The Plough Prize 2008 closed on November 30th with 1,649 entries in the Open category and 695 in the Short - a total of 2,344 poems. We had expected a drop in entries due to the financial crisis, and they were down slightly: in 2007 there were 1,632 Open entries and 780 Short - a total of 2,412 poems. It's not clear why it was the short category that suffered, but we do know that we had more entrants overall this year, and that the average number of poems entered by each was down. That makes sense when money's tight.
The standard, however, did not suffer. To prove it, here are the winning poems, along with news, comment and the administrator's perspective on the 2008 competition. Before we announce the winners, though, we'd like to thank everyone who entered this year or has supported the Plough Prize in the past. With arts funding increasingly hard to find, the competition's income makes a vital contribution to the work of The Plough Arts Centre, a registered charity bringing a wide range of arts events to the people of North Devon and beyond. We appreciate your support, and hope to welcome as many as possible of you to the Plough for future events.
In this issue:
Results table and winners' poems
Critiques, free and full
This year's trends
Plough Prize judge 2009 announced
Innovative new poetry competition launched
Light verse thriving at Lighten Up Online
Entrant launches first collection
The Administrator's report
Our judge for 2008 was UA Fanthorpe, and we are extremely grateful to her and to Dr Rosie Bailey for the diligence and efficiency with which they carried out this task. It's not an easy job. Once the initial sifting has been done, the judge is faced with a short list of very strong poems encompassing a wide variety of subjects and styles, and the only way to arrive at a winner is to read and re-read them, sort them into piles, discuss them, re-sort them, lie awake at night thinking about them and generally live with them for as long as it takes. That process took place throughout January, and the results appear below. The poems themselves appear after the results table, along with UA Fanthorpe's comments.
We'd also like to take this opportunity to thank the often overlooked panel of filter judges, who read, discussed and sometimes argued their way through almost two and a half thousand poems to arrive at the two long and two short lists in each category. Without their unpaid efforts, it would be impossible to achieve the level of feedback that the Plough Prize provides.
Geese in Market Crowd - Christopher North
Fieldwork - Jane Williams
We will be happy - David King
The Charcoal Burner - Dr Frances Green
Small Poem in Search of a Title - John Godfrey
Interior with Forget-me-nots (Matisse, 1916) by Jenny Mayor
The Passing of Hay by Virginia Hobart
The Company of the Invisible by Christopher North
New Delhi Street Scene- Stephen Beattie
Sandstone - Elizabeth Page
Plums - Clare Diprose
The main competition was judged in four rounds: Long list 1, Long list 2, Short list 1 and Short list 2 (in each category). All the long and short lists can be downloaded from the Plough Prize website.
* Please note that we do not publish or award prizes for commended poems, leaving poets free to enter them elsewhere.
Best Devon poem
Nan's Handbag - Marcus Parnell
Downhill - David Birch
Midnight in the House of Clocks - Andrew Proudfoot
Fallen Angels - Tony Cloke
Landscapes of the Fall - Marion Glasscoe
Devon poems were short listed by the judging panel, and the winners and runners-up were picked by Devon County Council staff. These five poems will be read on BBC Radio Devon (The Judy Spiers Show), one per day in reverse order, in the week Mon. 2nd. to Fri. 6th. of March 2009.
1st, Short category
Geese in Market Crowd
Not a honk, gabble or mutter
as the six thread through chaos.
The mountains seem to be liquefying
this damp and blustery morning,
the sky is hesitant and lacks confidence -
so the geese are a certainty in what is shapeless.
They waddle, chittering in concentration -
their foolish feet, their pert rears
an order in the hopeless tumble
of junk mathematics around the.
2nd, Short category
He and I ferreting on Ben Knowle HIll:
the chase, a scuffle, ears laid back, wild eyes -
the quick chop. A broken neck.
Turns to me, thirteen, in care, challenging,
There! Could you do that, Miss?
No, I reply. Here, I'm the illiterate, at risk,
although knowing too well the trap he's caught in.
Slits the soft skin, a yank, slings it. Reaches for the guts.
Now there's scarlet on green grass. Go on! Take it Miss!
