Twenty Pointers to Translating Poetry


Recently I took part in a panel discussion about the art of translating poetry. It was chaired by Connie Bloomfield from UCL and held at the Enitharmon Gallery in Bloomsbury. I was joined by David Harsent (translating Yannis Ritsos), Emma Wagstaff and Nina Parish (co-editors of Writing the Real: A Bilingual Anthology of Contemporary French Poetry) and Jane Duran (translating Lorca). Part of the evening was spent comparing our differing approaches to translating a poem in Catalan by Josep Lluis Aguilo. Inevitably, we differed on our approaches both to the specific and general issues raised by poetry translation. But it has prompted me to gather up these 20 thoughts on the issues in this blog post.

While preparing it, I also happened across further observations on the issue as quoted in the recently published Peepal Tree Press translation of Pedro Mir’s Countersong to Walt Whitman. The late Donald Walsh is quoted as saying “The translator’s first task is to discover exactly what the author has said . . . He must try to re-create in his language the miraculous fusion of thought and expression that produced the original work . . . the translator’s role is humble and secondary . . . he must do his best to circumvent obstacles . . . his duty is to express not himself but his author”.

As what follows will suggest, I find myself largely in agreement with such views – though the compromising, tentative, humble processes that Walsh describes here and the inevitably pyrrhic kind of victories one can expect from them are unlikely to make for dramatic headlines in literary journals or publishers’ blurbs – but I believe this is what the best translators do.


Twenty Pointers to Translating Poetry

  1. Ask the big question: can we translate a poem? Because there are so many uncertainties, so many sacrifices, the absolute and perhaps only truly safe reply is to say: ‘No – too much will be lost’. But see #13 below – and now go to #2 (who wants to be safe anyway?)


  1. Ignore such crushing absolutism as expressed in #1. Roll up your sleeves and, like Shakespeare’s Ferdinand believe “some sports are painful, and their labour / Delight in them sets off”. Whatever the apparent obstacles, just do it: start shifting those logs of poetry translation if only because you want the challenge, if only because it’s a fascinating process – but mainly because it’s important (see #20)


  1. Know that to translate is to incur guilt. The moralistic tone in discussions of translation proves the importance of the task and suggests the passionate intimacies involved in this weird relationship between source author, translator and reader


  1. Define translation broadly (1): responding to the emoji on my phone is an act of translation. Plus, it is not merely to transpose to another language, but from one language period to another, one language level to another (formal to vernacular), to paraphrase with clarity, to lay out logical and grammatical links more clearly, to interpret signs, symbols, gestures, facial expressions


  1. Define translation broadly (2): any good poem is a form of translation. Transtromer saw poems as manifestations of invisible poems written beyond languages themselves. Rita Dove says translators often understand best that any poem is merely a silhouette of our attempt to capture elusive original communications – like stepping stones across a river, the better to hear the silence


  1. Think of turning the original source into something in the target language with the same information and with the same force as the original


  1. Use these simple methods (naturally used by native speakers to achieve greater clarity in communication – thanks, David Bellos) to begin to convey information and force:
    1. Synonymy – word for word replacement (literal translation)
    2. Expansion – replacement of problematic words with longer versions in the target
    3. Contraction – replacement with nothing, elision, skipping, abbreviations – turning a blind eye
    4. Topic Shifting – rearranging the sequence of the expressions for more clarity
    5. Change of Emphasis – other methods of making parts of the original expression stand out from the rest, in order to assist communication
    6. Clarification – adding expressions (not in the original) – making what was implicit in the original more explicit


  1. Accept it – poetry is poetry so its translation is mostly a question of force – the shades and emotional colours, the rhetorical temperature, the ramifications of meaning of a word/phrase/form


  1. Discuss this: force is what Robert Frost called the sound of sense – poetry’s confessedly ineffable tones, gestures, interrelations, patterns – and to convey it we need to match such constituents (though not necessarily preserve them like lifeless bones)


  1. Measure the force in a source poem via a process of triangulation – determine your direction of travel via multiple reference points connected to the source text – not only the text but also good old-fashioned literary interpretation, wider cultural perspectives, the source author’s wider oeuvre, anything you can lay your hands on


  1. Empathise and keep ego quiet – imagination is the major part of this triangulation process: so work hard to imagine what motivated the poem, re-live the act which gave rise to it and is enmeshed in it (thanks, Yves Bonnefoy). In translation we hope to release it from its source form into a new form that resembles/matches its original intention, intuition, yearning


  1. Measure the success of your empathetic act not by a term-for-term resemblance to the original poem (thanks again, Yves) but by the ontological necessity of your new words/forms/images


  1. Contradict my #1 – so it turns out, translation is possible if, with Bonnefoy, we regard the process of translation as poetry re-begun                                                                       . .
  2. Be inspired by Charles Tomlinson’s formulation of the task: we look to preserve not the metre, but the movement of each poem – its flight, or track through the mind


  1. Close the source text, says Michael Hofmann, rightly, once your translation is beginning to gain some height in its flight. Close it!


