twice:
A snake came
To my water-trough
On a hot, hot day,
And I in pyjamas
For the heat
Now, adopting the same strategy, read these lines again but with their original lineation:
A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.
Doing this will help to clarify the subtle differences in texture, mood, and feeling between the two versions. And this is encapsulated in, and emphasised by, the differing rhythm of the lines – i.e. in the tempo of the movement of the words. Given that the tempo is dependent on the context of the sense and feeling behind the events being described, this particular lineation (subtle and pointed) has helped to communicate the thoughts and emotions that D. H. Lawrence wished to convey. And such subtlety lies at the heart of the poems chosen in the final stages of this competition – a clear indication that their authors had an effective understanding of this finely-nuanced creative process, and the way in which the HOW of the poem (its technical means) affects the WHAT (its message and meaning); and vice versa!
Now, at last, what you have been waiting for: the adjudication results (all names of authors supplied after final choices had been made).
The standard of the nearly 400 entries was high, and the task of arriving at final choices was very challenging, but simultaneously pleasurable. The adjudicating process demanded several readings, much agonising over long-lists, short-lists, and the selection and positioning in the final order.
The subject matter was varied: including, Covid and lockdown; family (from grandparents to grandchildren); death (the dead, dying, new-born and still-born); the problems of life, (work, unemployment, retirement, dementia); issues of identity (including matters spiritual and religious); hobbies and pastimes (gardening, fishing); Nature poems (animals, including birds, insects, fish, flowers [particularly snowdrops and daffodils]); mood pieces of place and moment; loss (lost love; lost youth; lost moments; lost opportunities); love, courtship, marriage, separation, divorce, domestic violence, dystopia and abuse; paintings, music and photographs; and historical events and personages.
In terms of form, the entry divided roughly between 10% written in quatrains and/or regular rhyme using couplets and a predictable jig-jog metre which sometimes dominated over sense (there were also several villanelles, sonnets and sestinas); the remaining 90% were presented in free-verse structures. There was much evidence of committed, dedicated, skilfully-crafted writing that deserves to be published, read and shared.
First Prize – The Parcel by Maggie Davison
This poem’s quiet discipline, its restraint, its economy of means, its precise focus haunted me from a first reading; and grew more powerfully with each revisit. The six unrhymed quatrains of the poem skilfully capture a further relationship between mother and child: this time its focus is the selection and transporting “home on the bus” of a “parcel” of sheet music for the “piano teacher” mother. The events are seen from the point of view of the child, and the patient waiting, the domestic discipline, the generational differences of mother and child, and the wonder, excitement and magic of both the event and the music are exquisitely conveyed. The physical realisation of the event is finely detailed, as for example in the opening quatrain’s location in the “Sheet Music” section of the Central Arcade, Newcastle, where the unnamed shop assistant is identified only by his “feet” as they “scale high shelves, arpeggios on rungs” – the first of several witty references to musical terms. The protracted process of music choice is captured via the use of the opening sentence’s six and a half line length, including its enjambment into the second quatrain. The sensory description is exact, moving from the visual – “one buff, fraying folder” – via the olfactory to the auditory – “with their smell of new books / to Mam, to scan and hum”. Similar precise choice of diction coupled with assonantal patterning captures the listing of choices as
scratches a white pad: after all the pluses,
a minus and a purr from her
at her piano teacher’s discount.
The description of the package is visually exact: “Shiny covers wrapped in brown paper, / tied in string, knotted with a loop”; and the child’s world-view of its purchase admirably achieved by a witty combination of childhood innocence and musical reference:
The cash register peals, big numbers jump
in front of my eyes from clefless glass.
And when “after every crumb/ leaves the tea table”, and the parcel is finally opened, the poem celebrates the child’s wonder at the mother’s piano performance: “Dots, squiggles / and foreign words are magicked // into melodies / under her fingers”. The enchantment and discomfort to the child of this new world of strange and moving music is captured admirably in the concluding lines with their range of emotion, from “love” to “dread”. The concluding short sentence underpins the incisive final command: there is no denying the authority of mother, and the importance of the event.
It is to be hoped that like mother, like daughter, like me you will relish the treasures of The Parcel. This is poetry of the first order: challenging, thought-provoking, and illuminating: an enviable achievement! Many congratulations!
Second prize – The Art of Laundry by Miriam Patrick
This moving poem is reminiscent of aspects of Seamus Heaney’s sequence Clearances, dedicated to the memory of his mother. Whereas Heaney uses the sonnet form, The Art of Laundry is written in 9 unrhymed couplets, and movingly celebrates the domestic bond between a mother and her child assisting in the “Monday evening folding / of the sheets”, a “routine” full of “instruction”, “worked on / till we had it right”, and which is that finely “synchronised” it becomes “almost a dance” as
each of us would step towards the other
to meet midway … in a do-si-do unrealised”.