Grins as he offers me this small warm nakedness.
3rd. Short category
We will be happy
We will live above the cliff
and sleep to the drumming surf.
Our farmyard will be studded
with jaunty metallic cockerels.
Cold nights will crackle with frost and log fires.
You will collect early morning eggs
while I avoid eye contact with the pig.
I will glove your daisy fingers
in my ancient parchment hands.
We will be happy.
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1st. Open Category
Interior with Forget-me-nots (Matisse, 1916)
Each time she walked into his attic room,
unbottoning her blouse, she would enter
the painting that hung above the wide bed:
among its chalky greens, she could remove
her rings, put them on the three-legged table
next to the bowl bursting with blue flowers.
She'd take off her skirt, her best underwear,
kick her sandals under the curved black chair,
stretch out like a cat on the coverlet.
Beyond the gauzy curtains, the rush-hour
traffic crawled and hooted along the street.
They whispered like thieves; she stayed far too late.
Under his gaze she'd stand on the patterned rug,
one foot out of the frame, gathering clothes,
putting on her watch, inventing excuses.
2nd, Open category
The Passing of Hay
I regret the passing of hay - made of late in the proverbial way while the sun shines
high in the summer sky on dew-dried grasses, purple-grey,
to be cut and turned and rowed and baled, stacked and carted from the field
by every man, woman, child: with breaks in hedges' shade for tea and cake,
and talk of other years' disasters, triumphs, laughter, tears:
then up and on with wagon load to make, and climb on top, and take
sedately swaying, the homeward road.
I regret the passing of jay, but silage is good - or better, they say,
sooner, safer, all done in a day, needing less sunshine, less labour, less pay -
and three crops a year, if you start it in May:
one man, one tyrannosaurus machine roars along roads into fields still green;
rolls up, spikes up, wraps with slick speed, in black plastic
our cows' convenient wintering feed.
I regret the passing of hay - when I forget the sweat of fork and pitch,
thistle's bare-skin prickle and itch, the aching muscles, breaking bales,
swollen hands that can't be mine, split by unforgiving twine:
the anxious watching of the weather: remembering
instead the fun of friends and neighbours come together,
the one-for-all and all-for-one, the showing off, the trials of strength
to clear the meadow length by length; then riding home last load of June
breathing night-sweet honeysuckle beneath the rising moon.
Fast forward, pause for thought - the truth:
is what I miss community, or even more, my youth?
Perhaps, but every time I pass the marrow-stripe of any spring-cut field,
and see, like monstrous black and shiny slugs, its heaped-up plastic yield,
without the smell of drying grass that always spelled a summer day,
whatever kind my other loss, what ever count of more or less,
I regret the passing of hay.
3rd. Open category
The Company of the Invisible
who desinged a rejected baluster rail for the Oxo building,
had a drink with Kirsty on the same day a scream she'd made
tripping on some steps delivering software to a recording studio
had been dubbed into a sequence in a Madonna video they were doing.
They used it for a moment when the diva leapt from a car
but it wasn't acknowledged in the credits
- that sort of video doesn't have credits they said.
He also mentioned
a tall and hearty man he'd met at a rodeo in Salinas, California,
who had a short-term contract with Warner Brothers to guffaw
in the soundtrack of a cartoon series they were making about a family
of donkeys; but his guffaw wasn't used. One of the in-house cartoonists
found he could copy it. So the hearty man remained a janitor
but would always produce the guffaw if asked at parties and so on.
He maintained a positive attitude and opined that, after all,
they got to the guffaw they needed by way of his -
he'd been a a link in the chain. He'd played a part and wasn't bitter.
Just another day at the wrong end of the telescope.
there was that ornate conservatory extension with structural trouble
on the back of a house in Amersham that I'd saved by some sound advice
during my surveying days. Every morning I would drive past
and mutely salute my contribution to that corner of Metro-land
until, that is, last week when the whole thing was demolished
to make way for a block of flats.
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First, let me say how very much I have enjoyed reading the poems in this Competition.
