We are pleased to announce that the winner of this year's Havant Open Poetry Competition is Berkshire based Wendy Klein with her poem The people of Sahel remember rain. Second prize went to Reading poet Claire Dyer and the third prize was shared between Yorkshire-based John Foggin and Richard Williams from Southsea. Many thanks to Martin Malone the Adjudicator for all his hard work. His report can be found below.
The people of Sahel remember rainLess the lack of it, more the lack of the memory of it:
of children who had known only bleached-bone earth,
had heard only stories of it, told by grown-ups who shushed
them to sleep while they slipped into the night to drum
and dance it: the way it would steal from the sky, gather speed,
shimmer like silver needles, the way it would feel on the face,
the hands, its patter; how it could carve creeks on dust-covered
backs, on legs and arms that cracked with the lack of it,
and mouths pinch-parched, thirst unslaked by the slick of it
left in their great clay pots; so when it arrived one night
on tiptoe, a rustle of wonder spread from hut to hut, a rumour
like rat steps in corn, and as the first drops fell, fierce and fresh;
the pots began to fill, the river to rise, though in the noise
and mystery, the blaze and rumble of the sky, no one knew
whether to dance or pray - whether their gods were pleased
or angry; children and elders stretched out arms, cupped hands.
Version with the names of the commended and prize winning poets added by HLF Administration after the Adjudicator had completed his report from fully anonymous entries.
What struck me most when reading through the whole field was the sheer joy of participation in our own humanity that's still to be had from the writing of poetry - from arranging thoughts feelings and words in their best order on a page - even in this hi-tech, multi-platform world. My own over-riding emotion was one of humility when faced with the sincerity of people working away at essential feelings over complicated and heartfelt life material in the form of verse. This is poetry's most primal attraction and it still does it better than any other medium in my opinion. So thanks to everyone who participated and who bared themselves in in this way.
It was fascinating to see how some poets approached the subject from surprisingly askance angles and how others archly took on the overall brief directly with either a barefaced cheek that made me smile or a candour that brought a lump to the throat. There was some great poetry in here, some very good poetry indeed and some entertainingly barmy stuff; all of which was a pleasure to read. NOTE to contestants: so pleasurable was the process that all poems were read at least twice and some, towards the end of the judging process, got read up to six or seven times. In the first round of judging, some poems appropriately caught the light of recognition just as I was setting them aside, moving me to pick them up again to re-read and see what I thought I might have missed. Like memory itself, poetry can function like that: the odd turn of phrase, piece of music or image can just refract a pinprick beam of recognition and come alive for you in that moment.
Also of interest were the common themes which were sure to emerge around such a broad and central theme as memory. We had that theme rendered consistently around such correlative subjects as: family, place, ageing - both of oneself and ones parents - death, loss and grieving. And perhaps, unsurprisingly in the centenary year of the Great War, memory was translated by a fair few of the poets in terms of commemoration. If I had a lesson to impart here it would be this: beware an over-liberal use of the BIG ABSTRACTIONS, such as Love, Loss, Pain, Grief, Time etc.; they may sound good but they can actually dilute a poem that might be better carried along on concrete and often small details. Most of the winning poems model this thesis well and are more powerful for it.
Judging this also reminded me once more just how many good poems miss out in competitions, by margins so fine and dependent upon wind direction or light that on another day they could easily have crept more into the reckoning. Certainly, when I was working through the long-list I encountered a slew of really good poems which just miss out here only because others of similar quality appeared to snag the theme in ways that I might have found more satisfactory. For that reason, then, I name the long-listed poems alongside the nine Commended ones and the top three prizewinners. I feel that it's important to be aware, even, if you have just missed out, that your poem or poems at least got close.
Which brings me to the winning poems. There are going to be some justifiably disappointed poets out there who sent in some very good poems, indeed. You'll not know just how close some of you came to being in the top 13 poems, that is one of the most frustrating things about competitions of this sort and, having experienced this feeling more often than not, I can only empathise with you. However, I'm confident that the winning efforts deserve to be there for their many merits as they appear to this judge.
THE LONGLISTED POEMSWhat Lingers
In Memory of the Master Craftsman
The uses of literacy
Wind over Langsett
Brief Encounter at Duke’s Cinema, Lancaster
Admission Times Five
Thanks a bunch, Ted Hughes
We've all done it
Cure For Grief
The Child of Hearts
Bearing in Mind
Eating chips on Brighton beach
Farnborough Airshow 1951
South from Bakersfield
At least console yourselves that you were contenders and go submit them to another competition, you might well 'medal' as they say.
THE COMMENDED POEMS
The ten Commended poems all pushed the top three hard for the prize money and on another day may have got in there ahead of them.
'Mothers' by Julie Mellor - was a really slick list poem of sorts but handled with a dexterity which disguised the fact and built up an echt momentum of engaging images in affectionate celebration of mothers in all their quirky incomprehensibility.