  1. Don’t confuse translation with versioning – the permission we give ourselves is different. To translate puts us in a position of responsibility to both the source text and a working English poem, equally. Versioning puts us in a position of responsibility only to a final working English poem


  1. Ask yourself how might I like my own poems to be treated – translation or version? Will you feel well served or misrepresented? Pleased or aggrieved? I’m not pre-judging your choices, but they will affect your view of your own translating processes


  1. Discuss this: Peter Robinson argues versions result in failures of tone or meaning, that they impoverish and almost invariably lower the tone, reducing the complexity of the original. But surely, such radical revisions might equally result in a better poem than the original? Still – neither will be a translation


  1. Label versions and translations appropriately – we have a responsibility to the paying public who, in my experience, are always very clear about what they want to read


  1. Keep translating – because the desire to translate and read in translation is optimistic, humanistic and hopeful. Contra Babel, it provides evidence of a powerful urge towards community and communication. It shows there is more that unites us than divides us


What Have I Been Reading: April – June 2015

Up-dated June 2015

I’ve taken a while getting through the almost 500 pages of Ian Bostridge’s fascinating musical, artistic, poetical, historical, political discussion of Schubert’s Winter Journey.Taking Wilhelm Muller’s poem sequence Die Winterreise, Schubert re-organised it (otherwise changing little) to produce his own Winterreise and, discussing this process and his own performances of the piece over many years, Bostridge touches on Kant, Goethe, Darwin, Friedrich, Alfred Hitchcock, and Aristotle’sMeteorology among others. The Muller text would make an interesting translation project.


An earlier post about the abecedary form lead several people to ask me whether I’d read Inger Christensen’s 1981 sequence alphabet. Well I have now and it is just stunning. Based on the Fibonacci sequence and moving from A to N in alphabetical sequence too, Christensen writes fluid, Whitmanesque passages, laying aside ‘either/or’ for ‘and’, page after page of which reminds me of Rilke at his most passionate. This is a brilliant translation too by Susanna Nied. Christensen is a writer I need to explore more.


A few weeks ago I blogged on Lee Harwood’s work which I was also discovering for the first time. Since then I have read Selected Poems published by Shearsman; and I have the Collected Poems waiting for the summer holidays too.


Sue Boyle is a poet I have followed since working with her as a tutor for the Poetry School. She has now published, Safe Passage, a first collection with Oversteps Books and I recommend it (though I confess to also being one of the blurbists on the back cover, where I quote one of her most interesting lines: “in seizing the unexpected lies the art”).


Updated May 2015

I’m still working through Robert Crawford’s magnificent biography of young Eliot up to The Waste Land. An almost day by day account of his youth, school and college days, Paris, Laforgue, Pound and Vivien Haigh-Wood. Particularly good on Eliot’s philosophical reading and development which I’m loving.


Mimi Khalvati’s The Weather Wheel consists wholly of 16-line poems – stretched sonnets or irregular ghazals – which seem able to encompass almost any mood, topic or subject matter. Particularly impressive is her desire to draw from the most ordinary of events lines which often soar to the complexly emotional and the (frankly) spiritual.


I’m also back re-reading Hughes because it looks like we’ll be teaching this from September onwards – surprisingly not something I have done (except one or two isolated poems). I first read many of these poems at Lancaster University in the late 1970s and nowadays many of these early poems read like objects of nature themselves: fixed as in granite, awe-inspiring, part of the mental landscape I have lived in for years.


As my most recent blog recounts, I have been also re-reading Transtromer’s work.



Up-dated April 2015

I’ve been reading two impressive contributions to the growing field of eco-poetics. Frances Presley’s halse for hazel is a visually pleasing book from Shearsman (illustrations by Irma Irsara) and the poems encompass geographical, linguistic, political and environmental issues without strain.


Jacqueline Gabbitas’ Small Grass gives grass a voice and runs with the idea with charm, cleverness and power: “From where I lie, I see man walking, / his legs sheathed in green, // I strop my edges. Soon, they’ll cut through / fabric, the tissue beneath”.


I’ve not always been an enthusiastic reader of John Fuller’s work but the recent The Dice Cup is a book of prose poem sequences full of his characteristic erudition, wit and observation.


Lee Harwood is a poet who I’ve known of for years without really having read him much. I’d had him down as an English Ashbery/O’Hara and maybe I thought I ought to just go straight to the source. But Enitharmon’s The Orchid Boat is wonderful; full of fluid, sensuous, intelligent poems that twist and turn and take the reader by surprise. Not as flip as O’Hara, not as self-regarding as Ashbery.


I confess to having a contribution in it but, apart from that, Tony Fraser’s new issue of Shearsman (103/4) is full of delightful things from the likes of Zoe Skoulding , James Byrne, Rupert Loydell and Kate Miller, plus translations of Virgil, Ponge and Jansma.


