Ealing Autumn Festival Poetry Competition 2014
George Szirtes’s Report
I have picked over a dozen very fine poems from the bunch and could have picked more. What struck me in some of the best of them is their sheer delight and skill, particularly with tough forms such as sonnets, terza rima and other rhyming stanzas. The forms themselves are old and weathered as is the whole practice of so-called formal writing so to make them new requires a high degree of wit and liveliness. When these work - as these do - you don’t feel the poem has had to be pressed into the form but, on the contrary, that they have sprung out of it - as if springing like that were the most natural thing in the world. People might think free verse (again ‘so-called’ because no real poem is quite as free as that suggests) is easier. I don’t think so. To get that right may be even more difficult because none of the possibilities is given. Everyone thinks they can do it but relatively few can.
But difficulty is not the point. A poem is not some kind of floor exercise with fixed moves: it goes on its own organic way. It arrives without having seemed to have travelled though, for the poet, it is the pleasures of travel rather than the glory of arrival. Arrival is almost secondary.
In this case the writers had a specific theme to think about. Theme, like form, may be considered either limitation or liberation. I tend to think the latter and my winner - which is in fact about limitation - Limitation under the Stars, prospers by it. Ideally we want a fine balance between thinking and feeling: given a subject, some thinking is unavoidable. But thinking with grace becomes feeling and this is what my winner has. It starts with an ‘Afterwards’, directs us to a desert, gives the moon a face with broken teeth, drops in a bit of Bunyan with the Slough of Despond and the much discussed political Third Way as well as the moon landing in the penultimate line. That is some distance to cover in fourteen lines and takes breath and grace, which this poem has.
I kept shuffling the top four or five around and it was very hard to split them so I have chosen three to share my second spot, Telescope is another spectacular gallop through coinciding worlds - ropes, cartographies, rocks, coal, the wars of classical Greece, Galileo, supernovas, Kepler - all part of a whirlwind tour of astronomy in terms of the telescope.
The truth is I enjoyed Constellations just as much. It is a variation on the Shakespearean sonnet as trawled through Wordsworth, elegant, not overawed by its poetic cousins, feeling its way through the lines with sensitive fingers yet at an energetic pace. And there is something beautiful and delicate about Light Lines, which is in what you might call free verse and has the light floating quality that the best such poems can have. It is straight down the line, humane, warm without sentimentality, ending a little firmly but not too firmly.
Ealing Autumn Festival Poetry Competition 2014
1st Limitation under the Stars Alan Dunnet
2nd Constellations David Sutton
2nd Light Lines Emma Ormond
2nd Telescope Andrew Wynn Owen
Insomniac Brigid Sivill
Embark Paul Jeffcutt
The Astronomer Andrew Wynn Owen
Pulled Tania Hershman
Autumn Stars Sue Moule
Summer of ’76 Noel King
Saved. Fished. Lost Roger Elkin
Lunar Sapphic Claire Trevien
18 years and under
1st Romeo Alice Cattley
2nd Constellations Jordan Maxwell Ridgway
3rd Libra Flora de Falbe
4th Constellations Freda Maria D’Souza
The Bright David Serao
Among the other I particularly liked was Lunar Sapphic which is, naturally, written in Sapphics (11-11-11-5 syllables) and is, sharp, brief, and precise in its diction, I loved the chipped nail varnish and its contactless payment. Insomniac has a light breathlessness as it proceeds under cover of night. The sheer verbal music of Embark was very attractive to me (I myself have written something out of the same fascination). Pulled is a gorgeous poem about desire under the stars, the poem itself like a kiss, and Saved. Fished. Lost... does a striking job with its story telling in terza rima.
I could add something about others, in fact plenty of others, and was very pleased to meet them all.
