Two questions worth asking of a poem: From whence does its order come (or, alternatively, from whom does it take its orders?) And, from whence cometh the chaos. A lyric poem needs both. Usually Life provides not only the originating impulse for a poem but also the intrinsic chaos – unexpected persons burst in, bits fall off the ceiling. Whereas order, or a semblance of it, comes by way of form, measure, the tradition (as it is handed down and processed by every poet, to a lesser or greater extent).
In good poems, order and chaos achieve a kind of edgy inter-dependence. The ratio of one to the other varied hugely in the impressive number of good poems submitted for the 2013 Caselberg Trust International Poetry Prize. Reading the entries, the poems with the strongest most immediate relationship to life tended to be the least interesting ones in ‘poetic’ terms. And the inverse was also the case. The winning poems are those that brought order and chaos together to define a space which could sensibly, sensitively contain both, without negating either.
In terms of the order/disorder equation, the winner, ‘Everything is possible’ implements a deft, lightly handled rhyme scheme and a cruisy tone and rhythm perfectly suited to its conversational, discursive nature. With its pinging sounds and amusing sentiments, I thought of, maybe, James Fenton meets Raymond Carver – or a mash-up involving an overheard conversation and a film trailer. The poem manifests the kind of delight in poetry, and its more overt effects, that made me think of W. H. Auden’s clerihews: ‘Lord Byron / Once succumbed to a Siren: / His flesh was weak, / Hers Greek.’ That kind of thing.
Reading this year’s selection alongside last year’s winners, it became clear that popular music and cinema have, to some considerable extent, become the collective memory of the tribe, the shared things that bind us together – a primary rather than a secondary experience. Popular culture, to its great credit, is also one area where you don’t need to apologise for being humorous and joyful.
The runner-up, ‘Ten Things I Want To Tell You About My Ducks’ is about as prosaic as a poem can be without ceasing to be a poem. It’s a manifesto-poem (with its mind and ear trained on Wallace Stevens). It’s concrete, vivid and has its own surprising logic. Phrased like a police report or seminar in bird-management, the piece is simultaneously droll and endearing. The final ‘line’ nicely destroys the poetic logic of what has come before. The piece is tender and original; ‘charming’ in the best possible sense.
The short-listed poems are, firstly (or thirdly, as the case may be), ‘Reading Moby Dick the week of Peter Bethune’s trial’, a splendidly imagined and phrased meditation on humanity and whaling. The compressed darkness of the imagery and the rich, oily texture of the piece are, at once, vivid and dense; with discontinuities in tone and the multiple narrative-threads used to good effect. (It reminded me how much I like the poetry of Kendrick Smithyman and Geoff Cochrane, for much the same reasons.)
‘Karl’s Double Yo-Yo’ is a dextrous, nicely observed slice of social observation and a lively addition to the genre of party/night-club/night-out poem (à la Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, Ken Bolton and Pam Brown). There are some delightfully, intentionally awkward phrases – laid out like dodgy or mangled dance steps: ‘the wondrous unfunkyness of Karlness’ – all of them delivered with the breathlessness and tone of a Whit Stillman movie.
Linguistically, ‘Cranium’ has plenty going on inside it – an open-ended piece of self-scrutiny, an autobiographical fragment which is playful without being flippant. From the opening line ‘Skull is to brain as pot is to stew.’ the poem is witty, evocative and revels in the sounds of its own vocabulary: ‘Zygoma, mandible, orbit…’
There was a lot of Nature in the poems submitted, a large amount of weather and plenty of cloud-action. There were also some strong poems stemming from family relations. A great ‘loss of faith’ poem which combines elements of the natural world and the familial is ‘Cloud analysis’ – a well-voiced, understated confessional poem which manoeuvres deftly through the difficult, testing nature of its subject. A different kind of weather (verbal as well as meteorological) governs ‘If Wellington Harbour is a laundry’ – an energetic, flamboyant update of Denis Glover’s poem ‘Wellington Harbour is a laundry’ – some great urban sound-effects and a long-lined, go-ahead rhythm, part David Eggleton, part C. K. Williams.
Re-reading the 150-odd submitted poems, here’s a thought: Maybe there is too much making sense. Doesn’t anyone remember the Talking Heads song: ‘Stop…’? Basil Bunting prescribed a dose of Sidney and Spenser to all aspiring poets to enrich their interest in the pure sound of words – the poem being, in his mind, ‘a series of sounds in the air, just as music. Other things can be included or loaded on to it, but the essential thing is the noise.’ Whether you agree with him or not, it’s a good and challenging thought. The poems entered were chocker-block with remarkable looking, remembering, some playful and original thinking – but perhaps not quite enough of Bunting’s serious, resonant, echoey music.
The winning entry was ‘Everything is possible’, by Tim Upperton, and the runner-up was ‘Ten Things I Want To Tell You About My Ducks’, by Laurice Gilbert.
The five highly commended entries were ‘Reading Moby Dick the week of Peter Bethune’s trial’, by Janet Newman; ‘Karl’s Double Yo-Yo’, by Caroline Lark; ‘Cloud analysis’, by Sandi Sartorelli; ‘If Wellington Harbour is a laundry’, by Nicola Easthope; and ‘Cranium’, by Natasha Dennerstein.