There is a durability to a good poem that I find endlessly inspiring. Here we are beset by so many pressures on our attention and still a line of poetry, a turn of phrase, can stop us in our tracks. In reading this year’s selection of poems for the Oxford Brookes International Poetry Competition I was struck by how many of the poems proceeded with assurance, wedging themselves in my mind. In particular I was moved by the clarity of the writing as well as what these poems seem to say about the wider environment that is giving shape and space to poetry at the moment. Some of the poems I read collapsed and interrogated the act of poetry writing to frame questions about how and why we write in the ways we do; others revelled in wordplay, placing sonic patterns at the heart of the poem’s argument; elsewhere the narrative impulse was celebrated in poems that foreground, or eschew, story. In the end, the poems I chose as winners in each category were those that seemed to me exceptional examples among their field of the ways a poem builds its own logic under the right steam.
I have decided to award first place in the open category to ‘Coronary’, a poem which is movingly precise in its evocation of guilt. The poet exhibits an understated but nonetheless impressive flair. There is not a word wasted in this poem and it carries the hallmarks that make a memorable poem feel like it has always existed. The second place poem in the open category, ‘Bugs’, unsettles and haunts its reader. There is a well-wrought quality to the poem which is illustrated in particular by the endurance of the central metaphor, the poet’s confidence in the reader’s capacity for interpretation, and the propulsive flow of the poem’s syntax. I cannot get the image of a ‘gauntlet’ of bugs out of my head. I wish to award a Special Commendation to ‘Ionian’, a deceptively simple account of origins that feels both contemporary and arcane in its frequent recourse to the language of myth.
In the EAL category there was a great deal of variety such that choosing between the poems was difficult. The first place poem, ‘Jean Rhys’, was striking on first reading because it moved in such an unexpected way. On reading the poem a number of times I was beguiled by its idiosyncrasies; a tendency towards fragmentation; a polyvocal sensibility; the poem’s ambivalence towards neat rhetorical ‘strategies’. It is helpful to be reminded that language cannot be used as a utensil and often has its own designs and this poem is an exemplary affirmation of this. I read, in both categories, a number of poems that riff on other poems and the second place poem in the EAL category, ‘Sweet Like A Bao’, takes this impulse and extends it to become a piece reflecting on how we subvert received tropes and, thereby, refresh our notions of ‘representational’ writing about place. With its cumulative, insistent, form the poem creates a finely woven, expansive, picture. I decided to award a Special Commendation to ‘Lune’, a poem underscored by an insistent musicality that places the sound and texture of the words in the foreground in a manner that is finely balanced so as to eke out the resonances of each word.