2016 Ron Pretty Poetry Prize—Judge’s Report

When you’re faced with over six hundred poems from which you have to choose twenty five poems, then five poems, then one, it is sometimes easier to say what did not work than what did, what was lacking, rather than what gave you pleasure. So from the beginning I want to stress that there were a great many fine poems that will not be mentioned in tonight’s proceedings. Poems that I had much pleasure in reading and re-reading. Judging an award such as this is very hard work, but it is also very rewarding.

Part of the pleasure of the reading comes from the range of experiences explored. There were quite a lot of poems, for instance, dealing with ecological subjects, but probably more dealing with relationships—children, parents and partners, youth and age. There were many poems about death from cancer—usually of a parent.

Quite a few dealt with issues—political, moral, social or religious. Issues poetry, I feel, is too much neglected, so I was pleased to see these, though some of them reveal the difficulties associated with that field. And a few poems worked with mythical or historical subject matter. Many poems crossed these artificial boundaries, of course. I was pleased to see some poems about music, even more pleased to see music in a lot of the poems.

There was a richness of effective imagery in many of the poems. Here’s a very small sample taken from poems that didn’t make the long list—one indication of the strength of the competition as a whole:

‘Modest as a novice/ Autumn slips in’

‘A girl who is still/ In the lower branches of her years,/ But already taller than her days,’

‘We went with them, trading our pretty tourist passing Throughness for their grace.’

‘my yellow leaf/ is a bit too close/
 to the end of the twig.’

‘the moon steadily rising,/ pregnant with light,’

‘(a gull, its) seafarer’s webbed claws/ Morse-coding the sky’

‘with a gannet-dive, 
Icarus falls through his own shadow’

‘please refrain from prophecy/ and breaststroke’

‘the first finger of light on the river’s skin/ playing it like a monochord.’

‘Once I swam the first waves/ of my mother’s contractions/ then slept on the shore of her breast.’

‘(An echidna is) harder to pick up than Hungarian’

I was also pleased to see the range of forms. Traditional forms, experimental forms, prose poems. I was reminded again how difficult it is to write an effective rhyming poem, but when it’s done well, as in the best of Gwen Harwood, Geoff Page and others, it can be extremely effective. There were not many rhyming poems this year, which is a pity.

I have the impression that a significant number of poems came from the US, judging purely by the poems themselves. Anne, of course, may be able to tell you how accurate that impression is, but I thought it was fortunate the competition closed in the pre-Trump era.

Turning now to aspects of poems that did not work quite so well, a number of the poems dealt with small anecdotes. Quite pleasant poems, many of them, but sometimes such poems lacked an edge of originality, or anything beyond the anecdote itself. ‘What is the point of telling strangers this?’ Is a question a poet needs to ask. There are possible answers, of course, but they do need to be asked by the writer.

Many such poems—and others—included some sharp observations, but the point of the observation was not always clear. Some poems were marred by overstatement or exaggeration. There are exceptions, of course, but understatement is usually better. In a few poems it feels as though the writer has been too easily satisfied. In those poems, I can often feel the undeveloped potential in it.

In some poems, the vocabulary is overwrought, drawing too much attention to itself. Sometimes they are marred by an attempt to add significance or gravitas by importing an image or an anecdote interesting in itself, but which doesn’t really belong in this poem. As well, some of the poems seemed obscure or unnecessarily convoluted. Recently, I read in The New Yorker, a review of emerging US poet Ishion Hutchinson. The reviewer praised him for the way the sound of one phrase suggested the next. I do think that sound patterning is of major significance in any poem, but I do not think that it should be at the expense of meaning. The reviewer praises a poem that ends: ‘cut milk/ boxes with horn petals snapping/ their iceberg-Golgotha crackle.’

I like the sound of that, but I can take very little in the way of image or meaning from it. Wallace Stevens, I think it was, who wrote, ‘There is no wing like meaning.’

