It was a great pleasure and an honour to be asked to judge this year’s Poetry section of the Bronze Quill Award. There were 101 entries, a very healthy number indeed, indicating that poetry has a strong and important hold on many members of The Society of Women Writers. It is important, too, to remember that some of the greatest poets of all time have been women, beginning with Sappho, and including Sulpicia, Ono no Komachi, Aphra Behn, Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, Anna Akhmatova, Gabriela Mistral, Sylvia Plath, Judith Wright, Wislawa Szymborska, and many, many others. If some of these are unknown to you, I strongly recommend a reading of the superb Penguin Book of Women Poets.
I am always interested in what subjects people find to write about, and the range here was enormous. Here is just a sample: childhood, relatives, identity, landscapes, sunsets, parks, beaches, drought, age, death, retirement, illness, seasons, painting, freedom, war, separation, bird watching, fishing, the outback, music, cricket (but, blessedly, not football) and more. There was certainly no lack of variety.
When it came to style, however, there was not quite the same degree of variety. Some poems were held back by a sameness, staleness, of vocabulary, and a lack of adventurousness with form. I looked for strength of structure, originality of expression, a sense of purposefulness, depth of insight or observation: a big ask, you might say, but the best of the poems had all of these ingredients. A Japanese Master Painter said to his students: You cannot paint bamboo until you feel it growing in your heart. In other words, a poem must convey the individuality of experience and perception. I have addressed some of the weaker aspects of the submitted poems in a recent workshop (5 November) so will move on to the winning entries.
I would like to single out four poems for a Special Mention, but in no special order: they were all good. I wanted to give recognition and reward to those poems that displayed an awareness of craft and all of these have been most lovingly, carefully, crafted.
‘Goldfields Children’ by Robin Giraudo is an unabashed evocation of an idyllic upbringing in the outback. It is infused with nostalgia, full of anecdotes, and vividly evokes a sense of place. ‘Kimberley Dream’ by Helen Iles: like ‘Goldfields Children’ this is also a re-inventing of a vast and magical past place and time. It is technically well-sustained by imaginative rhyming couplets. ‘Cubby House’ by Jennifer Langley Kemp is yet another poem of recall. It is sprinkled with fondly remembered atmospheric details. (Do such things as cubby houses still exist?). ‘Father’s Black Dog’ by Stella Marie Anderson: in the tradition of Winston Churchill and les Murray comes this moving and loving portrait of a father stricken with depression. It’s a strong and unsentimental poem with a terrific close: ‘Today my colour is blue/ and I hear the bark of the black dog’.
There are two Commended poems: ‘Sestina of a Letter Home - 1917’ by Marlene Fulcher is a beautifully crafted (there’s that word again!) sestina that shows how form can complement the serious, dignified and intensely affecting subject matter - a young soldier’s letter to his family. It evokes a genuine sense of the love of homeland without being mawkish. A sestina, incidentally, is a very complex form that requires both stamina and a certain delicacy of touch.
The other Commended poems is ‘More Than the Sight of Brancusi’ by Frances Richardson. This was one of the relatively few poems that took a few chances on construction, very much in keeping with the Modernist subject matter and the process of artistic creation itself. It is almost a poem for two voices, maybe conscious and subconscious, the latter refining and strengthening the former. If it finally doesn’t solve the mystery of why we create, it comes very interestingly close!
And there are two Highly Commended poems. The first is ‘Turning the Page’ by Jennifer Langley Kemp. Although many people attempt the villanelle, another intricate form with convoluted line and rhyme patternings, it is, like the sonnet, difficult to write a really good one - and I think that ’Turning the page’ succeeds very convincingly. It begins dramatically - ’Defying the tyrrany of clocks’- and proceeds inventively and purposefully to its close, a little meditation on the relationship between place and time.
The other is ‘One Day’ by Frances Richardson, another poem that has some serious play with the appearance on the page and the interaction of two voices, one re-informing, reaffirming, the other. Images of flowers, sunset, cello music, build to an unexpected but somehow right personal conclusion - the juxtaposition of the mother’s features and the expectation of children ‘running towards me’. It is exquisitely done and quite haunting.
Second Prize is awarded to ‘Twelve Months in an English Village’ by Janet Woods. This is an ambitious, lyrical and carefully structured poem, or sequence of poems, that takes us, as the title indicates, through the English seasons, beginning with summer and ending with the very sexy fertility of spring. Vividly observed details, comparisons, causes and effects, nourish this poem. I could quote endlessly from it, though it deserves to be read/heard whole. But there is some lovely phrasing: ‘nuts nudge/Shoulders in jars’, the apple tree is ‘Splashed with gaudy lichen’, and in spring there is ‘Such a carry-on of drakes/ Parading’their territory like battleships.’ You may want to spend twelve months in an English village yourselves, but if you can’t then treat yourself to this poem - it’s certainly the next best thing!
And First Prize is awarded to ‘Madonna Suite’ by Frances Richardson. This is a suite of four ekphrastic poems, poems that respond to other art works, in this case Renaissance paintings of the Madonna. Although the author has provided accompanying copies of the relevant paintings, the important thing is that the poems are self-contained and can exist without them. Each section resonates with powerful and convincing language and image. The ‘Matthew Madonna’, for example, begins: ‘Wings beat and the curtains over my throne are lifted/ toward the approaching evening.’ The ‘Giorno Madonna’ begins: ‘Since the birth of this child, I am beset with angels.’ Above all, the poet has created a convincing voice, a persona, that carries us through this stately, graceful and beautiful series of reflections. Each poem complements the others to create a very moving piece of poetic architecture. It is a wonderful piece of art in its own right, and I congratulate its creator most whole-heartedly.
In closing, I have to say that, as with any good poems, these just get better and better with further re-reading. I congratulate all those mentioned here today, but also everyone who was bold enough to submit their poems - it is not for the faint-hearted. I hope you will all enter any future competitions and help keep Western Australian poetry healthy.
- Shane McCauley
16 October 2011