Cardiff International Poetry Competition
2008 Cardiff International Poetry Competition
By Jo Shapcott and U A Fanthorpe
To be invited to judge a poetry competition is a great privilege. If you like people, you’re invited to meet a wide variety of people from across the country and beyond - people you may never come across face to face. It’s true that you meet them only on paper. But you meet them in an encounter of special intensity, in a kind of condensed and essential way, when you meet them in a poem. There are no superficial getting-to-know-you passages, no chat about the weather or the price of cauliflowers: you get straight to the heart of what really matters to them. It would take - at any rate for the reserved - several ordinary friendly conversations to get so far in non-poetic circumstances.
This is undoubtedly one of the joys. Poems allow you the privilege of entering another’s world; you may see through another’s eyes, you may feel what it’s like to be in another’s shoes. You may be captured and quite taken over; you may suddenly see the world you thought you knew as strange and magical. Indeed, that’s what really good poems generally do for the reader. So: judging a poetry competition is enjoyable, exciting, interesting. It’s full of possibilities, full of potential, full of the unknown. You may meet the Shakespeare of the twenty-first century in a poetry competition.
But the task has its anxieties too. Some of these are simply practical: shall I be able to read all the poems in time? Will I actually understand what the poets are saying? Worst of all: if I meet the next Shakespeare, will I recognise him or her? Shall I through my own stupidity miss a hidden gem, an unrecognised Heaney, or some quiet genius destined to become the next Poet Laureate? Will I be bowled over by something so superficially exciting that I don’t recognise it’s basically meretricious? Will I even fail to recognise a spot of plagiarism?
All these ghosts hover round. Misgivings are at my elbow all the time. Happily, this competition is jointly judged. But there again - another ghostly voice: shall we agree? And what happens if we come up with widely differing choices? Am I really any good as a judge…
We worked by exchanging thoughts and opinions about the poems via email, a process which was always fun and interesting - and often quite joyful. In our case, well, by some sort of osmosis, or by some sort of shared objective criteria (or perhaps simply because we have both read thousands and thousands of poems over the years) our chosen short-lists were reassuringly similar. And they included the three top winners right from the start.
There is another problem, though, with judging competitions of such standing as the Cardiff: there are never enough prizes. I think we’d both have liked another couple of ‘top’ prizes, and perhaps another half-dozen runners-up. There’s such quality of writing around, so vivid and arresting, so fresh and independent, so honest, so varied. Poets excel in such different ways, and good poets should be rewarded. But like satisfied anthologisers, always conscious of the merits of the poems we had to set aside, we are delighted with our final selection.
The Field, chosen for first prize, practically jumped out of the pile, fuelled by its own energy and exuberance. The poet has caught precisely the explosive force, the juice and joy, the spectacular and unreasonable diversity of growth in a single patch of ground. We couldn’t help reading this ecstatic litany against the background of nature under threat from human action, which adds to its impact. Cuttings, our choice for second prize, impressed with its quieter, but nonetheless poignant, look at the growth and flowering of a single plant from its unprepossessing twiggy beginnings. The poem contains an interesting surprise in the way the reader, like the narrator, is drawn into identifying with the cutting’s fate. Offering, our third prize choice, is a graceful sonnet, beautifully wrought. Its tone is delicately drawn, resonating from the particularity of the doorstep offerings in the wake of a death in the house – spuds, mackerel, whiskey – towards larger questions of mortality and hope. Our five runners-up offer a range of excitements, from the sparkling innovation of in hay waist-deep was to the brave and jaunty Hello, from the visual acuity and tension of The Waiting Room to the painful living history of Germination and the intriguing - and beguiling – nay-saying of Sunday Morning.