I'd like to start by saying how sorry I am to be overseas for the presentation ceremony on Yeats Day. It was a delight to meet some of the poets behind the poems last year and I'm sad to miss this now. I do hope not too many of the interstate contributors are feeling the same way and that some can manage to attend. The Yeats Poetry Prize is a fine invitation to poets to chance their work in the public domain and I should like to begin this report by congratulating Declan Foley for launching and fostering it. Speaking now for us both, it was a privilege and pleasure to act as judges. Some of the poems will stay with us for a long time.
The first prize went to an astonishing and flawless little poem, 'Leech Evening at Lamington'. And here came the delightful discovery: after the judging was formalized, Declan told us who you were, and we found that one of the second prizes had been won by the same poet, Damen O'Brien. His poem 'The Telomere Clock' is a beautifully controlled dramatic monologue combining witty, edgy intelligence with feeling and austerley placed verbal surprises ('thistle' as a verb). Two other entries by him were highly commended and commended. We can't wait to see more of his work. The other second prize-winner is Alana Kelsall for 'When the time comes'. a dark, funny and subtle meditation on old age and death in the voice of Jean Rhys from her imagined social burial in the country. The three prize-winning poems are quite different, but all strikingly original.
Several of the poems we have grouped as highly commended could have been candidates for prizes in a less rich field. Some drive forward confidently, like the playful 'Hippos of Venezuela' or the assured presentation of 'The Book of Shakespeare' as a colonizing force. Others are almost transparent, unmediated, as in the uncovered life of 'Bird on the Run' or the tracings of an old and secret non-human dominion in 'Fiddler Crabs'. 'Violence at the Egg' is an unusual poem that brushes back and forth between life-giving and life-taking energies in all their broken and ephemeral intensities of pain. 'An ode to my body' holds its nerve and cleverly sustains its conceit. 'Flightpath' moves vertiginously between perspectives. 'TB Sanitarium' is sharp and shapely, with an undertow of feeling. 'Nacht and Nebel' (sic) achieves some negative capability with sea-creatures and water and sand and has gorgeously phrased moments. 'I wish you would name the months' moves decorously towards its simple, heart-rending conclusion.
Some of the commended poems also might have been grouped upwards, if the competition had been less dense. 'The Fine Print is Very Fine' is a beautiful example of how to write a poem that judges what it painfully feels without shading into manifesto. 'Couldn't help overhearing' does something similar through comedic bounce. The clean lines of 'Crossing the Harbour Bridge' works as a correlative for its construction, while the shifting tempi in 'Procrastination' ( a 'lazy foxtrot' being one) control the dance between the time thief and his other self. 'Sketches at River Bend' is delicate in its perceptions and its pauses; 'four brothers' shifts at just the right point from a photographic family memoir to a timeless lament. Death is ever-present and metamorphic: as choice of burial mode in the spare and witty 'slumber', a controlled but feeling ceremony in the prose poem 'Salute', a night of noise, delusion and horror resolved in stark morning discovery in 'full moon feast'. 'We to the Gods' engages energetically with layers of decomposition and disgust. 'Wire' glimpses a shy love affair with life within the walls of imminent death. 'The Giants of Barcelona' pays homage to two stately stilted figures whose movements through the streets raises spectators' imagination towards something greater than themsleves.
The poems we commended all have quality and craft. But they were not the only poems we took pleasure in. Some of the entries did not get beyond assertion or advice-giving but many show originality or careful shaping and reflection. 'Queen of ancient night' and its companion poem display strength and control. There are three lively poems about trains. The dramatic monologue include the feisty 'Forgiven' and the touching 'Caroline'. 'Invasion (thirty-five towns in Australia circa 1900)' is an unusally conceived and firmly put-together prose poem. 'The Letter' is thoughful and well-shaped. 'The Compass' works out an inventive idea; 'suddenly singing' is accomplished. There are lovely phrases in 'Lions and Inscriptions' and 'Backyard of the Mind' ('Berries ... like blood blisters'), while 'In the ladies restroom' moves with seeming casualness to a small and silent drama. One coud go on. In the end, we singled out those poems that were most original and best sustained, but many others showed skill, flair and individuality.
At a time when universities and schools seem increasingly afraid to teach poetry, or have forgotten how to value it, it is wonderful to see how much well-crafted, serious poetry is being written and find that institutions have not perusaded us that poetry no longer matters. Congratulations to all the contributors.
Penelope Buckley and Carolyn Masel