Judge's comments 2007 - Andrew Motion

Poetry is not a competition: that’s a truth to be universally acknowledged. But it’s also fair to say that poetry competitions are a Good Thing – for several overlapping reasons: they raise the profile of writing in general, they concentrate the minds of those who enter, and they give encouragement and material support to those who win. The Plough Prize does all these things with distinction, and it has at least one special merit as well. By having a ‘Short’ category as well as an ‘Open’ one, it encourages what should in any case be a necessary tendency in poetry: to distil.

What is necessary, however, is not easy – good brief poems are notoriously difficult to write because they are always tempting their authors into avoidance rather than suggestiveness, evasion rather than resonance. For these reasons, all the short listed entrants in this year’s ‘Short’ category of the Prize deserve some applause – they are, without exception, focused and yet at the same time expansive. Because I felt this mixture of forces especially strongly in Jason Watts’ ‘Irene’ I decided to choose it as my winner. It’s not the only kind of mingling that occurs in the poem either – there’s a conversational tone (‘where has your body gone’) as well as artfulness (those accumulating final similes), and a directness (to the theme of age-defiance) as well as a ‘sway’ (in the elliptical syntax of the first verse). All in all, it’s a smart and touching piece of work. As are ‘Where I See You’ by Carol Bromley, which is my choice for second place, and creates its emotional effect by wringing pathos from ordinary and familiar facts; and ‘Mendigo’ by Rob Hindle, which is my choice for third place and becomes memorable by using cunning simplicities of sound (those chiming assonances). I also particularly liked ‘Forth-Faring’ by Ama Bolton and ‘Comfort Me With Apples’ by Jane Williams. There’s a riper rhetoric at work in both these poems, but they’re saved from grandiosity by staying clear-eyed about their subjects.

Not all the poems in the ‘Open’ section of the prize were able to hold their note steady throughout their entire length. This means the entries were more uneven – more likely to descend into prosiness, and to compromise their imaginings with acts of bald thinking. Partly because he avoids these pitfalls, but more positively because his poem is witty and oddly-angled and individually-voiced, I decided to choose Jamie Crichton as my winner. Like a lot of the entries, his ‘The Genius of Capa’ deals with an intense relationship, but the surprise of the language, the joyous handling of familiar objects, and the energetic re-animation of well-worn language (in the final line, for instance) make it stand out. My choice for second place, Alex Porter’s ‘Still Life’ also grabs out attention (especially where the language is at once tight and natural, and avoids some of the more familiar tropes we find in the third verse); and so does my choice for third place, ‘The Road to Bwindi’ by Alex McRae. This is a poem which has the courage to remember a scene simply, to record it with all due accuracy, and then to let readers draw their own conclusions without telling them what to think. I also enjoyed Margaret Holli’s ‘Mondays’ for the pleasure it takes in finding the ordinary miraculous – though it might have seemed even more miraculous with a bit of editing – and ‘Second Generation’ by Caroline Price for being so agile about a certain kind of agility.

All in all it was a pleasure to read these poems. They cover a wide range of experience and reference, they have a satisfying sense of belonging within a tradition or traditions, and yet they are manifestly engaged with the here and now. Congratulations to the winners, and long may the Plough Prize continue.

Andrew Motion