Two Great Days at StAnza Poetry

Writing is always a rough translation from wordlessness into words – Charles Simic

I arrived at about 8pm on the Friday evening. Leuchars station is not close to St Andrews itself and (it made me feel at home) there were roadworks disrupting the usual route so instead of 5 miles it was a 10 mile trip. Actually, it was dark and I had no idea where I was so I’m just quoting the chatty taxi driver here – who also lamented the decline in business in recent years. Lack of local money generally he said and the changing habits of students who go out less, pre-drink more and choose to stumble home rather than call his cab. We waited a few minutes for Pascale Petit’s train to arrive. She’d been travelling for 12 hours (from Cornwall) which made my 5 hour train ride feel like nothing much. Unpacking, I reflected north is a very long way north.


I was staying at the Greyfriars Hotel but walked up to the Byre Theatre on Abbey Street, the main Festival venue. The headline reading for the evening was Lemn Sissay (who I’d just missed) followed by Don Paterson. I arrived at the interval and the talk at the bar was of a local heckler interrupting Sissay. I never got to hear how he dealt with it but it seemed to say something about the tone of this festival that there was as much talk about inclusion as there was annoyance at the interruption. The auditorium was sold out (typical of this StAnza while I was there – you needed to book your event fast). I had no ticket but Jim Carruth took me to the studio theatre to a live relay of what remained of the event. Paterson read mostly from 40 Sonnets including ‘Here’, ‘Wave’, ‘A Powercut’, ‘Little Aster’ and the curiously moving death-of-a-dog poem ‘Mercies’. He also read aphorisms from an iPad and I remember ‘Poetry is not a vocation but a diagnosis’. And (one for his students, he said) ‘If a poem is read slowly enough we begin to hear things – which – are – not – there’.

I was woken by seagulls in the grey dawn and through a gap in the Greyfriars curtains I could make out a CCTV camera on its right-angled gantry across the road, white and intent and about the size of a large gull. Perhaps I was dreaming. I was reading next morning with Tracey Herd in St John’s Undercroft, a long brick-arched room, with a great acoustic and atmospherically lit. Andrew Jackson generously introduced us and I read most of my A Hatfield Mass sequence which I think of as celebratory poetry about nature, perception, growing up/older, the body. Tracey’s book Not In This World was a PBS Choice and shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize this year and is her first collection for 14 years. She did not read those poems about film stars or racehorses for which she’s justly renowned but powerful, recent poems of loss: “Somewhere, someone much loved is leaving”.


I was also reading in the afternoon at a ‘Past and Present’ event – where poets talk on writers from the past. This was the first occasion (in the Council Chamber of St Andrews’ Town Hall – where marriages are performed we were told) at which I could read some of my new, just-off-the-press versions of the Daodejing. Pascale Petit was also appearing and she talked about her enthusiasm for Tomas Transtromer, in particular the way in which his poems often use an aerial perspective; from his first published poem: “Waking up is a parachute jump from dreams”. I’m sure she said she’d consulted a Swedish friend who said his surname meant something like crane-over-water – ornithological crane obviously.


Later in the afternoon, at the Parliament Hall, Fiona Benson and Andrew McMillan read. Benson was nervous in front of the large crowd (and who can blame her) but she was soon absorbed in the poetry itself and her demeanour was not at odds with the work. Sections of ‘Love-Letter to Vincent’ (Van Gogh) were read with great intensity. Other poems of pregnancy, miscarriage, birth and motherhood were more moving and (as Dave Coates has suggested) her book’s up-beat title, Bright Travellers, misleads. The contrast with McMillan was not to either poet’s detriment. I reviewed physical on this blog back in July 2015 and his (in various senses) naked poems, even when sad, manage to stir great pleasure in the audience. In person, he adds to this a wise-cracking, witty style of introduction and between-poem chat. Given his marvellous success this year I wasn’t sure why he wanted to discuss some of the negative criticisms he’s had but even that does not prevent me wanting to use that old Hollywood term ‘star’ in listening to McMillan perform.

Nora Gomringer

It was another sell-out in the Byre Theatre on Saturday evening with an event indicative of the Director, Eleanor Livingstone’s innovative approach to programming (and part of the German poetry emphasis to this year). Nora Gomringer performed work (with percussionist Philipp Scholz) which reminded me at moments of Laurie Anderson, at others of the much-missed Bob Cobbing (who I saw read/sing in London in the 1980s), at all times evoking a jazz-like improvised feel. Quite brilliant. Jo Shapcott had the tricky job of following this and chose to read a number of ‘The Roses’ poems from Tender Taxes, her responses to Rilke’s poems in French. These are a bit delicate and brief to come over very strongly in a live reading and other new poems on pain (but without mentioning the word) I found not easy to appreciate. But the brilliant prose poem ‘Scorpion’, the touching ‘Somewhat Unravelled’ and the finisher, ‘Piss Flower’ ended the evening in style.


