The Frogmore Poetry Prize Winners 2006

Adjudicators Report
and winning entries


There’s a great joy for me in judging poetry competitions. Perhaps I’m unusual in not being intimidated by a pile of poems nearly 600 pages high, but the reading is never too onerous a task when I know I’ve been given the honour of pinning rosettes on the poems I like best. For once, this is going to be a poetry competition result that I’m not going to disagree with. The kind of poetry I like and the kind of poetry other people like does not always overlap, so I presume what I need in a poem is reasonably specific to me. For all of those who write the kind of poems that I don’t like quite as much as other people would like them, I apologise.

If you’re still reading this adjudication report and not cutting to the important bit (reading the poems on pages 36-45), you might be doing so in order to find out what I look for in a poem (and in some cases why, by extension, you didn’t end up on my shortlist). Here are some thoughts in no particular order.

I want to understand the poem, to know where I am with it, by the end of the first reading. If I read something twice and I still don’t know what it’s going on about, I’ll put it quietly into the No pile. No-one likes to be made to feel stupid. Least of all me.

Generally, I’m being very forgiving at this stage. Speed-dating must be something like this. I approach each poem ready to get to know it a little better so long as it doesn’t bore me rigid. I want to be moved or intrigued or in some other way engaged. That’s the first sift.

The second time through the pile I’m being a bit more pernickety. I’ll throw out poems that show insufficient evidence of craft (I’m very keen on craft) or that have, in my view, some terrible flaw (frequently in the first few lines; often in the last) such as giving the whole game away, or being over-clever. Clunky rhymes or over-stretched metaphors fall at this stage. It’s like Becher’s Brook, and many otherwise fine poems are felled here.

The third time round, three dozen poems left. Every one of these poems contained something that felt new or fresh or well-done about them. I could choose only ten, so I set them up against each other like fighting cocks. Sometimes it was surprising to me, the poems that I couldn’t champion when it came down to it. There were several left-out poems that could just have easily made the highly commendeds if the wind had been blowing in a different direction. That’s how poetry judging has to be, sometimes. In the end, I just go for instinct: what feels right at a gut level.

The winner, 'The 23rd Secret Love Poem' is a poem of loss so quiet and contained in its work that I was completely struck by it, and every time I came back to it, it seemed stronger. I felt a kinship with the narrator, and despite the difficulty of the subject matter, the narrative voice felt comfortable, quietly sure of itself. It was hard to say why it was any better than the next two poems except that I fell completely in love with it, the fish and ecru cardigan. It’s my kind of poem.

'Know Your Enemy' (first runner-up) stood out as a poem that covered different territory from most of the entries, which tended very much to be on current (personal or political) issues. At the same time its subject matter is perennially current, given that many in this country remain afflicted by an islanderish tendency towards xenophobia. The poem does its work very quickly, with great concision; confident broad brushstrokes that paint time, place, and people in a handful of lines. Thematically, it reminded me very slightly of the Michael Donaghy’s similarly short GI poem, 'Shibboleth'. We are reminded of the perils of not belonging in the most delicate, playful way.

'Rejecting Gravity' (second runner-up) struck me from the beginning as a poem for and about women. Again, I was reminded of another poem (Catherine Smith’s 'Gravity') but it was executed with sufficient skill and energy to convince me it was a completely different poem. I liked the inventiveness of the imagery, the exuberance, and in the end, the positivity – something that is fairly unusual in good poetry, and hard to carry off.

So that was this year’s winners. If you entered this competition and your poem didn’t get through to the last ten, please feel free to use (in the cause of your recovery from disappointment) the Winston Churchill quote that kept me going through the wilderness years:

'Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.

'Keep writing, and don’t let the bastards (including me) grind you down.

Ros Barber
August 2006

The winner, and runners-up
KNOW YOUR ENEMY (Michael Wyndham)

Shortlisted entries
HOME COMING ( Tom Collingridge)
REDEMPTION (Charles Evans)
THE DREWSTER (Howard Wright)
SANDALS (Arlene Ang)