Judge's Report 2009 - Alison Brackenbury

The winning ‘Plough’ poems sprang out at me, not just through obvious literary skill but a sense of inner life.  They were not a brand of mechanical toy. They had a heartbeat. Readers might not only admire their cleverness, but be charmed, amused and moved.

One jewel in the Plough Prize’s crown is its class for short poems. There has always been a fear that short poems, although loved and memorised by ordinary readers, may be elbowed aside in competitions by their larger siblings. If you write and cherish short poems, fear no more!  The Plough Prize is your natural home.

1st, Short category: Hermits - Gabriel Griffin
I was immediately drawn into this poem by its first words: ‘Like slaters’-  I was impressed that this brief poem could tackle huge themes, the ‘vast theological darkness’, while balancing the description between saint and shell-dweller.

There was much which I admired technically in this poem.  It is held together, quietly, by alliteration and half-rhyme.  But it drives boldly forwards, in a marriage of sound and sense, with key phrases opening each line, and each stanza closing with a short phrase, brimmed with meaning.

‘Hermits’ seems to me a poem at the heart of its times, but one which will endure.  Its final phrase (planes’ vapour trails? the saint’s aura) lingers powerfully in the reader’s mind.

2nd, Short category: Instructions For Coming Home - Matthew Stewart
I liked this poem immensely.  It is completely unpretentious but has the reader wholly in its power, because it is completely in control of all it does.  I was carried along by the confident chain of commands, colloquial tone and the stream of sound, smell, and memory.  For all its matter of fact tone, this is a profound poem.  I am still thinking about its provocative comparison of spatula and spade (home versus Heaney?). The poem’s excellent ending, ‘bite by bite’ leads on from breakfast to all the challenges of the day, family and life.  Commentators on modern poetry often worry about its difficulty; a worry which I sometimes share.  Here is a fine poem which I think would hold the attention of anyone who has ever cracked an egg or gone home: in fact, almost any reader.

3rd. Short category: Telescope - Stephen Boyce
I think this is an almost perfect short poem. It is beautifully matched to its subject.  The narrow  column of lines even looks like a very short telescope.  I was intrigued by the detailed description, both exact and imaginative: ‘tiny eyelid’.  The long vowels of the central lines, with their ‘moon and yellow stars’ give a lovely expansiveness to the sound.  This prepares the reader subtly for the expansion of sense in the longer final line, which opens up to contemplate ‘all the life I ever wanted’. This is a deeply rewarding poem, especially when read aloud.

1st. Open Category: Crossing - Ama Bolton
This is subtle and powerful work.  Its subtlety lies in its unobtrusive, but insistent half-rhymes, and its alternation between the worlds of night and day.  Its power depends on its relentless progress to the bold final phrase of each stanza, and in its refusal to soften its truth: ‘You will not get them back’.  For it is sometimes poetry’s work to say ‘No,’ beautifully but bleakly.  This poem does so, magnificently.

2nd, Open category: The masks of Apollo - Nick Mackinnon
This deft and sparkling poem attracted me from many angles.  It cleverly introduces fresh fact into a well-worn story – the mirror visors – and humour into space, especially for all of us who remember ‘Lucy’. I was very moved by the slowing of the rhythm from the brisk wit of the opening to the more thoughtful close, with its move into full rhyme, ending in ‘tears’.  The simplicity of the final line restores the bloom to the rather tarnished image of ‘Martian’ poetry.  Here is humour with a heart; and formidable skill.

3rd. Open category: Vows, late Summer - Stephen Boyce
This poem is an exquisite blend of the exotic and familiar: the beloved and the bonsai. I admired the poem’s own song-like patternings –‘When..’  ‘When..’- and its bold thematic marriage of science and art. The account of the ladder is deft and involving, an unusually practical twist to a poem. The outstanding feature of the poem, in my reading, is the sudden throwing open of its perspective at the end, with the lovely simile of the ‘summer dress’ and the tenderly described ‘little gate into the orchard’.  It is a long time since I read a poem of such enticing invitation.