I had a train to catch next day but managed to get to stride along the Chariots of Fire beach early in the morning plus take a peek at St Andrews Old Course before the Poetry Breakfast discussion on translation. Diplomatically and informally chaired by Annie Rutherford, the theme emerged that we ought to think more loosely, more liberally about the idea of translation.  Aurelia Maurin suggested we should think of it more  as we do cover versions of songs. Claudia Daventry opened the field up by quoting Charles Simic’s idea that all poems are translations from silence. Nora Gomringer remembered a professor urging her to find ‘the game’ of any poem she intended to translate not merely to work line by line. She’d been asked to translate Yoko Ono’s poems into German but felt unable to and the importance of the rightness of a translator to a source text was demonstrated when, on another occasion, she’d translated from Russian (I think) and had actually been spat at by a disapproving reader. I was struck – as before – by what powerful emotions the idea of translation stirs up, involved as it is with ideas of truth, honesty and fidelity. I especially liked Daniela Seel’s take on the process, stressing the almost chance meeting of suitable translator with appropriate source text and the way in which the linguistic and emotional ‘body’ of the translator (his/her resources) need to be matched to the varied demands of the source text.

But I had to catch my train and, though exhausted, I spent some of the six hours back re-reading Montale’s loving lament and memorial to his wife, Drusilla Tanzi, here translated by G. Singh:

With my arm in yours I have descended at least a million stairs,

And now that you aren’t here, a void opens at each step.

Even so our long journey has been brief.

Mine continues still [. . . ]

Montale and Drusilla

Translating Transtromer: Fulton v Robertson

With his death a few weeks ago, I have been re-reading Tomas Transtromer’s work and the first place to go (after the poet’s own website and video) is, of course, Robin Fulton’s comprehensive collection from Bloodaxe. But I have been comparing Fulton’s translations, which seem very faithful if a bit unexciting, to several done by Robin Robertson as published by Enitharmon in 2006.


Robertson bills his 14 pieces (presented usefully as a parallel text with the original Swedish) as ‘versions’ or, in the acknowledgements as “imitations”. There seems to me a good deal more vigour and poetic heft to Robertson’s versions, but it’s not immediately clear how many liberties he is taking with the originals and it’s interesting that Fiona Sampson suggests the Swedish writer has been an important influence on Robertson. In what follows I’m looking closely at just one  poem from both translators (by the way, I don’t have any Swedish except what a dictionary can give me; nor have I ever made any academic study of Transtromer’s work).

Tomas Transtromer, an early photograph

‘The Couple’ first appeared in Transtromer’s collection The Half-Finished Heaven (1962). It’s a distanced study of love (over three quatrains) as a couple turn out the light in a hotel room and, after making love, they sleep. In the third quatrain, darkness and unilluminated houses gather about them as if to watch or bear witness or threaten. Fulton’s opening is very plain and factual: ‘They switch off the light and its white shade / glimmers’. Robertson’s version feels more vivid though it does have a stagey-ness about it, the light becoming the slightly archaic ‘lamplight’ and the plain shade elevated to a ‘globe’. This theatricality is developed in Robertson’s version and is to some degree justified by the final image of the poem where the outer night transmutes to watchers, almost to an audience. But as far as I can tell, this trope is not made much of in the original until that last image.

Transtromer develops the fading of the extinguished light in a striking image of it as a dissolving pill or ‘tablet in a glass of darkness’ (Fulton). In the original, the simile is clearly marked and plainly given but Robertson adds a colon and allows the metaphor a good deal more space: ‘an aspirin rising and falling / then dissolving in a glass of darkness’. This is again vivid, visual, though perhaps the dissolving pill image takes over too much from the idea of the fading out of the electric lamp. The original has nothing of this energetic dissolving of the pill with its up and down movement (and does Transtromer’s tablet carry more weight of darkness than Robertson’s headache-curing ‘aspirin’?). The rising and falling image may have come from Transtromer’s next phrase: ‘Then up’ (Fulton). Turning the line ending, this becomes clearly linked with the rising up of the hotel walls (presumably in the couple’s perception, as the light fades and darkness asserts itself). This brief, even curt phrase is isolated between full stops and Fulton follows this and seems to be responding to the signals of the original in terms of the couple’s alienated, isolated experience, with language itself fragmenting to reflect that. Robertson differs again, lengthening and making more elegant the end to quatrain 1. He also introduces another theatrical reference not present in Transtromer’s original: ‘Around them, / the hotel walls slide like a back-drop up into the night sky’. Against Transtromer/Fulton’s jagged, uncomfortable process, Robertson’s walls rise more smoothly, the logic of his image suggesting they more fully establish a scene, rather than imprison. Again Robertson’s version is visually more pleasurable but on second or third thought, how many back-drops have you seen rise from the floor, going upwards?