18 year and under
It is very hard to compare a five or six year old’s poem with one by an eighteen year old and maybe one shouldn’t, but the very best of this group is right up there with poems by those in the general category. The winner, Romeo, is an astonishingly sophisticated and deeply felt piece of work. Consisting of two unrhymed quatrains, it sets out from the Juliet’s idea of Romeo being cut out into little stars. There is a touch of Plath in the first line, but the vision and control of diction after that is courageous and original, moving from blueprints through stained glass, free-fall, knife-edge, dust, poison ending with the final image of the face ‘braced like a cross’ on the sky. That summary won’t give you a sense of its clear glassy compression and coherence. Quite remarkable.
That doesn’t mean my other prizes were far behind. Two of them were called Constellations. The one that gets second prize is a beautifully worked sonnet, like Romeo, about love, full of intense but contained imagery. One should try saying it aloud for full effect, the sounds rolling and echoing each other. There are coiled slugs, bodies, needled skin, maps and mad tides to navigate and they are navigated with great resourcefulness and energy.
My third Libra is a delicately recalled account of time spent with a grandmother, flirting with the idea of the zodiac and concentrating on Libra, but really about the relationship between the writer and’granny’ and, just as importanlty, the relation of both to time and the stars. This too is rather gorgeous.
It would be great to have a huge wad of cash to hand around but praise will have to do. And since this is about praise I want to sneak in the other Constellations a poem about what had been a fear of the dark but which now finds us looking up at the night sky and remembering the writer’s father. I particularly enjoyed the first four verses of this, though the thought opens up in the fifth. Again a personal relationship or predicament finds a sense of scale in the bigger picture.
A special commendation for The Bright. Its writer is clearly much younger. The poem is hand written in pencil and is about the North Star. It plays with rhyme and shows what rhyme can do.In this case it leads us from the Big Dipper to a zipper, a trip I enjoyed a lot. Rhyme can take us into surprising places that seem odd and yet, when you look at them again, the place suddenly takes on a special glow so you want half to gasp and half to laugh.
Limitation under the Stars
Afterwards, we said it was not much more
than a dry desert in a far off place.
We would have forgotten it long before
only the news kept on showing her face
short of a full nose and ears. Her broken teeth
were like those high statues pounded beyond
all shape. We felt sad concern but not grief –
let others sink in a Slough of Despond,
those who are closer to the action. Here,
it is business as usual. They say
she set herself on fire. I shed no tear
while making it clear there is a Third Way:
one small step, then one more, but not too far.
That is expedient under the stars.
Alan Dunnet 1st Prize
We think they never change, but we are wrong.
Our skies were different once: four billion years
Even in the life of the stars is long.
See them, by some shifting of time’s gears,
Flickering like fairground lights, stars lost
Dulling to cold cinders, stars newmade,
The sky a-glitter like a thawing frost –
So these familiars too, so long arrayed,
Will alter. Yet, while life has eyes to see
One thing’s for sure: there will be those who trace
Their time’s celestial calligraphy,
Drawing bright legends on the heavens’ face
To tame the dark, for this is what we do,
With stories vivid, comforting, untrue.
David Sutton joint 2nd Prize
Age crept into my hands
turned my skin to parchment
wrote extra lifelines on my palms
i am frail now
and you are insipid
viscous, lies thickly
charting is tricky
failing eyes lie
about your positions
shaking index finger
tracing indistinct lines
pointing out animals
myths and legends
shapes to younger minds
my shape bends
time redefines it
but you still slip
into the outlines of our youth
i remember our history
and what i see in you.
Emma Ormond joint 2nd Prize
Collapsible contraption, this:
A modern metal telescope.
It opens vistas, lets abyss
Unravel through it like a rope.
Projecting altitude and slope,
It paints cartographies of light
Which, notedly, spring out of night.
The stars live by a different clock.
To them, a limestone stalactite
Drop like a deluge from its rock;
And coal, to them, is gelignite,
Impatient, avid to ignite.
The Siege of Thebes was yesterday;
The Punic Wars, a moment’s play.
This tool of trade, this legged antenna,
That shakes the grip of gravitation,
Protects its sect. Sent to Siena,
In papal-pushed expatriation,
Shrewd Galileo found a station
And settled with those-in-the-know
As astral impresario.