Short category commendations

August evening - Julia Deakin

I admired this poem very much. It reduced description to key, telling phrases, with undertones of carelessness, (‘dropped’), and unnoticed violence, in the ‘burning flesh’ of the barbecue meat.  Individual words worked impressively hard, such as the marvellous verb ‘wheedles’. I remembered the Soham murders while reading it, but I think it is a poem which will outlast the news. ‘Nobody is watching’ is a final line with a long shadow.

Palm Fronds on the Lawn - Jason Watts
This is a truly unusual poem – a real achievement, now so many subjects are tackled in turn by many writers.  The notion of the palm frond as an ideogram is both novel and completely convincing, as the reader re-visualises the great tattered leaves.  So verse one is visually very satisfying, and verse two is a feast of sound. I enjoyed the staccato messages with their echoes of song refrains.  The final line is a haunting one, with its suggestions of growth and power (parent? lover? God?)  A most intriguing poem!

How it ends - Rufo Quintavalle
I very much admired the restraint of this poem. Its beginning has the authority almost of a traditional phrase from folksong – ‘the great wind down’ – while moving within the poet’s own vision of the ‘clocks’ ghosts’.  I was most impressed by the use of everyday experience – the plane’s roar – and by the plainest of diction.  The ending is a powerful surprise. I did not expect it to end in ‘the middle’ and felt truly cheated, as though a story had been broken off. This is a poem of quiet authority.

Snowdrops - Simone Mansell Broome
I was most impressed by this poem’s witty introduction, as the wide world of economic collapse was allowed to introduce an individual story of illness and decline.  The full power of the couplet is realised, as the long lines embrace activity, hope – and weather, as the seasons are set against the private pattern of sickness.  This is a complex, and very moving, poem.

Prairie ghost - Devon Moody
I found this poem fascinating.  The ‘pronghorn’ – intriguingly exotic to an English reader – are beautifully evoked, in their flight, by the single verb ‘flicker’. I appreciated the shrewd observation ‘if only for the practice’, which avoids over-romanticising the wildness of animals who live within view of people. I was most impressed by the rhythmic and imaginative power of the final line: ‘They run with a ghost at their heels’.  A truly modern, and very good animal poem!  Highly appreciated.

Open category commendations

Learning to swim - Sue Proffitt
There is nothing harder than simplicity. This is a poem working its way out from the heart of memory, with a stanza which admits just the right blend of form and flexibility. Final words are chosen with particular skill to enter the reader’s mind: ‘echoing’, ‘goodbye’. I am full of admiration for the toughness and beauty of the final metaphor, the pond lily: a fitting end to a strong and joyful poem.

Sirenomelia Baby - Valerie Laws
I greatly admire the courage and restraint involved in writing this poem, which could so easily have slipped into a sentimental or grotesque vision of  a ‘specimen’. The carefully factual account of the foetus’ anatomy throws into relief the huge energy of the seas, and the pain of the child’s death, without ‘the milk she cried for’. It is a highly skilful poem whose ending draws in both poet and reader, ‘cut off from our true home’.

I want my mother, not her chiffonier - Kaye Lee
Poems can be chilly beasts. This has the warmest of hearts, kept from sentiment by the careful focus on the story of the china spaniels. I very much admired the long run of sentences across the short lines, drawing in fact, memory and insight, in the mind’s authentic flow. The simplicity of the letter, ‘Dear Mum and Dad’, works beautifully, and, with apparent artlessness, sentiment is held back to the last as it is (apparently) the dogs who cry. The poem is a triumph of art; yet - like the china dogs - a gift of love.

Sometimes you understand - Michael Swan
I very much admired many aspects of this appealing sonnet. It has no truck with mock-Miltonic diction. Its language is frank and colloquial; its quick rhythms catch the pace of rushed days. I identified completely with the sudden loss of insight described in the poem’s ending.  I salute the poet’s courage in the bold shortening of the final line, as form becomes a true servant of experience.

Grief - Tom Dowling
I found myself completely involved in the snaking journey, and wiles, of the grief-dog.  I loved the poem’s simplicity and its patterning of love’s devious path across the page. It is very hard to sustain a metaphor with such conviction throughout a poem. I was also truly shocked by the sudden savagery of the ending.

Alison Brackenbury, January 2009