ESSEX POETRY COMPETITION: JUDGE’S REPORT
I thoroughly enjoyed judging the Essex Poetry Competition and was delighted to see such a surprising mix of poems in terms of content and style.
I had a shortlist of ten poems that I kept returning to, finally choosing the three commended and three winners, after lots of swapping about and re-reading.
The competition was anonymous, so I was unaware of the gender of the winners, until I had submitted my choices. I seemed to have chosen all men for the winners, and it was only at the prize giving on 11th October, that Alex Toms, the third prize winner, came up onto stage from the darkness of the auditorium – and was, or I should say is a woman! Congratulations to her on the lovely “Eel Catcher Dreams of Horses”. What I loved about the poem was its surprising movement – from the given history of the significance the Fens waterways, to the plainer testimony of the Eel-catcher who tells us that the only gods now are the eels that he traps with bits of road kill.
Yet the title is misleading, since the eel catcher is more of a dream-catcher. The biggest surprise of the poem comes in the form of the narrator’s dreams where he swims with the eels, not in the local waterways, but in the dreamscape of the Sargasso Sea where horses are being thrown overboard in another sacrificial ritual. This movement and conceit allow the narrator to remember or imagine another time and events. The poem’s construction in tercets, with some enjambed stanza breaks, makes the poem’s movement echo the movement of water, or even of time. The final image of the eels “circling, circling” is wonderful – their continual movement is what seems to power the narrator’s dreams.
For all that I loved the rich, exuberant language of “The Eel Catcher Dreams of Horses”, I loved the plain, colloquial style of “The Eve of the Wedding”, even the contrast of the slightly archaic title with the spoken, simple language of the narrator, the night before his wedding. It’s a tender poem about allegiance, friendship and lives changing. I loved the switch in subject matter and tone from “this is as good / as it gets / are you thinking of me”, while the narrator is so clearly thinking of his bride to be – her pal and her jiving – such lovely energy! - forms a neat echo to him and his chum out drinking in the bars of Bootle. The song title in the last line might be ironic or might be a foreshadowing of this union – I didn’t feel the narrator was a bad penny at all, but I wondered if he thought of himself as so.
The winning poem is a wonderful and witty dramatic monologue “John Steed remembers Mrs Peel”, so full of humour and enjoyable mystery – or so I thought until the prize giving, when I realised that while everyone else recognised John Steed and Mrs Peel from The Avengers, I had somehow missed it!
But in fact, that just goes to show what a strong poem this is, and confirms my decision to award it first prize – since the poem works brilliantly without that knowledge. For all its wit, it’s a sad poem too. The description is of John Steed, as the poet imagines him in later life, but in fact it’s a picture that has a wider resonance, speaking of a life, if not wasted, certainly not lived to it’s full, and of a man gone to seed, drinking, remembering, fantasising - awash with wine and pleas and hesitations” but no longer acting, “unhappily” residing in Essex.
The narrator’s intensely polite and wry deprecation make an engaging mix – and surely Mrs Peel would be endeared to him, were she to be able to hear him. But I think that’s the key to the poem – and the clue is in the title – this is a memory of Mrs Peel, not a real address, and so the narrator is unlikely to ever had the chance of calling her “Emma” or having himself called “John” – such a lovely ending, fully exploiting the intimacy that a first name can hold.
Congratulations to all those placed in the competition.