Buzzwords Poetry Competition 2019 - results!

Results! Please scroll down for judge’s report and poems

First Prize  ‘Young Servant Girl with Cardomom’ by Eva Isherwood-Wallace
Runner Up  ‘Amateur’ by Julie-ann Rowell

5 x commended
‘Tench’ by Ann Drysdale
‘Dee’ by Robin Gilbert
‘The Yearly Trick’ by Doreen Hinchliffe
‘Heron (after Roy Marshall’s Heron)’ by Neil Richards
‘Amberwood’ by Michael Coy

Gloucestershire Prize On Nashchokinsky Street’ by David Hale
Gloucestershire runner-up ‘Kilvicheon Church, Mull’ by Anya Maltsberger

The following poets had poems in the final 20. We have not published titles so that there is no bar to entering or publishing elsewhere, but poets are welcome to get in touch if they want to know which poem of theirs got this far: Robin Gilbert, Helen Hail, Jack Warren, David Hale, Chris Collier, Chris Hemmingway, Sallyanne Rock, Michael Caines, Tina Cole, Jane Bonneyman, Eva Isherwood-Wallace.

Judge’s Report
My favourite definition of poetry is a non-definition. When AE Housman was asked the inevitable ‘what is poetry’ question, he famously replied that he “could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat, but that I thought we both recognised the object by the symptoms which it provokes in us.” On one level you could see this as grumpily dodging the question. I prefer to see it as an acknowledgement that poetry, like most things worth doing, resists easy definition – is what Wittgenstein would later call a ‘family resemblance term’ – but that if you read enough of the good stuff you recognise it when you see it. According to Housman the symptoms it provoked in him included bristling skin, a shiver down the spine and ‘a precipitation of water to the eyes’. I duly packed my antihistamines and headed, terrier-like, into the poetic undergrowth.
And I was not disappointed; the quality of this year’s entry was exceptionally high. Around 450 poems had been submitted, and I started by trying to whittle these down to a manageable number, a process that took far longer than I had expected and resulted in a long-list of 58 superb poems – enough for a good collection. Over a couple of weeks I chipped away at this, going back to it, leaving it for a few days to see which poems had settled in my mind, going back to it again, letting it ferment once more, until it boiled down to a shortlist of 20, from which I selected the winning nine. 

In fact the overall winner announced itself at almost the first reading. Eva Isherwood-Wallace’s Young Servant Girl with Cardamom struck me not just with a shiver down the spine but with that wave of envy that is the purest tribute one poet can pay another: I truly wished I had written it. Sestinas are notoriously hard to write without sounding artificial and clunky, yet such is Isherwood-Wallace’s skill that I was halfway through my first reading before I even realised it was a sestina. Her selection of line endings, her inspired choice of topic, her beautifully sinuous lines and the slow accretion of details – the ‘flame diluted dark’, the ‘alcoholic smell of linseed / and turpentine’, the ‘sea of still-wet lapis lazuli’ – make this a physical joy to read. It is quite simply among the best sestinas I’ve ever read – I can’t praise it enough. 

I liked Julie-ann Rowell’s Amateur a lot on my first reading and more on each subsequent one. It’s a deceptively simple poem – you really could imagine it arising from a hushed conversation at a concert. And yet it addresses a profound and important topic in a striking and memorable way. Rereading it over a period of weeks, it struck me that each line had been polished to perfection and not a word was out of place – it is in that sense highly professional. And yet it was at the same time amateur in the sense in which Rowell uses it – the product of love. Very beautiful. 

The Gloucestershire Prize goes to On Nashchokinsky Street by David Hale. I admired this for doing something that poetry is particularly good at and doing it well – that is creating a powerful atmosphere obliquely, by hints and suggestions. Through its short but highly polished lines, with their subtle internal rhymes and half rhymes, it builds up into something akin to a short story that is also a study in someone slowly breaking down under the weight of an oppressive, suffocating situation. This is skilful and powerful writing with a razor-like precision. 

The Gloucestershire Prize runner up was Anya Maltsberger with Kilvicheon Church, Mull. What I admired about this was its sense of keen observation and the sheer fluency with which images flow into one another. The description of sheep as “building blocks for long days / in sleet with knuckles / gone rust coloured” was particularly impressive. 

Another Gloucestershire writer with a superb eye for detail and considerable skill in crafting striking lines is Robin Gilbert. Several of Robin’s poems made it into my last 20, but I chose Dee because I felt that the images – such as the “sea’s writhings locked in wood” and the “lemon and chocolate whorls / of countless snails” – were particularly sharp. A “small breath of birds” is literally breath-taking. 

Ann Drysdale’s Tench is a poem that grew on me more after several readings. Like the fish of the title it doesn’t offer up all its riches to a casual glance, and some of its least showy lines are in fact doing the most work – witness the repeated assonance in “a swift glimpse of an unsuspected tench / left in the depths of the abandoned pond”. The idea at its heart – the congruence between Schrödinger’s cat and Drysdale’s Tench – only made fully manifest in the last stanza is moving and original, and is beautifully expressed in a form that is as humane as it is lovingly crafted. 

