Acting as Judge for the 2019 Poetica Christi Poetry Prize, and reading the more than 200 entries, has been a rewarding experience, and an emotional one. This year’s theme was ‘Love’s Footprint’. As one might expect, this drew writers into complex and emotionally-charged territory, as they reflected on lost love, fulfilment, betrayal and joy. It also produced poems that tracked loved ones through a lifetime’s relationship, even to death and mourning. The elegies, of which there were many, celebrated love in all its forms – parental, filial, marital, deep friendship. At the same time, poems deriving from the other end of life: pregnancy, birth, childhood and the fracturing of relationships with children, were also strongly represented. The cumulative effect of these meditations was at times almost overwhelming, and confirmed one’s sense that poetry remains the art form to which people turn at significant moments in their life – to read for consolation, or to through which explore their own thoughts and feelings. They also recalled Wordsworth’s observation that poetry derives from emotion recollected in tranquillity – except that many of this year’s Poetica Christi poems were clearly written out of the rawness of current experience.
Caught up on the tide of emotion and feeling, one had to remind oneself that these were competition entries, and that there had to be a winner and a runner-up, as well as poems selected for inclusion in Poetica Christi’s excellent annual anthology. So, the intensity needed to be embodied in appropriate language and form. The search for poems of this kind made one aware of certain features. The first was musicality, whether harsh or harmonious. Many powerful stories tended to be told in relatively flat terms that resembled prose, whereas the best of the entries exploited the music of their phrases and free verse lines, or handled meter so assuredly that one felt the pulse of the lines as having a certain inevitability. The second was the impact of the image, whether of a sharply-described sensory impression, or a metaphorical comparison that made you see things as though for the first time. It’s not always possible to avoid stock phrases or over-familiar comparisons, but those writers who managed to do this often lit up the page with images that remained in one’s mind well after the page was turned. The third element was structure. The competition allows for a maximum of 50 lines, and such a generous line limit is always inviting for poets. We want to use up our quota, and write to the limit. Sometimes this meant that good poems could have been even better if they had been edited down, and repetition minimized. Furthermore, the longer entries needed to have a certain structure or architecture that allowed for development of ideas, rather than repetition. The better long poems took us on a one-page journey, with new vistas revealed at certain points.
The shortlist of potential prize winners was impressive and diverse. It is impossible to refer to all them in detail, but readers of the Poetica Christi anthology will find poignant yet quietly understated reflections on the illness of a loved one, many accounts of love affairs raging from the seeming casual and down-to-earth to full-blown and unabashed romanticism, and poems that offer new, surprising images of a baby in the womb. The story of Mary Magdalene naturally attracted some writers, while others meditated on the old age of a parent, or the ever-changing relationships between parents, grandparents and children. The idea of ‘love’s footprint’ led many to write in the traditional genres of elegy and love poem, reminding us that the variations on the experience of grief and passion are infinite. I particularly liked those that were grounded in a particular moment, memory or situation. Love’s footprints were manifested in landscape paintings, family photographs, and the intense relationships traced by the patterns made by figure skaters. Lost love, the divine presence and nostalgia for home were traced through different approaches to landscape. There was a welcome touch of humour, too, in poems which drew significance from less obviously profound experiences (like walking the dog), or the latent humour from darker events.
One could only admire the ingenious and diverse ways in which the poets responded to the competition’s theme. Poetica Christi encourages poetry that explores the spiritual aspects of life, whether in a Christian or broader way, and there was no difficulty in selecting a wide range of poems that responded to this invitation while still exploiting the many possibilities of the poetic voice and retaining a sense of individuality.
In the end there had to be a competition winner and a runner-up.
As second prize winner for 2019, “A Wake for Amy” is a gem. A poem should surprise and move you, and this one certainly does, from its intriguing opening (the decision to represent the feet of a dead baby on a cake) to the emotional turmoil of the retreat from the cake-decorating shop, represented in the final lines. “A Wake for Amy” is full of vivid images (such as the cotton candy, the arrival of the shop assistant, and Dad’s tapping fingers). It plays off pathos against accurate observations. Footprints are present here, certainly. As is love.
“Motherlode” was awarded first prize. This is a poem that starts off at an angle, as it discusses education and the past, before leading us into the experience of having a premature baby, and the way that puts one’s ‘preparedness’ in the shade. Its effectiveness derives in part from the way it is built up stanza by stanza, gathering emotional intensity, since the final images — umbilical cords morphing into monitor leads, and tubes tethering the baby to the crib – are the most striking. The reference to the “too-new-world” into which the baby emerges is very touching. As is, of course, the ache in the final lines.
Chris Ringrose – July 2019