11 June 2016
Yeats Poetry Prize Judges’ Report
I’d like to begin by saying what a pleasure and a privilege it has been for us to judge the Yeats Prize for 2015, and to thank Declan Foley for organizing this national award and today’s event. Judging a poetry prize is like no other activity. Reading so many poems in a short time – it has to be short so you can make relative judgements – is, to put it mildly, an uncommon experience: unnatural, but rewarding and intense. It is rewarding simply because there are so many fine poems to choose from, and rewarding insofar as we are assured of the enduring status of William Butler Yeats in this country and, indeed, the place of poetry as a whole in our cultural life – and it is a wonderful experience to have this snap-shot of poetry in the making across the whole country. Despite the intensity, we have tried to let each poem breath, to consider each on its own merit. It has been our remarkable experience this year that, despite the large number of poems (almost 280), and despite the different categories we were looking to award, there was a moment when everything fell into place, and our judgements, as if by magic, were unanimous.
The winner of the First Prize is Jenny Pollak, of Great Mackerel Beach, NSW, for her poem “White-out”. When the identities of the winning poets were revealed, we discovered that she had also written a quite different poem, "Somewhere a fire", for which she shares Second Place with Stefan Dubezuk, of Greenwood, Western Australia, for his poem “Father is”. “White-out”, the winning poem, seems to achieve its political message effortlessly – without waving an admonishing finger – and the seamless connection it makes between past and present is convincing and horrifying. “Somewhere a fire” stands out for its extraordinary imagery – for example, the sunset as the place “where the sun falls / on its head” in an astonishing depiction of a world grown unfamiliar and indecipherable. Making a contrasting claim is Stefan Dubezuk’s poem “Father is”, which finds a tender point of connection in a difficult relationship, through a strange combination of language and food.
We awarded equal Third Place to Amanda Anastasi, of West Footscray, for “Last Humans”, and Patrick Lau, of Darlington, NSW, for “seagulls and doves”. “Last Humans” is a list connected by a wordless under-narrative, and it doesn’t pull any punches. “[S]eagulls and doves” is a short poem that mixes earnest query and clever perception – and part of its attraction comes from viewing it on the page.
We were pleased to be able to award two further categories: Highly Commended and Commended. Highly Commended are Cecilia Morris, of Brighton, Victoria, for “Wharf 3 Moama”; Kia Groom, of Hillarys, Western Australia, for “Once Out of Nature”, and Mark O’Flynn, of Katoomba, NSW, for “Communion of Stones”. Commended are “Picasso” by Sue Cartledge, from Leichhardt, NSW; “Gone Before” by Grant Hayes, from Corrimal, NSW; “A litre weighs a kilogram” by Jenny Blackford, from Wallsend, NSW; “A Page Break” by Sheila Njoto from Melbourne and “Orange” by Damen O’Brien, from Wynnum, Queensland. (Damon’s poems were recognised in almost every category of the Yeats Prize last year.) Each of the poems I’ve just mentioned is emotionally powerful, and the range of feeling within and between them is also remarkable. Cartledge’s poem “picasso”, for example, starts out by being a humorous absurdist poem, in the manner of Gertrude Stein, and moves faultlessly through its ironies toward a grief where all irony fails. Hayes’ poem, “Gone Before” thinks and feels behind the leavings of ancestors till a whole genealogy of suffering, of humble and dependent people, is laid bare. “Once Out of Nature” articulates the triumphant creation of a “Tulpa”, a fierce emanation born of pen and ink, who owes more than his “tattered coat” to Yeats, whereas “Communion of Stones” and “Wharf 3 Moama” each arrive at a fragile contentment, through markedly different processes. “A litre weighs a kilogram” is a meditation on the value of water in different places, whereby water becomes an emblem of a whole cultural formation. “Orange” accomplishes something similar, but culminates in “new fangs” rather than suppressed tears. “A Page Break” records a mysterious event, “a gaze instead of a glance”, that has made a temporary difference that is tantamount to a promise.
These thirteen poems were selected from a very rich field, which assures us all of the persisting rude health of poetry. I’d like to finish by thanking all of the poets, who make reading so rewarding, to thank my fellow judge, Matthew Ryan, whose camaraderie has transformed the task of judgement into a delight, and to Kris and Retta, for providing such an inimitable space, here at Collected Works Bookshop for the celebration of the Yeats Poetry Prize today.