2014 Ron Pretty Poetry Prize—Judge’s Report

I’d like to thank everyone who entered this competition: though challenging, it has also been very interesting to hear the range of poetic voices out there and I have to say that overall, I was very impressed by the high quality of the entries. There were just over a thousand entries in this inaugural competition, which made the task of judging no sinecure. Many of the poems that are not on the long list are nevertheless very fine poems and would not look out of place in magazines or anthologies. Choosing a long list of just thirty poems from that wealth was no easy task, and drawing a short list and then the winning poem was even more difficult.

My comments on the short-listed poems are below. First, though, I want to indicate some of the common flaws I saw in poems that did not seem to reach their full potential:

– there were many finely wrought narratives, scenes or situations; in some of them, though, the language was flat, with not much attention to rhythm and not enough life in the language to surprise or enchant the reader;

– other poems delighted with unusual structures and/or arresting language. Such poems carried the risk, not always avoided, of creating a sense of strain or obscurity that can be alienating to a reader, or of losing a sense of unity in the poem;

– or there’s a line or an image that seems to be put there for effect, but because it’s disconnected from the rest of the poem – or insufficiently connected – it weakens the poem;

– I think many poets underestimate the difficulties posed by rhyme, so that some of the rhymes used are clichéd or obtrusive or the language of the poem is manipulated awkwardly to get the rhyme to fit. Sometimes, instead of following, the rhyme seems to lead the meaning of the poem – and sometimes leads it astray;

– finally, some poets don’t pay enough attention to the importance of the title of their poem; some of the titles chosen are banal or fey or laboured or just plain cheesy. The title is an integral part of the unity which is the poem and should be given as much creative thought as every other word in the poem

The short-listed poems

Afterthoughts

At first sight, this poem with its numbered triplets might appear to be disjointed, held together only by its title. But a closer reading reveals that there is a subtle thread running through it about the end of a relationship, and once we realize this, the title takes on a second meaning and the poem itself is enriched. The fractured movement of the lines echoes the breakdown of the relationship and this fine poem is rich in image and language.

Bach and the essence of things

The worst thing about this poem is its title, but the poem itself is a beautifully crafted tribute to the power of music, created out of love for the pianist playing it. The poem moves with a stately resonance that effectively mirrors the composer’s fugues while the middle section makes a neat connection between Bach’s music and the natural world

Ghost Gum Plateau

The power of vivid description is clearly evident in this poem. There’s a sensuous range of images as the poet explores the “sorority” of ghost gums with their “elegant feet/and crowns”. Through the “chuckle” of the wind in the trees, the poet then connects the rich and evocative images of the gums with thoughts of the loved one as s/he descends from the river cliffs for a flight to the lover.

Peregrine Moon

There were quite a lot of moons among the poems submitted – there was one in the short-listed poem mentioned above. It’s a fraught topic, one which seems to draw clichés to itself like iron filings to a magnet. As you see, to avoid them is not easy, but this poem does much more than simply avoid cliché. By observing the flight of a peregrine falcon, the narrator sees the way the bird “pulled heaven about as near//To earth as heaven may hope to come” and thus to the moon (“the Buddha/In a bathrobe”). It’s an ingenious linking of the two dominant images, each developed through an attractive series of relates images.

Speaking bluntly

A very clever play on language which is well sustained throughout. It might best be seen an exercise in synaesthesia, where the sound of speech is seen in terms of physical texture, as in “sucking on the sour fruit in the dark fist of the mouth.” There are many such striking images in the seven well constructed stanzas. It’s a very original poem, both in its concept and its realization.

What?

As you’d expect, there were many poems among the submissions dealing with aspects of love; this seems to me to be the best of them. In simple language, flirting with both sentimentality and cliché but avoiding both, the poem conveys perfectly the great emotional depth of a loving relationship. The gentle rhythms perfectly mirror that dozy stage just before or after sleep, but the repetition of the word ‘What?’ with its question mark keeps the poem – and the relationship – grounded.

The winning poem

It was no easy task selecting the short list, even after two very fine poems were removed from consideration. (One was withdrawn by its author and the other exceeded the thirty line limit.) In the end I had to increase the short list from five poems to six. But if that process was difficult, choosing the winning poem has been even more so, for each of the short-listed poems had strong claims, but none really stood above the others by any great margin. In the end, after much reading and re-reading, I decided upon “Speaking bluntly” for the sustained brilliance of its imagery, for its unity, and for its imaginative insights into the nature of language.

My thanks again to Kevin Brophy and Five Islands Press for making this competition possible, for Lisa and Bella who did the hard administrative work, and for everybody who entered the competition. I hope we can see you all again next year.

Ron Pretty

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