I have a very nice shortlist for you. My comments may seem critical but they are meant to offer help to poets entering competitions, to pass on some experience of seeing your poems from the side of an experienced reader.
I deduced there were a proportion of recent beginners, and it is great that older people have a chance to take part and learn about poetry, and good that they were given priority in this competition for over 60s.
There is a lot to learn about poetry. Many of the poems had a chatty tone, as though they were little stories – a poem is more than a story. Some would have stood up as flash fiction. If your poem is all narrative without any space for a conclusion, or a universal truth, the reader will wonder why you’ve written it. I don’t mean you have to state the truth, but there has to be universality, or point. Sometimes this is phrased by saying a poem is about more than one thing at a time.
Noticeable among the poems’ subjects were old people, often parents, and Alzheimer’s which seems to be a fear or problem of the times. I would say about half the poems submitted had subjects linked to age. These subjects can be strongly felt, and that comes over, but unless they are very original they will likely seem like the other half dozen poems on Alzheimer’s, clearing out someone’s attic, or meditating on your grandchildren. Writing of age can be done with varying success. ‘After fifty years’ is a warning phrase in a poem. If you’re writing about a photograph, don’t tell us it’s a photograph: describe the old guy or whoever it is a photo of. Bringing two levels of experience into a poem – finding a photo in the attic then describing your uncle – makes it harder to write a good poem. What was missing in many entries was an objectiveness about the poem.
The poems I chose had poetic rhythms, sometimes form. They had flow – that sense of repeatability that I expect in a good poem. Having a sense of form and flow is equally important for free verse. Just as you are not free from sound if you don’t use rhyme, so you are not free from form, shape, control, if you are not writing a sonnet or a triolet. If you use form, use it properly. If you use stanzas, keep each one to part of the poem – if you are running sentences across stanzas, perhaps you shouldn’t be using stanzas at all?
Short poems: a short poem may have less wrong with it, but if it sounds like a fragment, it won’t reach the top of the heap.
Some of the ‘Age’ subjects have made it into this shortlist, and some of the more general subjects. In line with the entries, they are about half and half.
I’ve listed these poems in alphabetical order of the title or first word, so it doesn’t tell you about the winners – it’s my job to decide that next. Congratulations to all these shortlisted poets, who will not be known yet, except to themselves. You all did well.
I stepped away – the Cliff’s sore Lip –
was cracked and trembling there
It leered at me salaciously
And seemed to cry – Beware
The buzzing Thoughts of Suicides
Still pollinate the Rim
So did the Bride Groom’s winning Smile
Despite a View – so grim
The Wind has Ammunition rare –
Delirium contrives –
White Birds like Michelangelo
Carved Beauty from the Skies
The Sea was Sapphire – Ruby Sun
It blinked in to Eclipse –
The Soul has moments of Despair
Then sinks into Abyss
I look into her eyes and wonder when
the picture changed to mirror passing years.
Who does she see, a stranger or a friend?
Her puzzled glance reflected in my tears.
Hands worn with labour’s print reach out in fear
as inward eye looks back from now, to then.
The time has come (and gone); she cannot hear.
I look into her eyes and wonder when.
Blitzed, bruised and broken, again and again
she replays her celluloid memories,
trying to recapture the moment when
the picture changed to mirror passing years.
To me her loss of innocence is clear.
Teutonic warring brought it to an end.
and though I hold her hand and draw her near,
who does she see, a stranger or a friend?
Though sorely wounded at the hands of men,
her smile is like a ray of sun and here
she almost is until the moment when
her puzzled glance ’s reflected in my tears.
Remembering grows dim, and disappears
and love’s light blinks like sunset in the Glen.
whispered words of comfort: “I am here.”
No more strangers, connected once again
I look into her eyes.
Now I am very old I want to juggle fire,
toss flaming balls from hand to hand,
have passers-by stare open-mouthed
at my dexterity.
I want to see the sunflower heads of flame
fly carelessly in rising arcs,
bridges between steep banks of words.
I’ll burn my bridges with blazing balls,
catch sparks which in their turn will light
a second generation of wild fire,
spin to infinity.
As comets trail a feathered tail behind
I want to leave my mark, a cloud of glowing lines
spinning like fireballs in the dark.
The Friday Group Hike (Auldearn)
Rain swarms down like a hostile horde
of barbarians, as our road passes
a quagmire of tractor tracks and puddles.
There would have been a view of a fort once;
now a grassy mound and an abandoned doocot
stare back from its space.
There would have been a view of a battle once
where two ideas slogged it out,
blood the victor.
Now one foot leads the other,
one piece of conversation follows the other
on our path through the present.
A swan upturns in a pond,
as a crow rasps a rough file through sky.
Red berries soften the spike of holly branches.
An SUV sounds the alarm bell
of its engine, its lights sweeping
at us like cutlasses.
We pass the bareness of birches,
and the crowding of houses
as we reach the village.
Our path has curved round on itself
as we return to the car park
and make geometry of our day.
She shrugs off parts of herself the way a snake sheds skin
until she’s thin as fish shadows, sheer as film. Until
she fades, dims, slips into her earth shape.
Some days she wheels, spins with kites and hawks,
murmurates with starlings, lolls by reservoirs
slashed by the pelt of horizontal rain. Or mucks
around with dirty worms or races, slick as mercury
down sombre window panes. Until the weights
and hoists of the universe compel her to rise.
A snow queen, paper fine, she takes in air, glides,
revolves like some glorious balloon; crescent,
gibbous, full against the china glaze of midnight.
But always to the tune of tides,
always to the whispering of wolves.
Of Fools and Angels
Fools rush in. Angels do risk-assessments.
Over the dangerous threshold goes the fool.
You were warned say the angels.
A fool and his gold … Angels are tightfists.
You won't catch an angel trading in
a milch cow for a handful of beans
or jumping off a cliff on plummeting wings.
No angel would strike sparks from flint
without extinguisher to hand
nor climb into a logboat, paddle off
to Lord knows where without compass
or lifebelt. A smug life being an angel
knowing nothing that happens is your fault.
A mug's life being a fool, knowing you started
the forest fire, drowned your passengers:
If only is your constant refrain
If only you'd looked first, thought harder,
not been so damn cocksure. But then
you'd not have scaled the giant beanstalk
brought home the inexhaustible goose.
I answer the knock at the door
expecting the boy who delivers eggs.
You again. Get lost, man.
And by the way, that getup.
such a cliché: black hood, scythe
Every fibre of muscle coheres
to keep that door slowly closing.
I’m five foot one. My asset is attitude.
Stare the bully down. He shrinks.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m scared.
Just not as scared as when
I had glossy hair, unscarred skin,
joints I was unaware of.
Someday you’ll blindside me, wedge
the door with that oversized boot.
I’ll feel your arms round me, offering
to pull me into that high black space
familiar as a grandmother’s breast.
I might say, Okay, I’m done here.
I’m not there yet.
The Story of Silence
Because it has not turned out how I dreamt,
to lie against another’s backbone in the dark
listening to the suck and blow of their dolphin breath,
I return to the edge of sea, sky and land,
where dawn is washed by rain-soaked night,
to reveal a tattered wedding veil of mist
covering the morning’s face.
Far from the city’s buzz and blur,
the constant ticker-tape of news,
I am postulant to the weather-god,
genuflect to the pull of tides,
whisper rosaries to the glassy moon,
and great Atlantic storms.
At break of day I light a beeswax candle
so, solitude becomes a form
of holy erudition,
the I an eye, before I merge
with the savage silence.