2015 Takahē Poetry Competition

Judge’s Report – Riemke Ensing

What it is about poetry that draws so many practitioners to its magic and yet often remains so elusive to truly capture? Go to The ‘Poetry Archive’ for instance and discover a vast empire of ‘poetry’, to be read, to be heard, and yet, somehow, when reading the many poems that are submitted for competitions, so few of them remain ‘in the heart’ in the way that poems or lines by Yeats or Eliot or Coleridge, say, ‘live’ with us all our lives. Why is that?

 In this competition, there were 243 poems to consider.

There were attempts at villanelles, sestinas, haiku, sonnets, terzanelles and odes. There were narrative poems, lyrical poems and prose poems. There was a ghazal, and many kinds of complicated literary devices to surprise and engage the reader. There were rhyming schemes and ‘sesquipedalian mazes’ to keep one on one’s toes, but more often than not the rhymes seemed to impede, to inhibit, to restrict. Too frequently the winds ‘roared’, the waves ‘crashed’, and ‘ghosts and doubt were laid to rest.’ One often got the impression that exercises had been set to be worked on and the results often seemed strained and contrived. The kit with the ‘tools of the trade’ was, perhaps, rather too eagerly opened for a bit of a try-out.

In the end, the results of this competition were, I’m sure, largely subjective. And perhaps this is not the way it should be, but how else?

There were poems about loss, loneliness, grief, old age, illness, pain, mortality, personal hells, childhood, growing up, distance, arrivals and departures, foreign places, love, nature, seasons, violence, history, war, family, food, reminiscences, and people of note or interest. There were many poems about the self, without it going any further than that.

Mere competence at a given form seemed not enough. One wants a poem to ‘say’ something and grab one by the throat. Yeats’ lines – ‘two girls in silk kimonos, both Beautiful, one a gazelle’ kept coming into my head.

The dictionary was never far from my side and Google came in handy to check edible poisons and re-acquaint myself with myths and ‘the epoch of dinosaurs, yes?’

Gradually the 243 were whittled down to a possible 24.
Then 17, 13, and 8.

Sometimes an image stayed. The one in ‘Cabbage Tree’ (Helen Yong) about how the ‘new moon slices open the twilight’ or ‘your breath, a moth against my cheek’ in ‘Things Soft’ (Janet Newman), or how ‘the wind’s / cold skirt slaps the concrete tower’ in ‘ Sick Day’ (also Janet Newman). ‘Red Umbrella’ (Amy Menard) delighted with its imagery. ‘The Train and the Forest’ (Victoria Broome) recaptured that stark period in history, but is difficult now, I think, to come anywhere near the possibility of Ezra Pound’s 1928 notion to ‘Make It New’.

The title of the poem ‘How to draw a line in the water?’ (Kerry Dalton) drew attention, while the poem itself experimented in seemingly strange connections relating to the Christchurch earthquake. These were ‘unexpected gifts’ for thought.

And then finally there were 5 and I couldn’t draw the line any further than that. In fact I had considerable difficulty in having to be so ruthless and reductive. It seemed somehow at variance with what ‘poetry’ should be about.

 

In the end I don’t really know what drew me to specific poems other than empathy, sincerity of tone, rhythm, and simplicity. Of the five that made my ‘final’ list, ‘Messiaen Among Dinosaurs’ (Tim Jones) stood steadfast throughout the ‘elimination’ process. This was no doubt due to my own interest in Messiaen and the fact that just a short while ago I was given a reproduction of Frans Snijders ‘Concert of the Birds’ from the Hermitage Museum selection presently showing in the National Gallery of Victoria, in Melbourne. I think we all like to make connections with what is being read. But in the end, fascinated though I was, and ‘entranced’ by some very fine lines in this ambitious poem, I wasn’t quite willing to suspend disbelief in the way Coleridge might have expected. Certainly it is a poem worth printing and having other readers (perhaps less literal than myself) have a ‘go’ at it.

So that brings it down to the required four, but even at this stage I had difficulty ‘placing’ them in a ‘winning’ sequence. It seems all four (in fact five, if we count in ‘Messiaen’) are ‘winners’ in the sense that they stayed in the consciousness throughout the weeks that I was engaged with this project. They kept one’s attention throughout. As I read them aloud, I listened to Robert Frost telling me ‘the ear is the best reader.’

‘by now the graffiti artist’ (Gail Ingram) was initially difficult to read because there is no punctuation, but that of course reinforces the subject matter and soon one falls into the rhythm of this adventurous and exciting poem that attempts something quite ‘other’ than the usual pre-occupations. I wasn’t quite convinced by the last lines, but I liked the many ‘startled’ leaps the poem took to convey this very original, colourful way of looking. (Runner-up.)

‘The One Eyed Monster’ (Jackie Newell) delighted by the way the poet had captured the child’s imagination. Rhythm, metre, rhyme are all there, in the conventional ‘old fashioned’ manner we might expect from ‘The Child’s Garden of Verse’. The ‘monsters’ are real to the child and these familiar devices offer the reader or listener a sense of re-assurance and an ‘all’s more or less well with the world’ kind of feeling. (Runner-up.)

I liked ‘Summer with a ladder’ (Jillian Sullivan) not least because it reminded me of a painting by Christchurch artist Eion Stevens, and a poem entitled ‘Skol’ by Vince O’Sullivan. There’s a simplicity in the imagery but at the same time there’s an undercurrent that takes you in a different direction. Something perhaps about ‘dimming the lights.’ A nice sense of double meanings allow for different layers of interpretation. (2ndplace.)

‘Calling’ (Sue Wootton) made the most of knitting and sewing imagery to deliver an accomplished poem about keeping open lines of communications between friends. The opening idea of the childhood device creates a lovely sense of the passage as the poem progresses. Much is experienced and the reader too is drawn by the ‘string’ that makes a ‘steady tether ‘ for the heart. The last line especially – the use of ‘thee’ – suggested Martin Buber and for me took the poem to yet another dimension. (1st place.)

 

The other night I was at a ‘Composing Competition’ concert given by the NZ Trio. There had initially been 42 entries. 18 of these were workshopped and of these, 10 pieces were finally selected to be performed. There were no placings or ’winners’ as such and that seemed to me right. Each piece, as with each poem in the competition, had merit and something going for it.

I would like to congratulate everyone who took part in this exercise. You are all winners in the sense that with Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem, ‘all experience is an arch wherethro’ / Gleams the untravell’d world.’ Keep striving and keep at it.

 

Riemke Ensing
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Results

1st Place: “Calling” by Sue Wootton
2nd Place: “Summer with a ladder” by Jillian Sullivan
Runners-up: “by now the graffiti artist” by Gail Ingram, and “The One Eyed Monster” by Jackie Newell.