Saturday, June 09, 2007

TLS Competition Shortlist Round-Up

I’ve read through all the TLS competition shortlisted poems. And here’s my verdict.

A - This was OK. Good final image and decent, gradual build-up. But it doesn't stand out. It's a bit obvious. Well written though. As a side-issue, I think I heard this poem read during the StAnza Festival, although I could be wrong. But I think I know who wrote this one. If I'm right, it's not one of this fine writer's best poems.

B- I didn't think much of this. It's way overlong to make a point which I felt had been imposed on the images rather than stemming from them. And it needs cutting.

C - Interesting attempt to connect the snake skin and war, but I didn’t feel too convinced. Overheated metaphor.

D - I quite like this. I might give it my runner-up vote. In S3 there are adjective noun pairings in similar positions in each line, which I thought were noticeable, not in a good way. But the poem works well by clever implication.

E - Good poem. The images are strong and clear. There's good use of form and rhyme. The biblical allusions and political overtones engage with big issues, so the poem is more than just a clever piece of work. It gets my vote for sure.

F - Starts well with good humour. It collapses with news of the death. The line "those numbers don't add up to naught" is the worst line in the whole shortlist and should have disqualified this one from consideration. But the second half of the poem is poor generally.

G - OK, good use of form, strong detail in initial stanzas, nicely written. But no point being made. OK, it's an ordinary day when the bomb goes off. And...?

H - zzz...zzzz...zzzz...zzzz... Sorry, it's the shortest poem, but I fell asleep before the end.

I - Enjoyable, well written and humorous. Could win, as readers who like their poetry to sound authentically 1910-ish will vote for this one. There might be a lot of votes in that. It is genuinely entertaining, fun, and technically skilful. I'd give it third place.

J - So what? Black guy is vicar and his style doesn't fit this immigration officer’s expectations. Lots of casual, chit-chatty prose masquerading as contemporary "voice". Annoying poem that shouldn't have been shortlisted.

K - If Simon Armitage didn't write this (and I suspect he didn't), he should be flattered that someone else has so internalised his style. In a hundred years’ time, we might think of this sort of poem as an example of an "Armitage," as distinct from a poem written by Simon Armitage. It’s well enough written, so if SA did write it, it’s not one of his best, but still pretty good.

(and if your poem is in there and I've slagged it off, please don't get too mad at me. It's only one poem)


Anonymous said...

Mostly agree with your comments, Rob. Except for B, which I like quite a bit.


Nic Sebastian said...

“...and if your poem is in there and I've slagged it off, please don't get too mad at me.”

Now let me think. Who could it have been who said once:

“… with a review, you are taking your life in your hands by criticising what a poet has published as a finished product. Many poets have huge egos and will hold a bad review against you for the rest of their lives, and if they get the chance to take revenge, they will.”



Ben Wilkinson said...

I'm still making my mind up about these, Rob, but your comments seem fair and even-handed on the whole. Although I would take exception to your criticism of H: admittedly it's nothing special to begin with (and so fails at least on that level), but after a few reads I've come to value it.

Colin Will said...

F & B my favourites here. E doesn't quite do it for me. There are some good images, but they don't really form a coherent whole.

Rob said...

Well, in the light of comments I've looked at B, F, and H again.

I can see that B is really well written, with some great lines, and I don't think it's as preachy as I had first thought. There are layers of meaning too, and an overarching metaphor. So it is getting better! I still feel it would benefit from a cut or two.

My opinion on F hasn't changed. Good start, but runs out of steam. This must be a Scottish writer, I guess.

Ben, what is it you value about H? The penny hasn't dropped for me.

Nic, I don't think anyone will be too mad at me for offering an opinion on a single poem, particularly as I've been (I think) quite fair. Poets tend to get mad, often quite rightly, when critics do a hatchet job on their collections - often these reviews are more about a critic's need to be noticed than about the book.

Anyway, I got a nice email from the author of Poem E (I am sworn to secrecy, but I never would have guessed).

Ben Wilkinson said...

For me, Rob, H is a political poem. And it is the best sort of political poem because at first glance it doesn't reveal itself as being so. The scene is simple, and plays on an old and almost clichéd image: the wisdom we associate with owls. But like all good poems, it also makes us look at this classic and wornout image in a new and exciting way; revealing perhaps why it first came about, and giving it a refreshing contemporary relevance.

I think this is evident in the second owl staring in on the caged owl and questioning 'what is confinement'. For the first owl questions 'what is freedom' as it subjectively sees its own position and straightforwardly desires freedom. The second owl, however, introduces an objectivity to the poem: it weighs up confinement in a more complex way than the first owl desires freedom; it does not have to, but wants to understand its peer's suffering, and how it must view its freedom. The second owl opens himself, then, (and through the assumed dialogue, also his peer) to the possibilities and value of new perspectives and new understandings. Hence the zookeeper's answer to the narrator's question: 'love and philosophy shape / the wisdom of owls'.

I think that the poem ultimately guides us towards a realisation of where wisdom lies, then: in opening ourselves up to understanding and 'lov[ing]' one another, and in always asking questions rather than just accepting things for what they are. And what could be a more important message in this age of terrorism and multiculturalism, where tolerance and a recognition of our common humanity are fighting to overcome racism and narrow-mindedness?

Alternately, I could just be a sucker for this sort of poem: I tend to go for pieces that merit many, many reads, and require a little dialogue to take place between yourself and the poem. Oh, and I have a hunch as to the mystery author of E, but I could well be way off the mark. Look forward to finding out once the results are published! And I hope my rather long defence of H helps to explain why I enjoyed it.

Rob said...

Thanks Ben. I think your thoughts on the poem may be better than the poem itself, but the fact the poem inspired them does show one source of value, not just of this poem, but of poetry in general.