2017 Takahē Monica Taylor Poetry Prize – Results and Judge’s Report

The poem that says ‘Oh’ or ‘O’

Most of us will have heard of the first lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ famously knotted tongue-twisting poem, ‘The Windhover’ which begins:

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding . . .

I was trying to think of a poem that contains both Oh and O in it, or even Ah, that sort of sighing of which poems are capable but modern poems keep well-concealed. It means the poet has sighted something or something has got at the poet. It is a sign that something has caught the breath and for a second there is nothing more to say.

Gerard Manley Hopkins gets Oh and O in the space of three lines and even then fails to stop the falcon.

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the first that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

While I had no expectation of finding a Gerard Manley Hopkins or even an imitator among the 269 poems in the 2017 Takahē Poetry Competition I realised, after I had arrived at my personal favourites, that I must have been looking for something like that indrawn breath or expelled sigh that indicates something on the verge of being beyond words. Something that swells a poem like a sail catching wind, a mystery that remains in place when the poem ends. In the takahē poems it was done for me by a tent of a particular design and colour and a quick but not fearful exit from the waves following the sighting of a killer whale.

Today’s poets hardly go around sighing ‘Oh’ or ‘O’ in the manner of Hopkins or Keats and yet that feeling is still there, when senses drop to an arriving image. Nor does it take tortured or idiosyncratic language to catch: in the case of the killer whale just a little modification is noticed and draws our attention to something special. The colours of the tent catch our breath in the same instance as they do the poet’s: it is more than a signifier of survival; it’s the arrival of hope.

There was one other thing I found myself looking for: the relation between adjective and noun. Does this adjective really belong with this noun? Could a little more care have been applied? Is there another word that comes closer? There were some rather careless marriages, like MAFS (Married at First Sight, TV3, 7pm Sunday, Monday). You may think that poetry is not forensic but it is. Fewer words means a more rigorous search for clues, more dusting with fingerprint powder, more specimen bags. Sometimes a poem was almost right except for this last refinement.

In the end I returned to my two favourites: ‘The Tent’ with its material reward – ‘In welcome / the tent of my country has arrived here / before me’ and I can see the colours and the stitching . . . ‘Even the heat / of my country is inside the tent’. And the most moving line, the letting go of Twitter and Google Earth and an equable temperament: ‘I – open / to what I feel’. ‘One Summer: Orcas in the Bay’ drew my attention from its first line: ‘We began excitedly moving out of the sea – / not in a furious tumble the way / we would / at the sight of a shark’. Something different is coming, something that causes the bystanders to feel they’ve ‘been pumped with helium / As if earth’s gravity had loosened / its grip and all the parts of us were trying to / lift off.’ The ending is superb, not a let-down, but a polishing before setting the experience reverently down.

The two runners-up ‘The Junction Hotel’ and ‘The Fan’ are both delightful. (This sounds as if I am saying ‘Oh’ or ‘O’). The fire alarm at the Junction Hotel and the catalogue of disbelief, sirens, instructions, ineptitude, humour – a most marvellous stanza begins ‘I take a yellow broom flower. Tussock. Frost’ and the ending is perfect, catching the light on a pearl in a ‘jeweller’s window’. Anna Smaill walks on the beach in The Fan and the fan calls out to her ‘Thank you for The Chimes’ in the approved and unthreatening way to address an author. ‘She looked at me slightly askance. / I think she thought her audience would be younger’. The fan wants to be the perfect fan. Do authors recognise this? Think of it next time you see a signing queue.
—Elizabeth Smither
October 2017
First Place: Ruth Hanover – The Tent
Second Place: Wes Lee – One Summer: Orcas in the Bay
Runner-Up: Joanna Fahey – The Junction Hotel
Runner-Up: Martin Harvey – The Fan
The winning poem is published in takahē 91.