SOCIETY OF WOMEN WRITERS’ POETRY COMPETITION 2022 –
JUDGE’s REPORT – SHANE MCCAULEY
It was again a great pleasure and privilege to be asked to judge the Society of Women Writers’ Poetry Competition for 2022.
The 65 entries embraced a large range of topics and themes, including catastrophes such as flooding, bushfires and war; health and illness, including dementia; places and travel, with references to Bali among other destinations; family and friends; time and mortality; indigenous culture; the seasons; nature, especially birds and flowers; old versus new technology; landscapes, seascapes and rivers; Incas; Ukraine; and several on the process of writing itself.
The forms were mostly fluid and flexible, with the strengths and weaknesses that can imply. There were a few recognisably more traditional forms, notably several villanelles.
It is sometimes customary at this point to mention why some entrants were less successful than others, but as it also sometimes seems customary for these remarks not to be overly listened to, I will mention instead the strengths of the 15 poems that became my shortlist. All of these in varying ways displayed a sense of purpose, a matching of form to subject, an understanding of imagery - “the life blood of poetry” as Emelie Fitzgibbon says in her commentary on Emily Dickinson, specificity of language as opposed to vagueness, lack of cliches, suggestion rather than prose statement, an element of surprise, an element of play, a natural and original as opposed to forced use of rhyme and rhythm, awareness of the connotations and musicality of words, a hint of magic and mystery, among much else.
It was, as is often the case, very difficult determining the final ordering of the shortlist and the even shorter list of nine finalists derived from it.
There are four Commended poems, in no particular order:
UKRAINE - Kerrie O’Brien
Given our general horror at the senselessness of the war in Ukraine, it would be understandable to give vent to outpourings of rage and grief. This poem in beautifully controlled rhyming quatrains is, however, remarkable for its restraint, and the imagery of birds flitting in and out of trees contrasted with bullets and bombs is therefore all the more powerful and moving.
MIDDAY ON BEAUFORT STREET – Jan Napier
In this poem we are not in a war zone, mercifully far from it, yet the poem focuses no less involvingly on human distress and suffering, in this case the spectacle of a homeless person in the midst of a bustling suburban scene. The mixture of the onlookers’ compassion and disdain is brilliantly evoked.
I AM NOT TIM WINTON - Julie Holland
FLOODS: NORTH QUEENSLAND - Fran Graham
Here again we are, give or take a few thousand kilometres, closer to home. The villanelle form with its recurring lines is perfect for conveying and emphasising the scale of the disaster to livestock, farmers, the landscape itself. The last two lines drive home the combination of the desolate with the hint of hope: “tortured faces, twisted necks, dead vacant eye/ the water has receded now, the paddocks dry.”
The three Highly Commended poems are similarly in no special order:
THE EMBRACE - Denise O’Hagen
This is a poem of meditation, full of a solemn yet not oppressively mournful atmosphere (“even the weeds gleamed”) despite the subject: the contemplation of a child’s grave in Sydney’s first European burial ground. The poet reflects not only on this death, but on the very high infant mortality rate in general. The surrounds are evoked with considerable skill and beauty: “a lone cypress/ strives upwards/ to the wide, white oyster of the sky.” Even the details of loss have been eroded by time: “half a name and half a date/ suffice to scaffold our imagination.” It is very fine indeed.
GARDEN SNAP – Jan Napier
Language here is spare but telling, again creating a strong sense of place and atmosphere. Life, death and beauty are all suggested in compressed and remarkable images: a chrysalis, for instance, hangs “like a transparent lantern”, the “sleeping grub a wick as yet unlit” - a superb example of an extended image that affects both intellect and emotion alike. Eight lean and poised couplets take us to a place where “A dozen suns, a dozen moons, bloom and fall.” Wonderful.
BASKET WEAVER - Madeleine Tingey
This poem is, as the title tells us, about a person, in this case a skilled basket weaver as seen through the eyes of her daughter. We share with her the bond as she watches the weaver’s highly honed and long-practised (“bark-rough fingers”) art unfold before us. Here the imagery is mainly kinaesthetic, bringing to life the gamut of intricate movements - “each plait a powerful assertion of skill”. As with all the poems so far considered, there is a great sense of control and purpose as we are gently guided by the poet, in this case to share the sense of magic and awe as the girl lovingly observes her mother at work.
And now to the three final places:
THIRD PRIZE - BURIED LIGHT - Alison Barton
This is in some ways a rather mysterious and surreal poem, intense and rhetorical, but also with its own strange music that encompasses a broad sweep of time and refers to arrival and departure. It is a symphony of haunting images: “we wore trauma on our sleeves”, “we made the shape of eagles/ with our hands”, “we spoke with foreign mouths/ as if burying light” and so many more that could be singled out. Even the disorientations (when? where?) are intentional and the abstractions are anything but dully rendered: “tell me your experience of losing a home/ of light on a dark sound.” It is a poem of occult witness that may mean different things to different readers, but that is, after all, part of the power and prerogative of poetry.
SECOND PRIZE - SIX SEASONS - Janice Williams
As the title suggests, this poem evokes the eminently sensible Gariwerd (Indigenous people of the Grampians in Victoria) division of the seasons into the six which more accurately convey the nuances of their weather than the European four. The poet has chosen to use rhyming couplets, a form that normally has me running screaming from the room. The usage here, however, shows just how effectively rhyme can still be used when there is an element of surprise and imaginative originality. The whole poem is a rhythmic delight, as well as containing superb images, such as in the opening couplet: “In kooyang, late summer, the lake fills with eels/ It’s hot, harsh and dry - mute aggressive it feels.” Or this one: “Petyan enters in with the equinox gales/ White tea tree is flouncing, the pollen trove sails.” The energy of the sounds and pictures never falters. A difficult form has been used with great skill and affection to paint this lovely poem.
FIRST PRIZE - WILTSHIRE 1840’s – Jan Napier
This is another villanelle, one which beautifully illustrates the malleability and effectiveness of the form. The repetitions provide a haunting music and contribute to the mystical atmosphere. All sorts of mysteries and narrative threads are hinted at in powerful and resonating images: “These vales are shadow drowning”; “a witch scratches blue runes”; “his mouth warm with wine”. An entire Gothic novel has been condensed here! The language is precise and the reader is enticed into seeing the landscape “where the chalk horse gallops”, feeling the “misty rain” and hearing the “racing train.” In the last stanza, one is left wondering at the nature of the “I” who turns “from the flying night”, and returns to the beginning seeking answers that, deliciously, may never be provided. Needless to say, I liked this poem very much.
In closing, I would like to thank the Society of Women Writers for entrusting me with this very pleasant responsibility. I thank all the poets who entered and congratulate the award-winners, and hope that everyone will again enter for next year’s competition. Thank you.
- Shane McCauley
17 June 2022