Quatrain 2 opens apparently after the couple have made love. Fulton again seems to follow the plainness of the original with ‘The movements of love have settled’. ‘Subsided’ might have been a better word but it’s hard to judge whether the strangeness of this is in the translation or the original which does seem to want to describe  the couple’s intimacy from a frightening distance. Robertson’s theatrical imagery recurs with ‘Love’s drama has died down’ which also distances the intimacy, though in a different way, gesturing towards the hollowness of romantic cliché rather than Fulton’s ‘movements’ which suggests a more completely meaningless activity. There’s not a lot to choose between the two versions in the remainder of quatrain 2 as the couple’s ‘dreams’ (Robertson) or ‘most secret thoughts’ (Fulton – this is pretty literal) are said to meet (Transtromer repeats the word ‘meets’ here) like colours blurring in a child’s painting. For Robertson, the colours ‘meet and bleed’ whereas for Fulton they ‘meet and flow’. ‘Bleed’ is a powerful word choice of Robertson’s here but again I wonder how right it is as the evocation of a wound in this middle quatrain where (if anywhere in this tough little poem) there seems to be some suggestion of communion, some sort of meeting of human lives.

The end of the poem is fascinating. Transtromer’s original has 5 brief, buttoned-down sentences, again reflecting the fragmentation I spoke of earlier. All is dark. The city draws close. Windows are unlit. The houses approach. They crowd in close, waiting, expressionless. Fulton – as we have come to expect, follows this faithfully but at the expense (for me) of some sensitivity to the ebb and flow of line endings, to the sonic dimensions of a poem (which in being brought over into English from Swedish have to be re-made, re-heard):

It is dark and silent. But the town has pulled closer

tonight. With quenched windows. The houses have approached.

‘Quenched’ windows? In contrast, Robertson, again smoothes and unroughens, but like a good jazz band, his words are listening to each other better than Fulton’s are:

All around is dark, and silent. The city has drawn in,

extinguishing its windows. The houses have approached.

Robertson’s vivid animation of the city-scape is more thorough and convincing at this point and, in the poem, that is important.


The final lines bring the houses even closer to the couple with faces expressionless (Transtromer’s word here is ‘uttryckslösa’ = expressionless or deadpan) and in an attitude of waiting (‘vantan’ = to wait or anticipate). Fulton again conveys the meaning well enough, though there is some sense of redundancy with both ‘throng’ and ‘crowd’. The problem for me is that it is hard to catch the significance of the ‘expressionless’ faces here:

They stand close up in a throng, waiting,

a crowd whose faces have no expressions.

To ‘have no expression’ is a profoundly neutral way of saying ‘expressionless’ and Fulton often goes for something like this, not quite daring to leap towards a more focused (I suppose I mean interpretative) word choice. This is not something Robertson ever seems reluctant to do – perhaps behind the defence of his poems as ‘versions’, gifting him greater freedom (a little less responsibility?) than if he’d declared the full ‘t’ word, translation. Robertson goes:

They crowd in close, attentive:

this audience of cancelled faces.

This is wonderfully economical, with a good play of vowel and consonant music, although ‘attentive’ is more neutral than waiting or anticipatory. Both ‘audience’ and ‘cancelled faces’ are dramatic choices. In one sense they complete the decision Robertson makes to bring the theatrical imagery far higher in the mix than in Transtromer’s original; the couple’s lives are performances though the only audience they have is the featureless and expressionless city about them. But ‘cancelled’ is also a surely over-dramatic in suggesting the faces have suffered (see ‘bleed earlier’) some mysterious trauma whereas in Fulton (and I think in Transtromer) the waiting a faces are merely empty, indeed, perhaps waiting to be filled.

Transtromer’s poem has a poignancy derived from the fact that the couple’s love-making, though distanced and close to meaningless in the great scheme of things, is perhaps the only possible source of meaning/expression in a largely unresponsive world. Robertson’s version manages to turn the dramatic volume several notches but in doing so pushes out to the extremes. His poem suggests an even bleaker diagnosis in which human activity is nothing but theatricality, stage sets, drama, while any potential audience or act of witness that might be possible involves only those whose faces and identities have already been wiped.

The Verdict: actually I set out preferring Robertson’s version because it garnered a more immediate response from me with its obvious sense of drama. On reflection – and looking more closely (as far as I’m able) at the original Swedish – I think Fulton is closer to the source (and therefore his poem reads more strangely, less easily, than Robertson’s). It’s this kind of frustratingly equivocal conclusion that makes those who fancy themselves as translators think it’s worth having yet another go at bringing a poem across into English. Just to throw a curved ball in right here at the end, here is Robert Bly’s translation of the same poem . . . declare your preference!!

They turn the light off, and its white globe glows
an instant and then dissolves, like a tablet
in a glass of darkness. Then arising.
The hotel walls shoot up into heaven’s darkness.

