Tuesday, 27 March 2007

National Poetry Competition Winners

Simon Turner surveys the carnage

This year's three winners of the National Poetry Competition are an interesting bunch, perhaps reflecting the fact that the judging panel was a little more idiosyncratic than normal (expect Jeremy Prynne, Attila the Stockbroker and Charles Kennedy next year...). So, what were they like? Mike Barlow, the winner, gave us 'The Third Wife', a well-executed though recognisable type of poem in a narrative style hovering between dramatic monologue and surreal exposition. Some excellent moments here - I liked the lines "No matter how I pumped, the organ of her heart played flat, / her painted smile as wooden as a figurehead’s" especially - and the overall effect was both funny and creepy, like the early moments in a David Lynch movie when you're not quite sure if you're meant to laugh or have a stroke. However, it's use of persona, and the rather stilted language - like it had been translated from Swedish - screamed 'workshop', at least to this reader. I don't want to come across as unrelentingly negative, though; there was a great deal to like here.

John Latham, placed second for his poem 'From Professor Nobu Kitagawa’s Notebooks On Effects of Lightning on the Human Body' (Tr. from the Japanese by N. Kitagawa), has produced a far more interesting beast, which troubles ideas of language, translation, the poem itself (perhaps explaining why it didn't win). It works with a kind of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E-lite conceit of a fake (and not quite 'correct' translation [see also Jonathan Safron Foer's Everything is Illuminated]), and the poem is full of fresh and imaginative linguistic shards as a result. In the first half of the poem, detailing a couple who are struck by lightning on the Horiko Coast, 'Dr Kitagawa' gives us this 'translation' of his own 'text':

Man felt no perverse effects,
seven heart-flowers uncorrupted in his hand,
though since he suffers rapture of tympanum -

which is lovely. There is much throughout the poem along these lines, which might get tiresome if the poem were to outstay its welcome (see also Everything is Illuminated) but which works because of its brevity. Of the three poems, I would most likely have given this one the top spot, but then I'm cussed and biased towards the extremes of language, so what do I know?

(One thing, though: is it just me, or is there a ghost of racism in using a fictional 'foreigner' to create interesting effects in the English language? How far removed are fake poetic translations (and I think they are prevalent enough to call them a form) from, say, Peter Sellers' infamous portrayal of a 'goodness-gracious-me' Indian stereotype in The Party? Certainly, the 'translation' form is not usually designed to produce comic effects, but isn't the mindset both impulses devolve from exactly the same? I wonder if there's a tradition of Japanese fake translations from the English? Just a thought...)

And finally, David Grubb, who came third with his poem 'Bud Fields and His World'. I feel like I'm going to have to live with this poem a little longer than the others to get a full handle on it; its intentions and effects are less easily pigeon-holed, its qualities much more a component of the overall package (sign of a good poem). The poem feels very American (this is aside from its subject matter, being as it is a tribute to James Agee, the author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a deeply poetic study of the rural poor in the Depression-era US), though I can't really clarify this with any degree of accuracy or authority, so you'll just have to take my word for it. In short, though, what I detect in American poetry generally (or rather, the American poetry which appeals to me most) is an openness of form and content (and, secondary to this, meaning: in much English poetry, the meaning is set almost from the get-go, which makes reading a poem akin to an experience of deja vu), a free-form approach to language where the energy of the poem is closely tied to what it says. All of these qualities are present in David Grubb's poem. Interesting. I'm going to endeavour to read more of his work, I think.

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