Report for 2012 W B Yeats Poetry Prize
Someone once said that entering a writing competition is like entering a lottery. By this was meant that your chance of winning is outside your control, with the judge’s subjective tastes, especially, being a factor you can’t influence. The analogy breaks down, however, when you consider that once you’ve paid your money, each ticket, each entry, has the same chance of winning, whereas in a writing competition not every entry has the same chance. By writing and, more importantly, editing the strongest entry you can produce, you give yourself the best chance of rising above those who have not been as diligent in their application of the requisite craft.
Advice for Emerging Poets
What is this requisite craft? It can be divided in two main areas: experience and language, with a minor area being presentation. Let’s take the last one first.
No entry in the competition was dismissed because of poor presentation, but such entries didn’t do their chances any good if presentation was so poor they annoyed the judge. If a poem is centred on the page, or uses unusual line arrangements, unless there is a reason for the layout then it’s always best to keep to the traditional method of having each line starting at the left margin. Make sure to use a serif font and to have adequate black ink in the printer cartridge. Coloured fonts are unnecessary, as are unusual fonts, unless they serve a valid, visual poetical purpose. These mechanical issues may seem unimportant compared to the content of the poem, but why have them interfere with the reception of the text when they can be so easily fixed?
Of course, the more important issues are experience and language. Anything that happens in the world can be the subject of a poem, but not everyone has the ability to turn such experiences into a poem that engages a reader. A number of entries depicted very intense emotional situations for the writer, but the language in some of them tended to be private, to the point of excluding readers who are not party to the event or events being related. If a general reader feels there is something missing from the text, because the poet is writing to another person who already knows that missing context, then the general reader feels excluded and can’t stay engaged with the poem.
Other poems failed to engage because the event or feeling being recounted, although new and significant to the writer, has already been explored by other poets and the entry poem treated the topic in a sentimental way. Often the entry poem didn’t have anything new to say about the topic and its language was too ordinary, was more ‘telling’ than ‘showing’. A poem shouldn’t tell about the experience and expect the reader to feel the same thing the poet felt. A poem shouldn’t tell the reader what to feel. What a poem should do is force the reader to feel what the poet felt about the particular experience. A poem should draw the reader into its world, should excite the reader’s imagination, which is often done through the use of one or more of the devices poets have always used: image, rhythm, simile, metaphor, etc.
Other problems that caused entries to fall by the wayside during the judging process included obvious grammatical errors an attentive poet should have noticed during the last edit before submission; ideas or events that were either over-explored, over-stated, or under-explored; endings that were too obvious or were attempts at explaining what the poem was about—if readers haven’t figured it out by the time the poem is coming to an end, then it’s no use hitting them over the head with it. Some poems had ordinary openings, with the guts of the poem occurring later. Some had clunky phrases or images.
Start a poem strong, develop it appropriately, with striking imagery and fresh language, and finish it strong. Avoid clichés of feeling or experience, and clichés of language. By entering the competition, each poet has announced he or she is moving beyond the mere diary-entry approach in the recording of feelings and wants to contribute to the poetic tradition. The best way to do this is to read as much poetry as possible, analyse how successful poets have created their effects, then practise what has been discovered. In other words, poetry is an artisan activity and you can only know your craft by knowing the craft of others.
Now to the prize winners, those poems that continued to resonate with the judges even after repeated readings and analyses.
‘Restitution’ is a sustained and elaborated poetic vision of a burnt forest. It takes risks with language in its construction of striking visual and sensual imagery. The poem opens with the image of the burnt trees as ‘the slender masts of deserted ships’ and maintains this image throughout. It does this while observing the trees and the elements of the surrounding forest, as in the peeling bark making a ‘loose curtain/That rattles a death knell in the birdless air’. These various observations end with the birth of new life, which venerates the ‘fallen kings’, the poem itself finishing with a clever adaptation of the classic proclamation after the death of a king or queen: ‘the forest is dead, long live the forest’.
‘the homeless on holiday’ also has a unity of vision and is filled with felicitous images, such as ‘to spin out on Merimbula beach,/that magic crescent button fastening earth and sea’, ‘tiaras of light in a tall sky’, ‘beneath the crown-of-thorns cloudmass’, and ‘like wave-wash, like surf-hiss, like justice ...’ The poem is appealing because it provides an unexpected narrative of the homeless and also comments on society without being heavy-handed in its politics (‘the false dawn empty as the dole’), which was a fault in a number of other entries.
‘Delphi’ is a strong evocation of an ancient place, its associated divinatory practices, and its connections to the birth of drama. It too has a number of striking images, for example, ‘Here the Pheistos Valley/dizzies down to amphitheatres/of stone and air and space.’ Although there are one or two instances of awkward language choice, the poem manages, through its present moment of meditation on past moments, to universalise the mystery the ancient Greeks were plumbing:
to where the belly of the earth
still sings to us in oracles
that riddle our lives like truth.
There are three Commended poems. The love poem ‘For the girl who fell in love with New York or A Visit to My Emotional Museum’ has a wonderful opening that plays on the concept of having one’s head turned (by a person and/or a place) and develops this image into other versions (weathervane, tornado), using the location of the experience to comment on the relationship.
‘The Motherhood’ explores the triple presence of woman (maiden, mother, crone) in a single woman. The speaker realises that this presence, specifically of the crone (‘This unknown archetype of motherhood’), has been waiting for her to have children, love them, be tested by them, has been waiting for the woman to accept the crone, become her: ‘She beckons me back towards myself,/spent and emptied by the task of creation.’
‘Ties that Bind’ explores the relationship between a grandchild and her grandmother through a depiction of the shells the child presents to the grandmother (‘A handful of blush white scallop shells/Ridged like her grandmother's toenails’) and by a comparison of their legs in the water.
It is easy to enter a lottery. All you have to do is spend the money for a ticket and all you risk is the loss of that money. To enter a writing competition is not so easy. It takes courage, for you are putting your work out into the world for judgement and are accepting the risk of rejection. We congratulate all you who entered for taking that risk and for giving us the privilege of reading and enjoying your poems. We hope you have learnt something from the process. Whether or not your next entry beats the odds, by continuing your love of, and the exploration of, the art and craft of poetry, and by learning to take greater risks with yourself and your work, you already have won.
Earl Livings and Heather Sebo