The start pass by so calmingly
You wouldn’t guess the blaze they nurse.
The supernovas charmingly
Explode in colour. They rehearse
The folk-dance of the universe,
Which moves in time, as people move
Along their pre-allotted groove.
Johannes Kepler, six years old,
Looks up from Weil der Stadt to see
A pristine comet’s tail of gold
From Magdeburg toward the sea:
He lift a toyful stick in hope
To represent a telescope.
Andrew Wynn Owen joint 2nd Prize
at 3 a.m. opening the back door
before going back to bed
there’s the moon
a cold segment gleaming orange
in the bare branches
of an oak tree behind the barn
I never saw so clear before.
Drifts of blue cloud in the moon beams
give distance to the stars.
At first only one or two –
Nearly a morning star
and other late to leave –
and then I see
they’re all strung up
high a as human eye can see.
This icy morning
like so many other
stamped with the particular.
This moon, these stars, this barn.
Brigid Smith Commended
Terror, Porpoise, Coquille,
Jason, Erebus, Tula, Vincennes,
Peacock, Balaena, Bloodhound, Zelee,
Nimrod, Pollux, Terra Nova, Fram,
Discovery, Aurora, Gauss,
Scotia, Kainan Maru,
Paul Jeffcutt Commended
Euclidean in time and temperament.
His heart however held to different rules
And he was bound to follow were it went
As workmen are directed by their tools.
He planned new architectures of the mind
And manuscripts for trinkets run on hope;
He questioned how the world had been designed:
“Why should a cart run faster down a slope?”
His papers that survive hint at a prize
Beyond the usual, aimed at rearranging
What is. Of this, there’s no clue to the science,
Except that it involved the art of changing
Base lead to gold, an act of such defiance
And skill its doing would un-net the skies.
Andrew Wynn Owen Commended
Once, early on in my development,
some boy took me to the roof
to see Orion’s Belt, the Pleiades.
I listened, looked politely where he
pointed, but already knew – though
he had left the door ajar, and I
was not yet fully-formed – that this
had nothing to do with stars,
the tug of gravity.
Tania Hershman Commended
Autumn stars are falling low
into the cold night.
on the drought fields
yellow against the sky’s cloud.
The carnival snaked the town
proclaimed the end of summer.
the end of blistered heat,
the lowness of night
coming in, coming in.
School has re-started,
September is rich in rowan berries
bloodied against the roads.
The hunt trawls its hounds
into the early morning.
At night Autumn stars fall
low into my bedroom,
are caught in the dreamcatcher
my daughter made
from twists of reed and glittered thread.
I wake to find myself old,
held like a fly in the patterned web.
Sue Moules Commended
Summer of ‘76
My piano teacher is playing catch-up term
this summer having had her baby son,
the whirr of a fan interferes with the metronome.
We rinse our lettuce
under the slightest trickle
due to dreadful drought.
The man on the news says
let the gardens die
to keep water in the human taps.
My cousin presents me with warped
French chocolate from her school tour,
it melted and hardened, melted and hardened again.
My Nan says she can smell
the burn of aviation fuel
from the jets that take-sky over her farm.
In the haggard by our house
raising tomatoes, my father says,
has never been better.
My father is beaming, photographs everything
and everyone, enjoys the fact that I am only eleven.
I will never be this happy again.
Noel King Commended
Saved. Fished. Lost: the Saga of Pisces in Syria
…. began when Venus and Cupid, her son,
strolling by the banks of the Euphrates
heard deafening roars from the giant Typhon.
Hiding behind pollarded willow trees,
they glimpsed the writhings of hissing vipers
coiled around his legs, spied his fiery eyes,
and hundred-dragoned hand that reach the stars.
