The standard of entries to the Guernsey 2021 competition was dazzlingly high. Usually, in a competition, an initial read through will yield a small pile of ‘yes’s and a large heap of ‘no’s: this time, my heaps were in the wrong order. There were simply so many accomplished, clear, beautifully edited poems that spoke of long apprenticeship, deep feeling, and wide reading that is was impossible to disregard more than a tiny handful. Which was an encouraging finding for British poetry, but made for tough winnowing for a judge: it took three more read-throughs using ever tougher criteria such as ‘deeply ambitious’; ‘bright new language only’; and ‘original thinking’ until I my heaps were in any way reduced.
Then at least I could be grateful I had several prizes to give. The Guernsey residents category, for example, yielded a special haul of fresh, nature themed poems and allowed me to reward a poem I especially loved about a grandmother with dementia. A poem for a bus is a wonderful idea: competitions so often reward longer poems, but this category allowed me to pick out shorter, brighter, poems which would shine out when ‘on the move’. Young people’s poetry is developing a stronger profile across the UK every year just now and the huge and wildly diverse pile of entries to the poetry competition fully reflected that. I’m very proud of the variety of comedy, tragedy, protest and elegance in the final three.
All this, though, still left me with just three prizes for the main competition when I would have been happy to have given twenty. If you are reading this, and feeling hard done by, please know that in the end, I was guided only by personal taste. I like form to be understated, but present – like the underlying sonnet in our winning poem. I love wit in a poem, and social observation. I like to be moved: I was very much so by the raw emotion in the runner up, Flack. Best of all, I like the unexpected: I had never read a poem about feminism and hedge trimming before, and in the end, that supplied our winner.
The good thing about poetry competitions is that they encourage poets to finish work and send it out. The bad thing is that those poets do not always feel read: if you entered this year, I promise that you were read, several times, and that you weren’t in the ‘yes’ heap only because the piles were so full of so much excellence.