SPEECH FOR PRIZEGIVING AT CHISWICK BOOK FESTIVAL 2016
YOUNG PEOPLE’S POETRY COMPETITION BY JAMES PRIESTMAN
I’m James Priestman and I was one of the judges of the poetry competition that you entered. Thank you for sending in your poems. I can say on behalf of myself and the other judges – Susan Stanley-Carroll, Carol Douglas, Nicky Kelly – that we really enjoyed reading your poems. Now I’m going to talk about some of the things we thought were good about them.
We liked poems that showed us something new or made us see something in a new way.
Some of you took on subjects neither you nor your reader would have experienced. Milo Wilcox described the Nile flooding and Ben Moon described the battle of Agincourt. They each kept to one theme – the destructive power of the river and the horror of the battle – until at the end when they each introduced a new idea: the bloody battle happened on St Crispin’s Day and the powerful river which destroyed so much was survived by a little mouse.
Ben and Milo’s poems described something that was unfamiliar to the reader.
Others of you described familiar things in a way that made us judges think about them in a new way. In “Larden Road” Matilda Littlemore made an ordinary day at home seem like paradise, and while having a brother or sister is something that will be familiar to many of us, Charlie Bieri described his brother as a “ball of light” – perhaps referring to a scan he had seen of his brother inside his mother’s tummy.
William Pond described his normal morning routine in an unusual way: the alarm clock screams at him and turns him off – rather than the other way round. William doesn’t stare at his shadow, his shadow stares at him. William’s not in control of his routine, the routine is controlling him.
Joshua Wright wrote a poem about a daffodil. Now daffodils are familiar to me, over the course of my life I’ve seen hundreds, perhaps thousands of them, but I’ve never imagined what I would say if I were a daffodil, which is what Joshua’s poem did.
As judges we liked poems that said something new and we were interested in the techniques you used to make your poem work.
Rhyme can have different effects in a poem. “Icy cold, like shining gold” wrote Felix Berry. Amber Rhodes used rhyme to describe her excitement at gymnastics: “I’m keen on the beam […] do a somersault on the vault”.
Sam McMorran wrote that he was “impatiently waiting” at the start of his race. The repetition of a sound within the same line added to the sense of eagerness.
Rhyme can have the effect of making something sound funnier:
“My brother is the chocolate persuader
The top shelf treat box raider”
wrote Amy Sheridan.
Sometimes rhyme just makes a poem more fun to read:
“Snails and whales using their tails,
Seals and eels searching for meals”.
That comes from a poem completed by Ajit Bhular.
Sometimes rhyme can be used to enforce a point:
“Like cutting a cake with a metal-made knife, basketball is the game of my life”.
That was from Joubin Amiri’s poem “Ball at my hands”. The rhyme provides affirmation that he really believes what he is saying.
Another technique you used was alliteration, which is when words begin with the same letter:
“The terrific trumpet of an excellent elephant” wrote Freddie Richardson, making the contents of his Magic Box poem sound even more exotic.
Another technique you used to show something in a new way was comparison. Diane Comon compared a daydream with reality, Esme Perry compared something very small with something very large in “The Firefly and the Sun”, Arthur Adams likened death in the natural world (such as an eagle killing mice) to war crimes. Arthur’s is a disturbing poem. Thinking about the extent we agree or disagree with Arthur’s poem may help us to clarify for ourselves what our thoughts and feelings about war really are.
Another way of showing something in a new way is to mix up emotions. Orson Lepher used humour to describe fear in “The Diving Contest”. This might seem a strange thing to do but stories that mix fear and humour are common – think of the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood dressing up in the clothes of a grandmother he has just eaten. It’s horrific but its’s also funny. Mohamad Mohammed told us about all his senses when at the seaside: what he could see, hear, smell, feel and taste.
Another technique is the use of line-breaks. Almost all of you used lines in your poems rather than just writing it out as story. Eleanor Richards used line breaks to create a rhythm and indicate rhyme in her poem “Sad Paradise”. In “I’m sorry, not really” Elise Metreweli used line breaks to break-up the rhythm, to create pauses that add humorous tension to her poem about an escaped hamster.
In “Words Like Me” Annika Arora compared a poem to a story, a letter and a song and she used line breaks and different fonts to direct our thinking in different ways.
Another technique is the use of rhythm in a poem. I’ve mentioned how Eleanor Richards used line break to achieve a rhythm, but she also got rhythm into her poem by thinking about the stresses in the words that she used.
“Emerald forests and sapphire seas
Cool shade and a soft breeze.”
Both lines have the same number of stressed sounds. She doesn’t manage to keep this rhythm all the way through but its’ a very good attempt at something that is difficult to do. Her poem makes an important point that cannot be made enough: human beings are right now doing permanent damage to this beautiful, fragile earth.
Some of you used unusual, imaginative language to create a new image or thought. William Devise Craig described fire licking the air out of the sky. Thea Metreweli wrote about “rifles coveting their targets.” By saying it is the rifles not the soldiers that covet she supports the thought she has created throughout the poem that the battlefield is an inhuman place of smoke, wire and trenches, a place where people have lost their feelings and become like robots.
So some poems use unusual language to make us see something in a new way; but in “No one knows” Oliver Visram did the opposite: he used very conversational language to address the philosophical question of the extent to which you and I are free to be what we want to be.
Another technique in poetry is climax, which is where ideas rise above each other in scale. Alexia Von Wiese’s poem builds up through years of overcoming adversity until the climax: “at thirteen I could see”. In “Turning Circles” Josh O’Donnell reflects on his life – how it has gone so far and how it might go in the future and concludes with a judgements about life in general.
Another technique, which can be very funny, is anti-climax. This is when a poem is written in order to make the reader think it is building up towards a particular climax but then goes somewhere else. Flora Davies lists the wonders of her magic man but concludes by observing that he is also someone ordinary like you and me.
Thank you for your poems. I hope what I have said will help you to write more poems that say new things, sometimes by describing what is unfamiliar, sometimes by describing something familiar in a new way. But don’t think too much about what I have said, your poems should be what you want them to be, not what I want them to be, as Oliver Visram wrote:
“There isn’t a brick wall or something
There isn’t anything to stop you from going too far”.