HappenStance Competition 22: Travelling Light

Scroll down for the latest competition description and rules. But first the results of the last competition, to write in heroic couplets.)

Heroic Couplet Judge’s Comments: Helen Nicholson

Twenty poets submitted entries for the Heroic Couplets competition, subject:  the cheery topic of age/ageing, wit optional.

Heroic couplets often feel like a very ‘left brain’ enterprise: rational, knowing, calculating, sometimes a wee bit pleased with themselves. Smug, even. They can set up a question or proposition and then deliver an artful answer or riposte with a greater or lesser degree of pomp and flourish.  They close down an argument rather than open up possibilities and connections. They have the last word.

That said, heroic coupletsarecapable of holding emotional weight, even though it’s not fashionable to say so. Just take a look at how Richard Wilbur, Robert Frost and Thom Gunn can handle them. (I hope that reads as an invitation…)  

The competition poems offered much humour, inventiveness and cocking of snooks at the pains of age. Thank you, poets, even if not all entries were actually in heroic couplets, i.e. rhyming pairs (open or closed, though more usually closed) and iambic pentameter.

Before I get to the winner, one or two honourable mentions.

‘David on His Deathbed’ by David Pollard commendably rose to and evoked the heroic mode. ‘Heroic Couplets on Age’ by Tracey Davidson and ‘Hanging on by Threads’ by Les Berry displayed wry recognition alongside gumption and spirit.  

What was I looking for in the winning piece? Not slavish metrical orthodoxy — a voice that could be heard above (but not in conflict with) the required ‘ti tum ti tum ti tum ti tum ti tum’. Unless inversion was employed subversively, or a metrical filler was deliciously tongue-in-cheek, I took these obvious signs of strain to be just that. Heroic couplets can be unforgiving in that a brilliant couplet sets up the expectation of more. Anything that sags or is rhythmically awkward unbalances the whole. Ultimately, I was looking for consistency — a sustainable sensibility, as it were. 

Claudia Court’s ‘Rolling Deep’ (see below) displayed all those virtues and provided an admirably sustained metaphor and language entirely consistent with the chosen theme. The poem is poignant and dignified, even while dishing out doubles entendres and jokes aplenty. The poet addresses common tropes of ageing without resorting to the well-worn. Above all, the vigour of the verbs and the language keeps the poem moving, even while the pacing recalls the slowing-down and hesitancies of age. The one passage (lines 7-10) that moves out of the seafaring images sharply re-establishes the theme ('rudder oil'). Even where the end rhymes appear strained (‘wettest deck / — bloomin’ heck'), it works despite itself because ‘bloomin’ heck’ is of a particular age and era. This old vessel knows exactly where it is heading and lands precisely where it needs to.

Claudia Court:

Rolling Deep

I’m seasick these days almost round the clock
and listing badly, even in dry dock.
I navigate more slowly on my own
and when I laugh, my futtocks creak and groan.
From figurehead to stern, I’m all adroop
and sagging, as the rigging on the poop.
I find I ask quite frequently for things
whose names escape my mind, which only brings
me thingy things I didn’t want at all
like rudder oil to soothe me in a squall.
My bilge pump used to dry the wettest deck
but now the leak is constant —bloomin’ heck!
My buoyancy’s become a joke, I’m told
since extra cargo snuck into my hold.
I ruled the waves when I was first at sea
but now I’ve rusted up, the waves rule me.
Before I drop my anchor one last time
my foghorn booms this siren’s final rhyme:
I sailed the high seas, crossed from east to west,
but home is where my berth is, here I rest.  

Competition 22: Travelling Light

To celebrate the new HappenStance Anthology, Coming & Going, Poems for Journeys, this competition invites a poem that touches on the idea of travel in some shape or form. It will come as no surprise to find that the prize is a copy of Coming & Going.

Rules of competition:

  • No more than 24 lines.
  • The poem must have an element of rhyme and be divided into stanzas.
  • The journey can be literal or metaphorical, but it is not an easy one, perhaps even painful.
  • Unpublished work please.
  • Only one entry per person.
  • Winning poem to be published on this page.
  • Deadline: Monday, July 1, 2019.
  • Judge: a HappenStance poet (not sure which one yet)
  • Prize: a copy of Coming & Going,an anthology of poems for journeys.

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