Competition 2016: judge’s report

Alison Brackenbury portrait
Alison Brackenbury

THE COMPETITION attracted a refreshing variety of subjects. I was most impressed by the courage of those poets whose work tackled some of the deepest – and darkest – experiences of life. Unusually, this year’s entries included some notably happy poems. Many poems, too, were irreverently funny.

The contrasts of Britain were mirrored in a healthy balance of work about town and country. There was a definite tang of the South-West in certain entries, with the long echo of the sea, and of the names both of places and their people. I particularly value poems with a strong local connection. I was also very pleased to see some very brief entries. Short poems are often felt to be neglected by competition judges. I welcome them!

“the Fire River entries were awash with talent. I had exactly twice the number of excellent poems which I needed to fill the prize list…”

Polemic political poems were a glittering seam in this year’s entries. 2016 was, in many ways, a dark year. But bad times may produce good poetry.

I hope it will be helpful if I mention a few common reasons why promising poems (at least in the competitions I judge) do not progress to the final shortlist. It is worth considering the ending of a poem very carefully. After a strong start, does it tail off? Is it too neat? A powerful subject does not automatically lead to a strong poem. Is it underpinned by technique of equal power? Is meaning distorted to fit the shape of a stanza? Are comparisons too contrived? I can rattle off a list of these poetic sins with ease because, of course, I have committed them all myself.

But the Fire River entries were awash with talent. I had exactly twice the number of excellent poems which I needed to fill the prize list, the Commended and the shortlist. So if your work was not included this year, please do try again. A different judge will have, as I did, the pleasurable shock of finding poems which move, entertain and leave their reader with fresh reflections of our troubled, rich world.

These are my comments on the three prize-winning poems.

The House that Jack Built is a truly outstanding political poem. A writer needs great discipline to combine polemical passion with technical precision. I think that all readers, whatever their own views, must acknowledge the skill with which this poet re-shapes and re-writes a traditional rhyme. The new, coldly furious lines are marshalled to a bleak and stunning close.

The witty energy of its title animates the whole of this marvellous short poem, And here’s to Mr. Darwin. This is an exuberant world in miniature, with work, study, class division, sex and science in one heady brew. It is poetry’s answer to adrenaline.

The Wedding Speech is that rare and lovely beast: a happy poem. Narrated with gentle precision, it is often humorous, but, unlike most wedding speeches, always respectful to its subjects. Brightly colloquial, deeply affectionate, it could not be more welcome.


OUR JUDGE, Alison Brackenbury, born in Lincolnshire in 1953, comes from a long line of skilled farmworkers. She now lives in Gloucestershire and has published nine collections of poems. Her work has won an Eric Gregory Award and a Cholmondeley Award. She reviews poetry for leading journals, including P N Review and Poetry London. Her work has been heard many times on BBC Radio, and she has been interviewed in the national press about her interest in promoting poetry via the Internet, especially on Facebook and Twitter.

Her latest collection, Skies, was published by Carcanet in 2016. Skies has been featured in The Guardian, The Independent, The Poetry Book Society Bulletin, and on Radio 4’s arts programme, Front Row. The award-winning poet Helen Mort has called it ‘her best, most urgent collection to date… tender, exact and unflinching’. Skies has also been selected as The Observer’s Poetry Book of the Month. Kate Kellaway, the reviewer, wrote ‘The seasoned craft and musicality of Alison Brackenbury’s poetry shine through in this humble, haunting and humorous collection’.

More information about Alison, including new poems and a blog, can be found at her website