Robert Tannahill Poetry Competition
1st Gerda Stevenson, “Margaret Tait's 'Portrait of Ga'”
2nd Katie Hale, “Stick”
3rd Kathleen Jones, “Lewy Bodies”
Commended; Judith Taylor, “Washi”
Commended C. M Buckland, “How the partner of a dead sculptor still conceives her new work”
1st Brian Holton, “For Ma Faither”
2nd Sheila Templeton, “Scrievin her Great-Grunnie”
To win a big competition – and this was a big competition – it’s not just that a poem must do nothing wrong, but it must also do a great deal that is right. Judges have often said a winning poem is one that stays with you, and all the winners did.
As I read all the poems over and slowly decided that certain poems were not going to be winners, I was left with a dozen poems in the main category and perhaps half a dozen in Scots, circling round the top of the papers. There were many more poems we would normally regard as very good.
Main Competition - Commendations
It happens that our five poems at the top make an interesting range. The two commended were Washi, by Judith Taylor, Lewy Bodies by Kathleen Jones, and How the Partner of a dead Sculptor still perceives her new work by C M Buckland.
Washi (Judith Taylor) was very mellifluous, an intriguing subject of a fabric of snowmelt. The words and lines didn’t put a foot wrong and matched the subject:almost a snowflake on the page. A clarity of something that nearly wasn’t there, short and haunting.
How the partner of a dead sculptor still perceives her new work (C M Buckland) has a complicated title and tended towards running out of control, however its images and approach were unusual and memorable. It was a brave poem, dealing with death and memory, as well as 3D printing.
There were other poems floating around very near these commendations. One about a memory of fishing with the poet’s father; one about a photograph of dead musicians and their silent instruments in a pub. There were longish and interesting accounts of historic figures. There were some good ones on relevant topics such as Tannahill himself, or Paisley shawls. A sexy poem about dancing nearly made it, as did an impassioned poem about a green muse in a landscape.
Main Competition – Third Prize
Lewy Bodies (Kathleen Jones) is a poem of compassion, remaining dignified as it discovers a couple with degenerative illnesses as these impinge on their ordinary life. There were many poems about domestic life and this one succeeds in universalising a particular predicament and making a fine poem of it.
Main Competition – Second Prize
The second prizewinner, Stick, by Katie Hale, was a shorter poem that didn’t put a foot wrong. Its logic ran perfectly through its 18 lines (very short for a competition) and I just felt I thoroughly knew what the writer was talking about. It was a single sentence poem, clearly by a practised writer, but more than that, its directness and simplicity, flowering in its imagination when the stick becomes a “city built of tight green shoots” and how it comes back to ground in an almost biblical way without faltering: “how it carries us back to the quiet / of deep forests where we began.” This poem was a contender from the first time I read it, and in some ways it’s my favourite of all the poems I had to read.
Main Competition – First Prize
And then we come to this one. The first prizewinner is Margaret Tait’s Portrait of Ga, by Gerda Stevenson.
This is a closely visualised picture of a woman and her mother and it is so absolutely brilliantly written that I was in no doubt about it winning the first prize
A poem about a film could be called ‘ekphrastic’ (which might have put me off) but it transcends the derivative aspect by its descriptive and narrative language – amounting to a powerful voice in Scottish English. A few Scots phrases – “Viking quines”, “the brae of your shoulder”, “grandbairns”, fit the poem perfectly. It has substance and confidence, and from first to last words it is a total hit.
All poems derive from the world. In this poem there is both the direct observation – the description of opening the boiled sweet could not be bettered -- and awareness of the poet both making the film as daughter, and being there within the relationship as daughter. The word picture that develops and reinterprets the filmed picture could not be more complete.
The main thing about a poem in Scots is it shouldn’t be hampered by its language. Rather it should gain from its language. With many dialects and variants within Scots, I expect a Scots poem to be internally consistent and confident, as a mere starting point. Disputes abound on the desire for standardisation, and the opposing view that it can be written as heard.
These problems didn’t arise, though they might have done. When I had read all the Scots poems I had two poems, one that might be described as Standard Scots, with very clear grammar, idiom and vocabulary, and one closer to Doric but with its own consistent idioms. Both these poems had that vital quality of being unhampered by their language.
Scots Competition: Second Prize
Scrievin her Great-Grunnie by Sheila Templeton, whose cheerful outlook and interest in her subject of a young girl playing in a garden, comparing her life to that of her country grandparents, was graced by lively and colourful expressions always expected of the colloquiality of Scots.
Scots Competition: First Prize
For Ma Faither, by Brian Holton, whose subject, a lament for his father’s life, took him to a high level of poetic awareness resulting in a songlike elegy in a pure and true tradition of the language.
A competition is a game. It’s good game, and this one has been won by a range of outstanding poems. But don’t feel that if your poem didn’t win, it was slighted. It was extremely difficult to choose among the 550 or so submitted, and one thing I have learnt from judging this is how very, very good in different ways selections of poems can be.
I’d like to thank everyone who entered and to say that every poem gave character to this competition and every poem was an essential part of it.
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