'Handleys' by Denise Bennett - is a sharp-eyed and economical rendition of a world of lost seaside teashops small-town lives and social caste. One of the poems where memory is implicit within its spirit of subtle remembrance and observation. Some telling use of details and a nice reveal of modest aspiration at the end.
'My Father Insists on Laugherne' by Wendy Klein - A genuinely moving and tender poem for a lost father, locating the relationship in its well-handled reading of a parent from a late incident refracted through their career and human - rather than parental - aspirations and disappointments. The form is handled with confidence and the story is affecting.
'Our first telly' by Jim Bradbury - Another sharp-eyed recollection of both a parent and family life which finds its objective correlative in a generational memory of the coming of TV into the homes of many people of a certain age. I love the idea of the father's efforts to coax out a watch-able picture being akin to an old courtship ritual. Like the episode described, a very satisfying poem.
'1976' by Gill Leaner - Another excellent list poem executed with a deftness that disguises the fact and a lesson in how well-chosen facts and details as opposed to Big Statements can be used to build up effect. This poem was always in the running right up the end. Excellent.
'North Camp, Aldershot 1950' by Margaret Myers - Don't think I need to spell out the contemporary resonances of this poem but I am still mightily impressed by its economy and smart-handling of seemingly innocuous details; which disguise that genuinely shocking and resonant last line. Nice work
'Remembering Growing-up in the Kingdom of Tin Bridge' by Roger Elkin - A fair few of the poems looked at the theme through remembrance but few of them achieved the vividness and verisimilitude of sticky and icky detail as this poem that very much put me in mind of Heaney's Death of a Naturalist. No greater compliment can I pay it.
'The Memory Lab' by Sue Davies - This was a most original take upon the competition theme and seriously pushed for a place in the top three. It combines a believable sense of science with a genuine engagement in the metaphysics of memory to create a confident and impressively sustained metaphor on the theme.
'Retrieval' by Gill Learner - Another poem that stayed in my list for a top three place for a long time. There were quite a few poems that approached the theme of memory from the angle of its gradual loss though the ageing process but few got anywhere near the level of control of this poem. A sharp and layered take upon the competition theme with some genuinely original flourishes
Joint 3rd Place
In the end, I simply couldn't part the two poems I had as candidates for my 3rd spot and couldn't bear to see either of them miss out, hence the shared third.
'Almost Seeing' by Richard Williams - This poem's great achievement is that it is, in many ways, an exception to my own rule concerning abstractions. They're all here in the past, the dead, the silence: all big notions that would flap about vaguely were they not so expertly rooted in the world of recognisable phenomena like headlights, water ripples, junk mail, charity shop clothes. Even here, some of the images sail near to but never into staple territory and somehow the whole poem continues to hang together beautifully as a fairly direct meditation - almost Bergsonian in places - upon the nature of memory and our notions of time past, present and continuous.
Joint 3rd Place
'When the keel grated' by John Foggin - In many ways the polar opposite to 'Almost Seeing' in that its superb rendition of a mythic event (the coming to rest of an ark) locates the subject of memory implicitly in terms of recollecting a single memorable moment. The event itself is described so vividly that one can almost smell the stench of animals and panic on the ark and the evocation of the post-diluvian world is superb. Clearly, this is the work of a very able poet enjoying themselves here.
'The Memory Cake' by Claire Dyer - This was an audaciously direct take upon the competition theme and the fact that it is executed so well and so poignantly, with a wealth of heart-tugging detail and at the same time a discriminated restraint, speaks volumes for the skill of its author. Such is the confidence of this poem that it can actually give away its own 'ending' as early as that short third line and yet maintain a gorgeous recipe of authentic mementos of the poet's mother and their own childhood. It's the finely-judged selection of detail that attracts recognition from me most and, structurally, I admire the poem's boldness with the line lengths; unafraid to run their course as far as each is needed and no further.
'The people of Sahel remember rain' by Wendy Klein - In the end I went with this expertly-handled effort. It's a poem in which nothing is wasted and every detail earns it place in the overall schema. What I like most is its exploration of memory's capacity to engender myth among communities, as opposed to just individuals, which takes it into a whole new social dimension. Initially this might seem like an oblique, almost disingenuous approach to the competition theme but what it actually does is to take the reader back to a social model simpler than the ephemera-filled world of modern western consciousness; wherein something as elemental and physically real as raindrops actually becomes the community's collective memory. The judicious choice of the couplet form keeps the poem moving along yet also ensures a tightness of rendition in which each thought and image follows tautly on from the last to move the poem towards its apotheosis in those last lines, when memory is enacted by the community. The language is not at all showy or over-reaching, just quietly telling and developing of both setting and theme. Overall, it is a renegotiation of the abstract conceit which opens the poem and which is gradually made more incarnate in the physical world of the village. Whoever, wrote this really knows what it takes to make a poem work.
Martin MaloneSeptember 2014