The short-listed poems this year were of an impressively high standard, and it was no easy task to come up with a final list of winners. The wide variety of subjects, and the range of technical approaches only made the task more difficult. I wished, indeed, that there had been far more prizes to present.
First: Interior with Forget-me-nots [Matisse, 1916] Jenny MayorThis short poem doesnt put a foot wrong. It is a quite straightforward account of a visit, but the visit is into the painting, and the poem very economically integrates the details of the occasion with the details of the painting, so that reality, as it were, and painting fuse. The painting, in a sense, controls the poem. What I most admire is the restraint and delicacy of the piece; the poet allows the poem to say just what it needs to say, and no more, leaving sufficient clues for the reader to do the readers necessary work. Its both satisfying and tantalising, celebratory and uncertain, at once.
Second: The Passing of Hay Virginia HobartThis poem is also very cleverly done. Its an interesting subject, but theres no fuss here; its a very workmanlike poem. The writer has two problems - how to convey the necessary, quite complex, information, and how to deal with a subtle but important patterning of rhyme and echo. A good reader is expected: one who will have a sensitive enough ear to respond to this pattern. The many details are handled skilfully (thistles bare-skin prickle and itch), and the tone is well sustained: the determined, almost pedestrian, long lines carry the argument in a leisurely fashion, and the uncertainty of the writers position (pause for thought...) is slipped in without apology. The poem comes to its conclusion neatly, forthrightly. A very well-shaped poem.
Third: The Company of the Invisible Christopher NorthThis poems subject is of quite startling originality: it is about what nearly happened but didnt. And yet, in a way, did... A non-subject, perhaps? but the leisurely, rather random way the tale is told carries the interest along through a mass of chatty detail, relying on a kind of developing intimacy with the reader which moves from the architect, who...had a drink with Kirsty ... and side-tracks into the anecdote about the tall and hearty man, returing to architectural details about a house in Amersham... which last week was demolished. The torrent of ingredients offers clues - but bewildering clues - about time and place and significance, and the whole thing comes to nothing in the end: which is exactly what should happen. Well-sustained, absurd, witty; the unexplored edges of everyday experience given a chance to be themslves for a moment.
Commended: New Delhi Street Scene Stephen BeattieA neat, elegantly done piece, a verse each dealing with the cows, the dogs, the boy and in the last verse bring them powerfully together. The physical and the spiritual are deftly dealt with; pale-skinned suggests, for instance, a sort of useless pity. The writer simply records the facts: these make the feeling clear. The end is striking and memorable.
Commended: Sandstone Elizabeth PageThis poem works so well because of whats left out. The detail is important, as in New Delhi Street Scene; here it is used to sketch a background to the very punchy last line. There are subleties, too, in this carefully-crafted piece: consider, for instance, the hints in sun (son) and when I shone... Its a (geographically) tiny domestic infant moment of enormous significance.
Commended: Plums Clare DiproseThis poem is very elegantly done; a really good teacher comes to life in a fusion of plums and ideas. The two elements work together to bring alive, effortlessly but vividly, a remarkable person. The last verse remains in the mind long after the poem is read.
First: 'Geese in Market Crowd' Christopher North'Geese in Market Crowd' shows just how much you can get into a poem and (more importantly) how much you can leave out. Its an amazingly skilful piece: not a wasted word, and theyre all the right words. The setting is vast, confusing: the geese, a symbol of order. The whole is so economically done that all the ingredients work together, and every word has earned its passage.
Second: 'Fieldwork' Jane WilliamsAnother very economical piece; we depend much on the stacccato hints for an understanding of whats going on.. We arent even introduced to the rabbit, and the description of the boy is minimal. But it is a very dense little poem, and the writer uses words strikingly to echo among the tersely recounted facts: she is illiterate, in this situation - though she knows his need for murder. As the boy grins she identifies with the rabbit. And the boy knows, too, what hes doing to her. Theres a lot of very significant material in a very few lines; its full of challenges, and disquietingly predictive, too.