Fearing death, they threw themselves to escape
Typhon’s dreadful wrath into the water’s
turbulence, where a sudden upward scoop
from twin Syrian fish, Aphros and Bythos,
ferried them away to safety, a rope
knotting their tails tight together. It was those
twins Minerva fixed in the panoply
of stars as Pisces, whose eastern fish flows
spine-backed away, the western vertically
and, tying them, the bright star, Al-Rischa –
which accounts why for many a century
Syrians didn’t pick fish from this river
and even stopped drinking from its sacred
water. Yet, today, look how things differ:
men have become the fish, their crossed hands tied
behind backs, then hauled ashore – see Sagon,
Hassan, Nur, Mustapha and Mohamed –
while Minerva’s art and wisdom have been
gunned down by mighty Typhon, whose children –
Hydra, Cerebus, Chimera, Ladon –
chart on Earth their warlike constellations:
their stars, the stain of blood, the bullet’s kiss.
Saved. Fished. Lost. Now Allah’s loosed the Syrians,
Venus and Cupid’s world is smashed to bits …
Roger Elkin Commended
To understand astronomy we observe
the following: the smudging of our mirror-
selves, analysis of brand, laying of bets.
The galaxy is
not chipped nail varnish, it’s contactless payment,
and we’re too analogue to deal with its waves.
The moon smirks at our hand-folded thought, our home-
fashioned predictions …
Claire Trevien Commended
18 years and under
“When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars …”
Love mapped you out like a blueprint,
untouchable as stained glass. Balanced
between frame and free-tail, localities
are fine-tunes to a knife’s edge, swirling
dust like poison. Your hands hold
nothing more than light. Eternity
seems to lengthen, stares you smack
in the face on this sky braced like a cross.
Alice Cattley 1st Prize
Still, there are days I find myself listing.
I am reminiscing you, missing you,
like a tightly coiled slug, untwisting,
blood fizzing with memories of us two.
Firstly, bodies sprawled out and heads nesting,
fingers tracing needled skin, mapping out
that constellation of freckles – half resting –
and blush surfaced as I skimmed that same route.
Secondly, maps scrolled out, pinned at the sides,
planning our tight-knit futures, creating lives
to be lived and followed closely; set guides
to contain mad tides when the time arrives.
Lastly, me – curled up and all alone –
picking at the stitching you had unsewn.
Jordan Maxwell Ridgway 2nd Prize
Sometimes I joke my grandma
is one day older than me,
and we play at being balanced.
Because we’re already written in the stars,
there is nothing to do but drink tea
from her zodiac mugs;
nothing to fix, nothing to prove.
Whatever I hold in my left hand
also appears in my right.
I am a slave to the scales.
To their cold round hands;
to their hard square digit;
to the two silver fish
born to deep in winter
to grasp what makes an equilibrium.
Sometimes, Grandma and I
pretend we understand our horoscope.
She wants to know that today
is a day of opportunities.
I want to know that I’m indecisive
so that I can be indecisive.
Spinning above us
is her past and my future,
exact in equivalence.
Flora de Falbe 3rd Prize
I used to be afraid of the dark.
My eyes would dart around the room and see nothing.
No trace of where I was.
Leaving me so alone and disorientated.
I could make no distintion between the open and shut of my eyes
- Just darkness.
The darkness that was so tight on my chest.
The darkness that was so real but untouchable.
The darkness that was so horribly overwhelming.
Now the darkness is my refuge;
The stars my only comfort.
Lying on my back as a bitter breath of wind numbs my face,
I look to the sky.
I can remember my Dad teaching my brother the different constellations.
He didn’t realize I wanted to learn too.
But I didn’t tell him either.
To me, they are just stars.
And as I lie in the garden at two in the morning,
Seen only by the creatures of the night,
I can appreciate each star.
My inability to see the stars in the forms given to them by man
Open up the possibility of seeing them raw,
Not part of a bigger picture,
But something independent,
Finally, something untouched by mankind.
When you take away the constellations,
You get something pure.
A spectacle for humans to look at, not with knowledge,
But with awe.
And it’s so beautifully overwhelming,
Freda Maria D’Souza 4th Prize
The north star is very bright,
It turns north and right,
Part of the big dipper,
Every night it moves like a zipper,
It guides people to where they want to go,
I like to watch its nightly show.
David Serao Specially Commended