The Frogmore Poetry Prize Winners 2008

Adjudicators Report
and winning entries


What makes a poem stand out? For many writers that's an increasingly tough question. In the past decade there has been a huge boom in the teaching of creative writing, and the result, I feel, is that a well-written poem is no longer enough. There are thousands of people out there who know their forms, have an ear for rhythm and can sense where to put a line-break. I teach at the City Lit in London, as well as for Arvon and Spread the Word, and constantly come across accomplished writers who I feel deserve recognition from competitions or publishing. But with so many skilled craftsmen out there, how does a poem distinguish itself from the rest of the slush pile?

In my first sift, I was looking to be surprised. This could be by subject matter. Poems that engage with the modern world have an immediate advantage as they are covering fresher territory, and I also enjoyed the surreal, the brutal, the confessional, dramatic monologues and folky refrains - anything, in fact, that broke away from the 'I' who tells exercise-like anecdotes or muses on abstractions (Hope, Solitude, the Soul).

Surprising me with language was also enough. An astonishing metaphor, curious verb or a scattering of unusual words (tundra, Xbox, starkers, scurvygrass) were all sufficient to get poems on the long-list. On the negative side, clichés make me very angry. The ultimate enemy of poetry, they deaden words, stifling both precision and the poet's voice. Anything full of stock phrases was immediately out.

Much as I love rhyme, a lot of rhyming poems also fell at this first hurdle because they were clunky and didn't scan. I feel I ought to stress this, as a number of perfectly interesting voices were dismissed on this basis - if you are going to write traditional rhyming poetry you must learn about metre. Look it up on Wikipedia or get a good how-to-write-poetry book, and make sure you know the basics!

Picking a shortlist was harder, as it often seems weird weighing such different voices against each-other. It becomes pure subjectivity. Ultimately though, I went for ten poems that took me into fully imagined worlds. 'To seek Their Fortune' gives us a brilliant twist on fairytale quest narratives, whilst another dramatic monologue, 'Speediest Way', is very striking - a nasty little set of instructions on how to make a clay doll and stick thorns in it to turn someone sickly, spoken in a northern voice that made me think of Pendle witches: 'Dry it thoroughly. It'll look like a stuck pig.' I found 'Delirium in Winter' very haunting, with its question about the destination of snow ('A certain angel informs me / it passes through the skull to heaven.') 'Paragon' also plays with voices and religious imagery, and I loved the dark humour and internal rhyme in its description of passion: 'the wavebeat of orgasm / and smashed cafetiere, all-day sweat in her underwear.' 'Faultline' and 'Static' both approach the poetry of landscape in a fresh way, whilst 'This is Remembrance' gives a powerful emotional wallop in its description of caring for an ill person: 'I put the spoon / into a hole in your skull.'

Any of these could have won, but in the end I picked a final three. 'Who's Afraid' is a funny, fresh, cartoon of a poem that looks at the plight of the modern male, a wolf reduced to slinking home 'with shrink-wrapped Asda prey.' 'Second-hand bookshop, Wells-next-the-sea' is a lovely, subtle piece about the importance of reading. Finally, the winner, 'Estd in 1759 London', is absolutely brilliant - it makes us look at the commonplace object of a bottle of gin with new eyes. It's full of wit, visually playful, reads beautifully and has a painful, serious twist - 'it is 10am' - which I found very moving. A poem about alcoholism that does not preach or reach for a single predictable line, I am thrilled to have found it on my pile. Enjoy reading it.

Clare Pollard
June 2008

The winner, and runners-up
ESTD IN 1759 LONDON (Gill Andrews)
WHO'S AFRAID? (Susan Richardson)

Shortlisted entries
STATIC (Jane McKie)
SPEEDIEST WAY (Gill Andrews)
FAULTLINE (Gary Wilson)
PARAGON (Howard Wright)