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Best of Irish Poetry 2009
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Judge's Report, Gregory O'Donoghue

International Poetry Prize 2009/2010

 

 

James HarpurIt was a great privilege to judge the inaugural Gregory O’Donoghue Poetry Competition. I knew Greg only slightly, but the memory of his fierce intellect, wonderfully instinctive feeling for words and demands that a poet should always give his/her work the greatest possible effort and respect was constantly at the back of my mind when reading the poems.

 

Congratulations to everyone who entered. I’m a great believer in grass-roots’ poetry, in people writing to the best of their ability, whatever their experience, whatever their style, be it comic ballads or philosophical sonnets. Every poem written, whatever its quality, is a victory against the great demon Inertia, against passivity, the easy imbibing of electronic culture, against ‘lacking conviction’. So it was great to see so many fine poems making a stand for creativity and life.

 

From my point of view, the competition was very well organised by the MLC. There were no ‘filters’—readers weeding out poems before they reached me. Every poem came to me anonymously, by email or snail mail, and I read each and every one of them. I aimed to have a shortlist of about twenty, but the number at first was closer to a hundred. Unfortunately out of more than a thousand poems, I could pick only three winning entries and ten runners-up.

 

There was the whole gamut of life in the entries. I was surprised to see that about ninety-eight per cent of the entries were written in free verse—very few sonnets, sestinas, villanelles, couplets etc. I was delighted to find herons featuring as widely as they have done in other competitions I have judged recently.

 

So how did I pick thirteen poems out of the mass of poems? Some poems disqualified themselves. A few were longer than the rules allowed; in one or two cases the poet had left his/her name on by a mistake; there was a clutch of poems I had seen at workshops and knew the authors, which meant they were effectively not anonymous. Sometimes poems were a great pleasure to read, but the ending went awry, or a middle-section was too thinly sketched, or there was an obscureness that was just the wrong side of mystery. Sometimes you got the feeling that a poem had been carefully whittled down to fit the right number of lines and had lost something in the process. With so many poems to choose from, I was allowed the luxury of being picky.

 

To choose the thirteen, I had to say a sad farewell to many fine poems. You can quickly become friends with a poem – sharing the author’s point of view, subject matter, style and sensibility – and I wish I could have given a personal acknowledgement to the writers who didn’t quite make it.

 

Equally, I want to say many congratulations to those whom I ultimately chose. As well as by an assured technique, I was swayed by a sense of otherness, whether through a mythic world, an actual landscape, a character, an encounter, and so on, that these poems gave me.

 

In the end I gave third prize to ‘Geezer’, a deeply affecting poem about a man in the late autumn of his life, who moves from the poignant reality of old age to the Romantic but perhaps futile dreams of the aged, and what constitutes a stirring affirmation of life in futureless years.

 

Second prize was to ‘Clew Bay from the Reek’, which achieved a beautiful sense of transcendence through a close observation of physical detail, and a finale that achieves a profound feeling of freedom.

 

The first prize went to ‘Shoemaker’—I thought this was superb blending of memory, folklore and sacred myth, both personal yet reaching out into a universal otherness, all held together by a beautiful lilt that carries the poem through to an ending of wonderful resonance.

 

The ten runners-up also wrote wonderfully memorable poems, and many congratulations to them as well.

 

To anyone who missed out – I should say that you may well have been tantalizingly close to the cut – there were many fine poems that didn’t quite make it. And when all is said and done, the only poetry competition that counts is the one with ourselves, the competition of combining the joy of the creative act with the effort of making the poem the best it can be. Poetry is a round of golf, trying to reduce its handicap, and not a game of tennis, trying to beat an opponent off the court. As Mr Eliot said: ‘For us there is only the trying, the rest is not our business.’

 

James Harpur, March 2010

 

 

 

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