Their movements have grown softer, and they sleep,
but their most secret thoughts begin to meet
like two colors that meet and run together
on the wet paper in a schoolboy’s painting.

It is dark and silent. The city however has come nearer
tonight. With its windows turned off. Houses have come.
They stand packed and waiting very near,
a mob of people with blank faces.

Results Are In: How Do You Judge a Poem? (2)

One of my most visited blogs in recent months was the provocatively titled How Do You Judge a Poem?, sparked by my judging the Torriano Poetry Competition 2015. The results are now in the public sphere and on the evening of Sunday 12th April, at the Torriano Meeting House in Camden, north London, many of the winners in the Competition gathered to share their poems.

All proceeds go towards funding the future work of the Torriano Meeting House and this year as there were no plans for winning and highly placed poems to appear in print, I thought I might grace this blog with them. The authors whose poems are included below have kindly given permission for them to appear and I have also included my own brief comments – all this in continuing pursuit of the vexed question of what it is that makes a good poem.

At the beginning of the awards evening I alluded to the sad news of the recent death of Swedish poet and Nobel prize-winner, Tomas Transtromer. In reading his work again in the last week or so, I was struck by this passage from his 1970 poem ‘The Open Window’ (in Robin Fulton’s translation). I thought it relevant to the evening as it starts in a familiar world, undergoes a mysterious transformation, all the while never losing sight of the need to keep our eyes open, our senses open. This for me is what poetry can do, must do perhaps, if we insist on setting poems into a competitive environment.

I stood shaving one morning

before the open window

one storey up.

I switched the shaver on.

It began to purr.

It buzzed louder and louder.

It grew to an uproar.

It grew to a helicopter

and a voice – the pilot’s – penetrated

through the din, shrieked:

‘Keep your eyes open!

You’re seeing all this for the last time.’

We rose.

Flew over the summer.

So many things [. . . ]


The urgency of (as if) seeing things for the last time is something we want from poems, the need to be spoken. We want the ability of a poem to open itself to the world around it, not to shutter it out with preconceptions, indeed with language itself. We want poems to contain ‘so many things’. Scanning the top 25 poems in this competition, their topics are love, relationships, war, the self, the body, ageing, politics (broadly defined), nature, language itself. So many things . . .

With apologies to the poets for some loss of some stanza break formatting (I still can’t make WordPress obey me on that), here are the texts of those poems for which I have permission, followed by my comments:

Winning Poem:

One Small Act of Survival – Claire Dyer (NB. this poem should appear in couplets)

In my hand a shiny new hammer

bought to forge a carapace from commonplace things:

door handles, empty soup cans, the almost-over

hyacinth blooms in my mother’s blue vase.

The shape I’ll fashion will not be symmetrical

but I’ll spend a while writing charms on its underside

then flip it, polish its surface until I can see my face in it.

It’ll be shallow and, roughly the size of silence.

Next up, a Stanley knife to incise my chest, peel back the skin.

My blood will blossom like chrysanthemums as I slide my creation in.

So much done in 10 lines! The poet as maker, as technician, rather than inspired Romantic genius – I have always loved poems that deal with the processes of things; how to, rather than look at me doing it. I like the modesty of the title, though that is promptly undermined by the importance of the word ‘survival’. The poem starts so well with its hammer and precise verb ‘forge’, though this is also immediately, clearly metaphorical, a gathering of raw materials, adding a little magic, till the object (as in all poems) is also a reflection of the self that made it. The brutality of the final lines has – by what has preceded them – come to be balanced between self-harm and self-repair. Blood as flowers is Sylvia Plath to some degree but this re-birth has more, is more, and is more convincingly, of the future tense than Plath’s ‘difficult borning[s]’ ever were.



Second Place Poem:

The Ghost Orchid* – Dilys Wood 

I hear him claim, “A flower for all seasons –

only she needs no sun, no seasons . . . “, as if

this grey-haired plant hunter is thrusting

into the woven thickness of the forest

like a man into a woman. I ask

how rare this orchid is, has he seen it,

what kind of plant is it? “A plant

for the heart”, he says, “Of old woodland like this.

She’s very rare, in fact – has no green parts,

doesn’t photosynthesise, doesn’t exist

but the hundredth time you look in the same place

she’s there”. He’s fixated but quite normal,

stopping for a break in my patch of shade.

Common plants are there, low-growing Wood Sorrel,

Wind Flowers he calls ‘Wood Anemone’

with petals that blush like adolescence.

Her ashes (that’s my thin girl’s ashes)

are indistinct among small white flowers,

ferns, wood-ash from log-burnings on this spot;

but he sees how, with the box still in my hand,

I stare into the thicker trees for glimpses

of my strange one and how I’ve not spread out

but spilled her heap of absence on the ground.