That “unrealised” is replete with subtle ambiguity. Simultaneously, this domestic chore as they “grasp the fabric” of the sheets, “pair them together”, and “smooth … the edges” is elevated to become “like a flag presented on a ceremonial occasion”. The poem abounds with visual and sensory detail; and the entire process is finely described with precise economy of means that adds symbolic weight to an ordinary event: for example, the generational gap between mother and child is hinted at in the description of the “distant corners” of the sheets, the use of “Wider always Wider” and the reference to the fact the event took place in the “living room between us”. While there is an element of warm comfort in this “work that felt like play, with laughter”; the memory of the events is full of sad nostalgia in the loss of the mother as intuited in the poem’s concluding line
even now as I unpeg my washing from the line.
This is writing of a fine calibre: undemanding, accessible and life-confirming
Third prize – The Housekeeper by Doreen Hinchliffe
This is one of several sestinas entered in the competition. As such, perhaps an explanation of the structural demands of this form is necessary for those unfamiliar with the form; and for those who are, sincere apologies!
Composed in six stanzas of six lines in blank verse, and capped by a three-lined envoi, the sestina uses repetition instead of rhyme. The end word of each line of stanza 1 is repeated in a different order in each of the subsequent stanzas and in the envoi. The repeated pattern is
stanza I 1-2-3-4-5-6
stanza II 6-1-5-2-4-3
stanza III 3-6-4-1-2-5
stanza IV 5-3-2-6-1-4
stanza V 4-5-1-3-6-2
stanza VI 2-4-6-5-3-1
The envoi has inner repetition as well as end repetition. Line 1 has end-word 2 in the middle, and end-word 5 at the line-end; line 2 has end-word 4 in the middle, and end-word 3 at the line-end; and line 3 has end-word 6 in the middle and word-end 1 at the end.
Not only is this regulated structure taxingly-difficult to follow and apply, there is also the problem that the repetition strains against or distorts meaning, as the poet tries to weave the words into the poetic argument. The Housekeeper rises to this challenge admirably. Its end-words in stanza-1 line-order are “moon”; “house”; ”fire”; “ice”; “light”; “dead”. Working through the prescribed form, the poet sidesteps some of the problems of repetition by skilled grammatical technique, so that “moon” is used as both a noun and a verb; “light” as a noun and adjective; while “ice” becomes part of a compound word split over two lines, as in “ice-cold”; “ice-covered” and “ice-maiden”, The content ranges widely from Vienna, to France and eventually Pudding Lane, and references a variety of living accommodation, from “each ancient house” to “the tiny attic”, “France’s slums”, “a pretty bourgeois house /with staff”, and as the envoi concludes
… that Parisian house where I’d watch the light
fire the guillotine’s falling blade of ice
and gaze on each dead face, white as the moon.
As this example demonstrates, there is some very fine visual and sensory detail throughout the poem: elsewhere, “Ice / carves intricate patterns on windows”; and “the moon / silvered the frozen lake”. This is a very successfully-crafted poem, whose true wealths are properly realized when it is read aloud.
West Sussex Winner – Red Admiral in Winter by Fran Tristram
The adoption of an almost Petrarchan sonnet form admirably suits this dazzling poem. A particular feature is the use of only 4 rhyme-words throughout the 14 lines: an octave of 2 quatrains in an ABBA structure, capped by the sestet in CDCDCC. This serves to highlight the structural pattern in which the octave states and develops the proposition, and after the turn, the volta, the sestet reflects on these and hints at a more universal situation or solution. Of additional structural importance is the deliberate strategy of limited punctuation. This draws attention to the sestet’s important opening question, the only use of punctuation in the poem, apart from a dash.
The sonnet considers the early emergence of a hibernating butterfly, and simultaneously intuits a comment on the incidence of climate change and global warming that has caused its untimely action. Addressing the butterfly, the opening description catches the jazziness of its markings, here identified as “sultry nightclub finery” – a feature which the absence of punctuation emphasises by bringing into clear focus via the chosen adjectives the Red Admiral’s particular colours:
rich black velvet sizzling red pure white
This is in sharp contrast with the expected wintering “frayed and tattered” features, and underpins the “Sporting” element of the butterfly who “dare(s) to risk” “one last dance” “in this false-Spring”. There is much verbal play on matters of eating and drinking: the emergence into flight is “a taste of February fun”; the butterfly is urged to “Drink” the “heady nectar”, and “soak up the precious light” till stirred into “drunken flight”; and the butterfly’s “courage” is seen to be prompted by “hunger”. However, the action of the butterfly is short-lived as delineated in the effective descriptions of “storms”, “icy inundations” and “deadly jewelled frost” which transform the Red Admiral into “a final glittering decoration”. This is a delightful poem, which celebrates the wonders of Nature – both insect and seasonal weather – and simultaneously alerts us to the precarious hold on life.
Congratulations go to all the authors of Commended and Prize-Winning poems, and my thanks to all competitors for allowing me to share their worlds, their thoughts, their laughter, tears and concerns: I learn such a lot from their writing. Finally, my thanks to Gillie Read for her impeccable management of the competition, and to the Society for honouring me with their confidence in my judgement!
Three cheers for poetry! Long may the Slipstream Poets continue to meet!