|The Frogmore Poetry Prize Winners 2011|
What makes for a good poem? I ask myself this question every time I am invited to judge a competition. A good poem is conspicuous in its technical competence, its use of language and imagery, its way of making you look anew at something familiar or showing you something you’ve never seen before. But there is another element – a ‘hook’ that lures you in, catches you, so that the poem lodges somewhere in brain and heart. This hook is invisible. A poem either has it, or it doesn’t. And sometimes the reader can’t determine what it is about the poem that hooks; the faint memory of another poem, a deep connection to the theme, a certain phrase that echoes in the mind.
A poem that hooks me may not hook the next reader. As judge, I am being asked to make a decision partly based on taste and attitude. I will freely admit to certain preferences and prejudices which will invariably colour my decision. So all I can say, apart from praising some of the more obvious virtues of these poems, is that all of them had me ‘hooked’ from the very first line.
The winning poem, ‘Fibonacci Ponders the Origin of Life’, begins with a question that is pondered through the build-up of details: ‘a conch; a flowering artichoke; a cochlea that hears only pulse’ – the realisation of the Golden Ratio in all that is around him – but concludes with ‘the small ache of / coming back to himself / while spinning further away’. It is lyrical and poignant; a poem which will stay with me.
The first runner-up, ‘Smalt’, is a stunning meditation on blue in all its hues and sensations, its jewel-like brilliance and its darkening to dusk. ‘Smalt’ is the blue pigment Holbein used as background to light his subjects, the ‘ghosts of the future’. The poem is about the moments of human activity that aren’t captured in those portraits, and how the artist might arrest them, not just in paint.
Two very different poems vied for second runner-up, and so in the end I couldn’t choose between them. The first, ‘Phone’, is a sort of ‘anti-poem’ which casts a cold but assured eye on the world of prison wards and drug deals; but ends with the image of a bird, which might be freedom, or might just be a temporary high. A beautifully-written poem about a situation devoid of beauty. The second, ‘The Geologist’s Widow’, is an address to the dead in the voice of the widow of the title, and utilises the language of his science as an extended metaphor on love and loss. It is extremely moving, without ever being sentimental.
I was also struck by ‘Mouche Volante’, ‘Asphasia’, ‘Morsels’, ‘Peppermint Blood’, ‘Flood’ and ‘Hydro’, which all had something that surprised me, moved me, or made me laugh. I’d like to congratulate all the shortlisted poets on their varied and wonderful contributions.