Third: 'We will be happy' David KingAll about an idyllic, detailed future. Again, there is a lot of information - the setting, the surf, the cockerels and log fires - all triggers for contentment. But despite this precision not a lot is known. Whats the relationship? Those parchment hands? Why is it set in the future so firmly ? Will (repeatedly) suggests some resistance, some conflict. So a nice tidy neat little poem has perhaps hidden depths, and although theres a light-heartedness (as he avoids eye-contact with the pig) we cant quite be confident. A teasing little piece that exploits the brevity of the regulations well.
Commended: 'The Charcoal Burner' Dr Frances GreenA faithful, detailed patient evocative account, by a writer with an ear for sound and a strong sense of atmosphere. The poet has cunningly allowed his ten lines to be long lines, which gives the scope for the appropriately detailed and generous description, and his love of words and sensitive use of echo and half-rhyme make this a very satisfying piece.
Commended: 'Small Poem in search of a Title' John GodfreyThis is a very appealing little poem. The reader has no idea at all whats coming: its a (very short) journey of discovery. The scene is set with care, suggesting such a lot of possibilities: its almost a romantic, even a faintly spooky, scene. It doesnt attempt to be deep - but it does its jokey work very neatly. Witty, enjoyable, successful - a cheering use of nine short lines.
U A Fanthorpe
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Best Local poem
Was an open house,
inviting little hands and little eyes.
Adjusting to the darkness and its source
a nose full of her Barley Sugars - atomised.
The hiding place of Crawfords and Peak Freans,
the studded Lincoln, sugar crusted Nice.
A leather barrel rolled in from a dream
A sack of joy where all were free to feast.
Handkerchiefs that fragranced us with safety.
the blunt, friendly ends of knitting needles.
A cotton reel, a British Rail diary.
The scent of warm milk before it curdles.
Far to heavy to carry in any weather,
Grandad was always threatening a trolley.
But somehow, Nan and that handbag
with their reassuring bulk,
held us all together.
Critiques, free and full
Owing to unexpectedly high demand this year, we still have a few full critiques to complete. They should be posted out soon. If you were expecting a free critique but have not received one, please get in touch using the form on the Plough Prize website's 'Contact' page - but please only do this if you are sure that you requested it before the Oct. 30th deadline and (if entering by post) sent us a stamped, self-addressed envelope marked 'TB' and ticked the appropriate box on your entry form (if using one).
If you sent us an SAE that was not marked either 'TB' or 'results' and didn't tick any of the boxes on the entry form, we assumed that you wanted us to send you the results by post and will use your SAE to do so. These should all be in the post by February 14th.
The free critiques, which were new last year, have proved enormously popular - around a thousand were requested this year. Unfortunately, there just aren't enough hours in a day to allow us to complete both the free and paid-for critiques within a reasonable time frame, so we will not be offering paid-for critiques in the 2009 competition. Free, tick-box crits will be available as usual. One of the aims of the competition is to help new poets to find their feet, and the free crits allow us to offer a helping hand to more of those who really need it than the full critiques can.
Our ploy of offering free crits only to those who entered before Oct. 30th did, as we'd hoped, help to reduce the workload in the competition's final fortnight (when the majority of entries usually arrive), and enabled us to clear a substantial number of the free critiques before the competition's close. We'll be making it a permanent feature.
This year's trends
Fruit (mainly apples) was a recurrent theme in 2007, with angels closing on seagulls in the popular symbolism stakes. Perhaps unsurprisingly though, these and many other hugely popular subjects for poetry (bereavement, cats, the seasons) were eclipsed in the 2008 entry by what might be termed 'what is the world coming to?' poems. War, street crime, corrupt and uncaring government, failures of the system to look after the vulnerable - these were overwhelmingly popular subjects this year in poems often heavily laden with rhetorical questions, and a general feeling of hopelessness and doom made for some pretty depressing reading at times. Happy poems have always been in a minority, probably because without a leavening of sadness and a suggestion of impermanence they can seem rather bland --but the least depressing of the doom and gloom poems turned themselves around with messages of hope and empowerment, usually at the end. On the brighter side, there were fewer 'shards' about, and archaisms (O'er, thou, 'twas) were not as much in evidence as in previous years.