We exchange photos for a minute. “It’s weird

enough?”, giving me his colour snap

of the ‘Ghost’ lit by a camera-flash,

and so albino, transparent, spectral,

I catch my breath. It’s so like my daughter,

or what we saw inside, her ‘lit-up’ self.

Running his fingers under Wood Sorrel leaves

to show delicate, bent flowers, he says,

“Life-cycles are so utterly diverse –

see a miracle in all lives, if you like”.

*The Ghost Orchid, Epipogium Aphyllum, is Britain’s rarest flower with findings reported in 1986 and 2010. It has been described, ‘In a torch beam . . . they appear translucent white . . . almost like a photographic negative’.

Dialogue is difficult to use convincingly in a poem but this poet dives straight in without context or scene setting, though as we are baffled we are also intrigued. The “grey-haired plant hunter” is a near relation of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner initially, though on this occasion he seems to need a little prompt or two to get going. Instead of a victim of experience though, he turns out to be a seeker – for the rare, the beautiful, the elusive, valuable precisely because so seldom of this world. The compassionate heart of the poem is only introduced (bravely) half way through with the more than strange coincidence of what the narrator is up to. The exchange they pursue is very moving, a quiet (can I say) English version of those often more hysterical scenes of mothers holding out photographs of the disappeared. The throw away ending is a stroke of genius, throwing this extraordinarily intimate moment back to the reader.




Third Place Poem:

The Haircut – Catherine Edmunds 

She stands in front of the bathroom mirror, ties her hair back, presses

the fringe down flat on her forehead. It reaches over her eyes. She

picks up the scissors for the last time. First she thins the fringe, just a little.

There’s not much hair. Alopecia – stress related.

That’s what the nurse said. Here, have some pills.

Next she cuts along in a gentle curve, level

with the underside of her eyebrows.

He’s never known the colour of her eyes. They’d played that game once:

what would you sooner lose, a leg or an arm? Your hearing or your sight?

Okay, she’d said, go on – tell me the colour of my eyes. She’d shut them

tight, laughing, expecting the right answer, expecting a kiss.

The hairs drop into the sink. It will be blocked

by the time she’s finished.

She looks at her face in the mirror. There they are; her eyes,

her beautiful hazel eyes.

The fringe isn’t straight. She levels it, brushes it out.

Still isn’t straight. Snip-snip-snip.

Still. Not. Straight. snip-snip-snip-snip-snip-snip-snip-snip-snip

He’s suggested she dye it. Cover up the grey. Maybe bleach it,

go blonde, but get it done properly, he’ll pay. She’d sooner be a redhead.

She sticks the point of the scissors into her scalp, watches the blob of blood.

Stands and watches. Watches. The red blob settles, works its way

along a few hairs, glues them together. Darkens. She preferred the brighter red.

She slips the scissors under the skin. Snip. Snip-snip.

Raw and pink underneath.  Snip. Snip.

And then she slashes at the hair, all the hair, and cuts and cuts until

it’s reduced to tufts across her head, and then she hacks at her scalp

to get rid of the tufts, hacks and hacks.

Pink. Oozy.

Her eyes are crying. She doesn’t want to see

her eyes crying. She holds the scissors firmly with both hands.


I agonised over this one because I doubted, at times, the intentionality of the effects. Yet even if the monstrously powerful impact was fortuitous – does that matter? The words do their work. I was agnostic because of the looseness, the long lines, the repetitions, the plainness, the directness. But aren’t these elements precisely what makes the poem so gut-wrenchingly unforgettable? Well – I stopped agonising and I went with the opening – so familiar as a moment of self-reflection, though not the condition briefly, dismissively alluded to. The relationship information is quick, convincing, just a facet of this person, not the whole story. How brave to be so repetitively onomatopoeic in the middle of the poem. Then it turns – sickeningly – on the word “redhead”, making it ambiguous, and so begins its horrible descent into drama. Perhaps into melodrama – but I teach teenagers and melodrama is a currency they trade in, knowing that it’s real.



5 Highly Commended Poems: Highly Commended of course means, that on another day, certainly perhaps with another judge, these poems might have been in the top three.

The Disappeared – Norbert Hirschhorn 

What makes us human is soil.

Landfill of bones, shredded tees, jeans;

mass graves paved over for parking.

What makes us human are portraits

– graduation, weddings –

mounted in house shrines and on fliers, Have You Seen?


Names inscribed around memorial pools

or incised on granite. Names waiting,

waiting for that slide of DNA, any piece of flesh –

for the haunted to be put to rest.

What makes us human is soil.

To stare into a hole in the ground,

fill with the deceased, throw earth down,

place a stone. Bread. Salt.

For Fouad Mohammed Fouad


A triumph of tone this one – from the intriguing, imperturbable, magisterial judgement of the opening, end-stopped line through to the stalling, breathlessly punctuated, fragmenting, grief-stricken ending. Between those lines the poem plays with the tension between its hard, objective tone, concerned with evidence, details, the empirical gathering of science and its efforts to articulate what it is that makes us what we are.



