The winning entry is followed by the judge's report.
By Rosie McCrossin, Sandgate District State High School
The storm is an illusionist
Spying from behind the housing estate
At the gentle glow of suburbia
Raising an aubergine eyebrow
At its unsuspecting audience
Time to put on a show
First come the clouds
Dark and thick
Heavy bodies undulating across
The royal blue-black sky
Then a soft sprinkling of rain
And thin breezes
Which cut through the thick air
Like cheese wire
It is drugging the audience
For the curtains to open
And it begins
Streaking silver slices through the languid clouds
Blinding the spectators
And the freezing rain
Which falls in swollen drops
On the tin rooves
The deep snarls of thunder
Which seem to sync with the sleeping suburbia’s heartbeats
And the thin insidious winds
Which infiltrate deep into bone
The illusionist scrapes at every sense
With sharpened fingernails
And then with a quick swoosh of its fingers
Followed by its cumulus assistants
Leaving a layer of thin fog
Which hovers above the still warm bitumen
Puddles and broken twigs in its wake
Like merchandise in the foyer of the show
Come and see the great illusionist
By the wondrous magician – the suburban storm
As always, this year's entrants in Section B poetry explored a wide range of subjects, encompassing both adolescent experience and the world in which we live. I spoke last year of three criteria for a good poem: authenticity of experience, specificity of image, and freshness of language. I want to focus this year particularly on language, because for the most part this is what set the winners apart from the Highly Commendeds and the other entrants.
The poet Anthony Lawrence says that the subject of every poem needs to be subordinate to language, that every poet should have that written on a card and stuck to their monitor or the front of their notebook. Subject must be subordinate to language. I take that to mean that subject matter might be the excuse for a poem, but the language, in particular, is why we love them as poems. Fiction writers have been described as story geeks, and poets as word geeks, and I think that's true. One of my favourite writers growing up was Roald Dahl, who was both a word and story geek, and I still love his way with words in particular. Once heard, who can forget the Oompa Loompas and Hornswogglers of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or the BFG's scrumdiddlyumptious snozzcumbers? The BFG says Sophie shouldn't gobblefunk about with words, but of course that's exactly what Dahl was doing, and that's exactly what we should be doing as poets too.
Not every poem needs neologisms, of course. English has the largest vocabulary of any language. At home I have a large treasure chest, in which I've put all my favourite words on slips of coloured paper. I add to it regularly, because I'm constantly finding new words. Most new words and expressions in any language come from teenage slang, so I always look for them when I read through the competition entrants. I don't often find them. I've wondered why that is, and I suspect one reason is that we immediately think a poem has to be about something. Especially if it's for an English class. The first question we ask ourselves is: what is my poem going to be about? Otherwise, what's the point? The result is often poems that describe something very prosaically, that lack linguistic spark. Rarely do we start with a phrase or word that means interests us as individuals, and play with it until it expands into something larger.
The poem that wins first prize this year, Suburban Storm, is a clear winner. As the title suggests, it has a simple subject, but it uses the familiar experience of a thunderstorm as a springboard for a series of images interlinked by the metaphor of the storm personified as an illusionist. The very first line announces that "The storm is an illusionist", and we get raised eyebrows, an unsuspecting audience (who become drugged), curtains opening, the swoosh of fingers, the illusionist’s assistants, and merchandise. The poem ends, surprisingly, in the foyer, with an ad for "the wondrous magician—the suburban storm". If the entire poem consisted of metaphor, the reader might grow tired of it. But here the poet has also used a whole range of recognisable, concrete details: a housing estate, languid clouds, royal blue-black sky, streaking silver slices, tin roofs, cumulus clouds, thin fog, puddles, broken twigs, and still warm bitumen. Some of these are surprising combinations, like an “aubergine eyebrow”, or wind that “infiltrates” deep into bone—in other words, sneakily, like a magician. Congratulations to the poet on a vivid, imaginative poem that describes, surprises, and delights in equal measure. A well-deserved win.
The second and third prize winners also made use of fresh and cryptic language, the experimental cinquain Ballad of Our Articulation with its “morbidly uneducated” breakdown of meaning, and The Human Livestock of Camp 14’s fabulously dark and specific title informing the slippery exploration of pain in the poem.
The Highly Commendeds are less successful in their use of language, though the line from the Hole in the Sky's "We could skim up the drain pipes and up on the roofs" makes fantastic use of the verb to skim. As the Sun Goes Down, an evocation of insomnia (and the only poem that made me laugh), and The Game, about a rugby league match, convince because they feel like real, contemporary experiences. As poets, we can always learn from old poems, but we have to speak in our own voices.
For winners, highly commendeds, and entrants alike, keep gobblefunking about with words, and putting them into poems.
Prize Winning Entries
1st Prize: Suburban Storm
2nd Prize: Ballad of Our Articulation
3rd Prize: The Human Livestock of Camp 14
Highly Commended Entries
1st HC: Hole in the Sky
2nd HC: As the Sun Goes Down
3rd HC: The Game
4th HC: N/A