Layouts were more conservative this year, compared with the explosion in regularly or irregularly indented layouts in 2007. Centred poems seem as popular as ever, and our free critiques always warn poets that judges and editors generally dislike them. Fewer poets are making extensive use of odd spacing within lines, and correctly used punctuation seems to have made a bit of a comeback - though exclamation marks are still overused (and brackets seem to have become inexplicably popular).
This year's entry included a fair sprinkling of 'after' poems. These pose a problem for judges, particularly when they are 'after' the work of another poet (as opposed to a visual artist or composer). How much of a poem based on another poet's work can be said to be the work of the submitting poet, and how much belongs to the original? It's very hard to know, especially if you can't identify the poem that inspired the entry. If the judge is in any doubt that a poem is the original work of the entrant, all she/he can do is pass it over in favour of those that are unequivocally within the rules, so perhaps 'after' poems don't make the best competition entries.
Last year saw a dramatic increase in titles ending in question marks or enigmatic ellipses. That trend seems to have passed, though there were still some among the 2008 entry. The words Autumn (always popular), Granny/Grandad, last, old , waiting and of course the ubiquitous I cropped up a lot in titles this year, and there was a long list of titles beginning with Winter. Words, Time and Spring were the most popular one-word titles. Among the 'B's, there were a great many titles beginning with beneath, beyond, behind and below, and the poetic form most often named in a title was the sestina.
If you're in any doubt about the importance of titles, have a look at the long and short lists and imagine that you are an editor needing just one more poem to fill a space in your magazine. Where would you start?
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Plough Prize judge 2009
We are delighted to announce that Alison Brackenbury, who judged in the very early days of the competition, has agreed to return in 2009. Alison is published by Carcanet, and her collections include: Dreams of Power (1981), Breaking Ground (1984), Christmas Roses (1988), Selected Poems (1991), 1829 (1995), After Beethoven (2000) and Bricks and Ballads (2004). A collection of her ballads for the modern age, first read on BBC Radio 4, was published last year as Singing in the Dark (Carcanet). She received an Eric Gregory Award in 1982 and a Cholmondeley Award in 1997, and her work has been widely published in magazines and anthologies. She judged the National Poetry Competition in 2005.
The 2009 Plough Prize will open for entries in April, and all previous entrants will receive details by email or, where no email address is available, by post. Entry forms will be downloadable from the website, but if you'd like us to post you a batch for your local writers' group, arts centre, college or library, please let us know via email at email@example.com .
Innovative new poetry competition launched
The MAG Poetry Prize is a new online competition in which the entrants are also the judges. It will employ a knockout system in three rounds, and any entrant who doesnt participate in the judging will be eliminated. £2 of each £6 entry fee will go into a prize fund, and the three highest placed poets will receive 50%, 25% and 10% respectively. All profits go to the Mines Advisory Group, a humanitarian organisation clearing the remnants of conflict worldwide. Closes April 30th, details from www.poeticrepublic.com.
Don't forget, also, that Writers' Forum Magazine (where our administrator is poetry editor) runs a monthly poetry competition with a £100 first prize. Details and entry form from the website at www.writers-forum.com , or from the magazine.
Light verse thriving at Lighten Up Online
In last year's results newsletter, we reported on the launch of new light verse webzine Lighten Up Online. It's editor is former Plough Prize winner Martin Parker, whose own light verse has appeared in The Spectator, The Oldie and the Daily Mail, and who has recently been published in sampler form by HappenStance Press, with a further full chapbook collection due out soon.
Lighten Up has gone from strength to strength over the last year, and there are now four quarterly issues available on the website featuring work from the likes of Matt Harvey, Bill Greenwell, D A Prince, George Simmers, Helena Nelson, Frances Thompson and many more. It's well worth a visit, and email submissions of light verse are welcomed - but read the guidelines first.
First Collection from Maureen Gallagher
2008 entrant Maureen Gallagher had to withdraw her two entered poems when Irish small press WordsontheStreet decided to publish her debut collection Calling the Tune. It was launched in Galway on December 11th, and is available from http://www.wordsonthestreet.com/, where you can also hear Maureen reading her poem New Walk at the launch of Crannóg 16 in the Crane Bar, Galway.