Having worked my way through the poems several times, I finished up with 25 on the long list, but there at least that many again that missed by a whisker. Effective poems, many of them publishable, but (for me at least) didn’t quite have that edge of surprise I looked for—good poems all of them, but unfortunate in that there were others just a little stronger.

Then I turned to the short list and got stuck again. I wanted five, but after considerable winnowing, I had eight, all of which I felt were genuine contenders. It took me a week of reading and re-reading before I could bring myself reluctantly to part with three of them. I try very hard to be objective, but at that level it is probably more a matter of personal taste, for the poems are so different from each other, and the qualities so evenly matched. But at last, I had my short list of five poems:

‘Ticking Again’ — Tim Collins

This is a poem that I almost overlooked, only picking up on its subtle power on my second read through. Like most good poems, it gains from repeated readings; it’s a good demonstration of the superiority of under-statement as opposed to its opposite. For example, it takes a moment to realise the implications of the second stanza, but once you realise that the reference is to wounded animals being shot, it’s hard not to be moved by it. Sound and image are subtle throughout, but precise and powerful.

‘Cat Sun’ — David Hitchcock

This is a poem that I think William Carlos Williams would have been proud of. It is precise, sharply observed, and as playful as a kitten. Image, colour, word choice, phrasing are all as inevitable as the changing of the seasons. Proof—if proof were needed—that succinctness and precision will carry a little poem a long way.

‘Jesus by July’ — Mara Adamitz Scrupe

There were a number of poems among the submission using similar layout schemes to this one. I don’t know if all—or even some—of them were by this writer. Most of them, like this poem, were clever and intriguing, but most of them, unlike this one, had moment of opacity. Like all of them, this one requires a good deal of work by the reader, but here the work is justified because the rewards are great. We have to wait until the very end to discover the significance of the title, but when we do, the whole poem comes suddenly and brilliantly into focus.

‘Panic Very Softly, Love’ — Mark Tredinnick

There is no reason to panic in this poem, not even softly. But in spite of everything that’s not mentioned here, there is always the beauty of the world to celebrate, the sure knowledge that ‘Something always/(begins) where something else leaves off’. There is always the clarity of image, the precision of metaphor, the sly touches of humour, like horses ‘fifty shades greyer than the weather’. Or the blue heron, ‘with its head making off with its body’. This is a world where even Icarus ‘gets another shot at it today’, despite the earlier impression that he was about to meet his mythic fate again. Every image here, every metaphor seems freshly minted.

‘Pack Your Bags’ — Lucy Williams

I am often suspicious of prose poems. Many that parade under that title seem to me to be more accurately described as a paragraph of prose or as flash fiction. There are exceptions, of course: Alex Scovron has some wonderful prose poems in his book Autographs. And this poem by Lucy Williams shows just what can be done with the form. It has the rhythm, the patterns of sound and repetition, the depth of impact and feeling we look for in a good poem, and the breathless forward movement of the verse perfectly matches its meaning.

The Winning Poems

From the comments I have just been making, you will see that it was no easy choice I had to make. So many poems to be read and re-read, so many good poems to be sifted through. ‘Perfection is given only to those,’ said Wallace Stevens ‘not in a position to look too close.’ Not a lot of poems can withstand the close scrutiny that judging a competition like this demands. At this end of the process, a word not quite precise, a rhythm a little off, a moment of inattention can make all the difference. But once those challenges have been met, and as a judge you’re faced with five poems as good as these, it comes down to very subtle discriminations: these are the poems that gave me more of that intense shiver of pleasure which is the heart of the poetic experience. And for me, this year, those poems were:

Third Prize:Ticking Again’ by Tim Collins
Second Prize: ‘
Pack Your Bags’ by Lucy Williams
First Prize: ‘Panic Very Softly, Love’ by Mark Tredinnick

My congratulations to them and to all who entered the competition this year, and to all at Five Islands Press who made it possible.

Ron Pretty