Judging a poetry competition is always, to some extent, a subjective exercise. It is easy enough to eliminate the errors, the clumsy phrases, the clichés, the images that just don’t work, but defining just what it is that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, what it is that makes you want to punch the air and yell “Yes – I wish I’d written that!” is more difficult and will vary from one person to another.
Judging a collection, and deciding between one collection and another, brings in another level of complication. It’s not just the excellence of the individual poems, but how the author has selected and organised them, whether there are any discordant notes, poems which, however worthy, really belong in another collection or whether the collection as a whole has a narrative coherency. All this without the intervention of an editor to advise and give a second opinion at this stage on what should be left out or re-sequenced in the interest of the collection as a whole.
Bearing this in mind, I was thoroughly impressed by the number of outstanding poems in nearly all the collections submitted for this competition and it was particularly difficult to choose between those which emerged as a short list, which is where the subjectivity comes in. There were several collections which, were I an editor and able to negotiate the inclusion or exclusion of a couple of poems, I would have been happy to publish. If I was selecting poems for an anthology from all the collections submitted, I would expect to include poems from nearly every submission. But this was a collection competition and I had to work on the basis of
each submission being a collection that had been selected, sequenced and ready for typography and book design. In this respect, the balance and structure of the collection as a whole became as important as the balance and structure of the individual poems.
Although the competition was designated a Nature Poetry Collection competition, it was clear from the rules and conditions that only the majority of the poems in each collection would be expected to be directly or indirectly concerned with nature, spirituality or the environment, allowing scope for a wider range of subject matter in the rest of the collection. It’s hard to draw a distinct boundary between ‘nature’ and ‘non-nature’ especially when dealing with the human condition, but I found that most of the entries did conform to this guideline and that the most pleasing collections were those that had the right balance and dealt with the interaction of people and the natural world.
I have commented below on those collections I regarded as the shortlist, but eventually had to choose A Tilt in the Year as the collection I felt was the winner according to the terms of the competition.
Nature Dance – There was a lot that appealed to me in this collection, poems about the canals, the immediacy of nature and awareness of the seasons and natural world that seem that much closer when experienced from the waterways. There were a number of formatting issues and duplications in the collection though.
Natural Histories – I liked most of this collection, though I wasn’t convinced by some of the artifices, such as the rhyming haiku of Avian Haiku, or the inclusion of references to Test Match Special as being particularly relevant to the structure of the collection.
Come Back as a Bird – Set in the Welsh landscape, this collection interweaves the background and experience of the author with commemoration of family and mourning for those who have passed on. I particularly liked the humour and cynicism of “Ouroboros” though I’m not sure it belongs in this particular collection.
Appearances – Another collection where the family relationships are in the foreground, this time family with an emphasis on step-family relationships. To some extent this theme eclipses the poems about nature, despite the excellent bird poems early in the collection.
Tracks and Signs – Very close to being one of my favourites though I felt “Kicked to death and set on fire” was out of place in this collection. I’m not absolutely convinced by extreme typographical representation of the visual ideas when it comes to poetry. Occasionally it works, but all too often there is a suspicion of contrivance in the language to suit the form and my response is “Very clever, but so what?” The opening poem and “Time Machine” really falls into this category.
A Nod to Beachy Head – Some wonderful poems here, and a good balance of nature, family and the writers interaction and relationship with the natural world. Some of the more light-hearted poems (“Pendle Hay Ride” / “Blue Grass Blues”) introduce a different side to the writer’s perspective nature.
How the Light Gets In – The poet here depicts nature and place with an impressive command of traditional and formal verse. Highlighting change and development in the modern world, though not necessarily approvingly as in “Chain Flail” or “Making Hay”, the writer evokes a world which is fast disappearing. The section on place and particularly its description of locations in Cornwall (“Roseland” / “Beyond St Clement”) mark this as a special collection, though the idyll is occasionally interrupted by the horror of the darker side intruding as in “Off the Map”. The only reservation I had was that however well the traditional forms were handled, there was an occasional tendency to allow the odd cliché or tired phrase to creep in – for example “pleased as punch” and “bursting with pride” which appear in the same stanza of “Lilies of the Valley”.
A Tilt in the Year – This collection is notable for its structure and understanding of nature and the interaction of people and nature. Too many nature collections leave out the influence of humankind and the way people both influence and are influenced by nature, or get the balance skewed. Here we have a narrative theme where the poet is an integral part of the nature, whether commenting on personal relationships, a sense of belonging or awareness of exile. The poems are unpretentious, not consciously poetic, and yet there is a freshness in the expression which does not pall at the third time of reading.