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The Administrator's report
In every one of my six years running the Plough Prize, I've been hit in about the middle of October by the absolute certainty that the competition is going to fail spectacularly: there won't be enough entries to cover the enormous cost of all that advertising, I'll have to explain to a distinguished judge that there's nothing for them to do this year because no-one's entered, and ultimately I'll have to leave Torrington in disgrace, to be remembered forever as the person responsible for bankrupting the town's beloved Plough. I have these regular anxiety attacks because only a tiny proportion of the total entry arrives before mid-October, or even mid-November - most entrants leave it until the very last possible moment to send in their poems, and every year a few leave it too late.
If that's how I feel in a normal year, you can imagine how nervous I was in 2008. The country - the world, in fact - was in the grip of an economic crisis, the price of everything was going up, employment was going down, investments were worth less every day. Why would anyone spend anything that they didn't have to on something that they didn't actually need. But of course I shouldn't have worried so much. The usual rush happened, just as it always has, in the last two weeks of November, and though a slightly lower number of poems were entered overall, we actually gained a healthy number of new entrants.
Clearly, a lot of people all over the world see writing poetry, and then getting their poems out there to find an audience, as something that they do 'have' to do, and the opportunity to enter a prestigious competition and gain feedback on their entry as something that they do actually 'need'. And I mean all over the world: this year we received entries from all parts of the UK and Northern Ireland, Albania, Australia, Botswana, Canada, Cyprus, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, India, Israel, Italy, New Zealand, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, the Netherlands and the US.
Once the entries start flooding in, there's no time for anxieties - we just have to pitch in and get everything done. Offering critiques to entrants makes for a lot of extra admin - everything has to be stamped with a unique serial number, a variety of envelopes, critique copies and so on all have to be filed in the right place, and the entrant's details have to be entered into a database so that we can trace poems and answer queries efficiently. After six years in the job, I've developed a system that makes all this as quick and foolproof as is humanly possible, but that carefully honed system breaks down when entrants don't send us what we ask for in the way we ask them to send it - when they don't read and follow the rules, in fact. We even had one entrant who contacted us several times to complain that the rules were very 'off-putting', and then sent us an entry that deliberately flouted them. We sent it back.
In 2007 we realised that we'd have to be less forgiving, and we carried that through in 2008 and disqualified every entry that significantly contravened our conditions. Haven't we always done this? No - in previous years we have spent a great deal of time and effort, and even gone to some expense, contacting poets and trying to sort out their entry idiosyncrasies - but all these mistakes are avoidable simply by reading the rules, and that's part of the competition. Doesn't it make sense that the poets who have taken the trouble to get everything right should have an advantage over those who haven't? We think it does, and we'll be sticking with our less flexible interpretation of the rules in future years.
Something else changed this year. Over the competition's first five years, I can only remember ever having been contacted by one or two poets wanting to withdraw poems that had been accepted for publication elsewhere. This year it looked for a while like becoming a regular occurrence. Are Plough Prize poets becoming more successful for some reason, or are multiple submissions becoming the norm? I'm not sure, but although we wouldn't actively encourage poets to send out their work simultaneously to all and sundry, we do understand how difficult it is to avoid multiple submissions when long, long waits for acceptance or rejection are commonplace. Luckily, our system allows us to find and withdraw individual poems quickly and easily, so as long as the withdrawal comes before the short lists have gone to the final judge it's not too much of a problem.
Perhaps standards have risen. Certainly this year's short listed poems were very strong, and I'm sure that many of the entries that didn't win will find success elsewhere. One of the things I like best about the Plough Prize is the fact that we can very often spot good new poets at an early point in their careers, and sometimes help to bring them to the attention of the poetry world and the public. Because we don't have the enormous prize funds of the Bridport Prize or National Poetry Competition, the 'usual suspects' of the competitive poetry world tend to leave us alone, opening up the field tor the 'unknown but good', as Alison Brackenbury put it. We're happy to be in that position, and we're not planning to change things any time soon.
Plough Prize Administrator
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