When I Heard Your Chemo Hadn’t Worked – Carole Bromley 

I had the urge to pick blackcurrants,

why it had to be blackcurrants and not blueberries,

raspberries or strawberries I don’t know. We never eat

blackcurrants, I guess because they must be cooked

with added sugar and if you boil the pan dry they stick

like crazy and even if the compote works it stains

and the stains never come out however many times

you put the clothes through the hot wash.

It rained on me so hard I had to park my bike

under a tree and try to shelter though the rain

meant business and hit my back over and over

like my mother that time I flicked water

down the stairs at my brother and didn’t know

she’d spent all day painting the landing and hall.

When I got there the notice said Far Field

and I walked miles and there were only blackberries

and I’d set my heart on blackcurrants.

Then I spotted the bushes and there was no-one

else and even though it started to rain again and my shoes

were getting stained purple, I didn’t care, just crouched

down and milked the fat black drops into the bowl.

A poem that triumphantly recovers from its own title – because the poem itself avoids any reference to the situation about which the title has to inform the reader. What we are left with is a direct, if self-mystifying, narrative. This is a search, a little quest, haunted by the indelible, the irrevocable, by stains. It’s a trial narrative, a coming through, a survival, but the grail here is extraordinarily equivocal; listen to the verb applied in the final line to the gathering of this ominous crop.




My Humble Body – Kate Foley 

Just as a cloud becomes more

or less as it frays,

my humble body

is slowly learning to speak.

Not hint, not whinge

but say direct to my face

‘I am your face.’

‘Oh?’ I answer from somewhere

up here.

Yes! Not the memory

of your face, its trace

in old mirrors

but the now of it.’

And my body, no longer so humble,

like an old donkey with a spring

in its heels says ‘Listen!

Rough bits, wrinkles, furrows

where half-buried truths lie,

twinges, and you up there, we

can’t wait forever. It’s

now or never

to get together!’

‘Cliche!’ I smile,

scoring a point

but my body raises

its suddenly wise

hand and places

a gentle finger on my lips.


I’ve always disliked those poems which record a dialogue between the soul and the body, but this one convinced me (though I don’t know if ‘soul’ is the right word). The directness with which the humble body begins to speak is reflected throughout the poem in its clean, economical, lean lines. The progressive ironising – indeed, mickey-taking – of the soul/self’s arrogance is an object lesson in gradualist narrative development



At the War Museum – Tony Lucas 

Here is the shadow that was always at

our backs, though we were shielded. We knew

the stories – or the ones they chose to tell

to us, to tell themselves. Also the silences,

events that no one dared to mention.

These faces look familiar – recall the ones

who brought us up, who filled our world, but here

in uniform, removed to strange locations,

and performing tasks we never saw

them do. This is the world made strange, furnished

with obsolete contraptions that delivered

death, the well-known places mostly wrecked –

a quiet church you visited last year,

calm as Wren left it, is shown broken, open

to the sky, with shattered monuments;

a library’s hush, all raucous debris, plaster dust –

and if that happened to the books, what of

the people shelved in tidy residential

streets, gap-toothed with rubble, bathrooms

bared, paper hung ripped from private walls?

They had their modes of coping with it all –

swagger and slang, ‘business as usual’, wink

of an eye – that got them through. Styles

at first quaint to us, and now a foreign language.

Pictures, writings that seemed so peripheral

at the embattled time, now offer

our most intimate approach to this

alternate world. While, always, looming

back behind, what they themselves half knew,

an elder dark – of shells and mud, of gas

and blasted stumps, torn flesh and broken minds,

that forged, and warped, the world in which we grew.


This struck me as the most ‘well made’ poem in the top rankings. Though not using end rhyme, the quatrains are carefully controlled, making good use of the de-stabilising of enjambement. There is a formality in tone too, from the title onwards. A distance perhaps but that enables the narrative voice to reflect, to judge and in the end to compassionate with the elder generation who suffered the horrors of war.



Theft – Josh Ekroy 

Awaiting permission for this text


The opening lines of this poem have an epigrammatic quality to them which the subsequent lines proceed to follow to their logical conclusion (though perhaps with a bit of black magic thrown in). This is like Blake in the mood of ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ and this poem gives us more modern Proverbs of Hell, reversing our preconceptions to both comic and politically serious effects.



10 Commended Poems:

Body Evidence – Alexandra Davis

Kentucky Fried Chicken in Georgia – Valerie Darville

The Man Whose Car was Stolen… – Christopher North

Ordinary Love – Noel Williams

Vulcano – Julie Mellor

Dear Revisionist – Martin Malone

A Sedge of Herons – Noel Williams

Teign – Roland Malony

As the days play on – Maria Stasiak

Quickly – Sue MacIntyre