The Yearly Trick by Doreen Hinchliffe is one of several poems this year that took Larkin as their starting point, and after the critical mauling his reputation suffered in the 1990s, I’m glad that he is on the rise again. I was impressed by Hinchcliffe’s confidence in placing obscure words – “the earth discards its cerements”, the crow “rasping its leitmotif” – at key line endings, the surefooted way in which she handles the metre, and the skill with which each stanza carefully builds towards its culmination so that the inclusion of Larkin’s lines seems entirely organic. 

Neil RichardsHeron (after Roy Marshall’s Heron) is another of those poems that grew on me with successive readings. What I enjoyed here was the careful observation and the skill with which the poet translated this into lasting imagery – the heron “reading the river” before the author’s presence leads it to lose its place; the stillness pressing down on its own. “As ever it’s the going that’s striking” hints at a deep melancholy underlying the vision – a lot is said in just nine lines.

Finally, what shall we call Michael Coy’s Amberwood? Light verse? Comic poetry? Probably the author considers it neither. But light verse – if I can get away with the term – tends to get a raw deal in poetry competitions, which is a shame because many people derive a lot of enjoyment from both reading and writing it. And this was a particularly good example – wise as well as witty, learned but blokey, superbly crafted, and like the best light verse, unafraid to address the heaviest of topics. Enjoy. 

The other poems that made my twenty-strong shortlist, encompassing around four percent of the total entry, included additional ones by Eva Isherwood-Wallace, David Hale and Robin Gilbert, as well as work by (in no particular order) Helen Hail, Jack Warren, Chris Collier, Chris Hemingway, Sallyanne Rock, Michael Caines, Tina Cole and Jane Bonnyman. Congratulations and thanks to them and to everyone else who entered. 

Ross Cogan

Eva Isherwood-wallace, Winner:

Young Servant Girl with Cardamom

A portrait of a girl who grinds cardamom:
eyes lowered in the Flemish dark,
she splits the paper husks to find seeds.
There is a suggestion of passing time
in the curling of her finger, as if to count
each kernel as she sorts them at the table corner.

Look closely—initials in the lower left corner
sit just below the varnished box of cardamom.
They are the artist’s, who makes her count
pale green pods each day in the dark
back room of the institute where he spends his time
painting this girl, the mortar and pestle and seeds.

He thinks a secret green hides in these seeds
and buys them from the merchant on the corner,
who visits the town each year around this time
in a salt-stained boat packed with cardamom,
oysters, skulls and candlesticks glinting in the dark,
and has so far been charged with only one count

of grave robbery. The girl has kept up her count
despite the fishy, alcoholic smell of linseed
and turpentine in the flame-diluted dark
of the studio. She rarely leaves her corner.
At night she dreams of an ocean of cardamom
rushing through the hourglass that rations out her time.

After each layer of oils, during the drying time,
she wonders if her counting really counts.
He has not yet made pigment from cardamom,
only alizarin from madder, annatto from achiote seeds,
yellow from saffron. How can he corner
the perfect green he thinks is hiding in the dark

jewels of these pods? She imagines they taste of dark
and gold; a distant city in a forgotten time;
running down turreted streets, around a corner
to a sea of still-wet lapis lazuli with waves beyond count.
He’s never let her try one. We don’t see the seed
she hides up her sleeve to later taste her first cardamom.

From the corner of his eye, he sees her fumble with the seeds.
He hits the table, spilling cardamom into dark,
and asks how much longer she will count. She lies and answers: for all time.

Julie-ann Rowell, runner-up


The woman points out Hazel, the guitarist
on stage, whose eyes are dark and bright.
She teaches piano as well, she says.
I go to her once a week. I want to speak
but she continues, and she’s so exacting,
I’m jelly afterwards, tremble like a child,
but you know I’m only an amateur
I didn’t expect such intensity.

I look again at the guitarist, resolute before us
her eyes shining and I realise
how learning is to love, to worship even,
ability aside, it’s the wanting, the striving
no matter the platform to come. The finding
is within. You are so lucky, I want to tell
the woman – there are so few teachers
who can help someone master love.

David Hale, Gloucestershire Prize

On Nashchokinsky Street

A different city, a different sea, a different sun
Mikhail Bulgakov

Winter truly endless,
a screenplay for Dead Souls
becomes an antidote
to darkness and grey snow.

In April, sick of censors,
Stanislavski’s demands,
you submit an application
for foreign travel.

At night you visit Paris, Cannes,
Gogol’s beloved Rome,
glimpse Nikolay Vasilyevich
on a rose-scented balcony.

Days pass. You write letters,
make telephone calls.
Still you hear nothing.
Ring tomorrow, they say.

You’ll receive an answer,
but you never do.
To keep yourself sane
you work through June

writing speeches, stage directions
(but never your own).
When the passport’s returned
stamped permission refused,

you take to your bed
tormented by the hiss
of a faulty cistern,
the sound of doors being slammed.

Gloucestershire Runner-up, Anya Maltsberger:

Kilvicheon Church, Mull

they propped the quern
stones against the western
wall of the abandoned
church, diagonal grooves
cut sideways by the rain.

little civilization, no Roman
defences shot through with
red, lithe lines of Athenian
stone. Instead, sheep –
building blocks for long days
in sleet with knuckles
gone rust coloured in
the cold skip-roiling off the bay

church gone – mill –
the last dusting of flour stuck
to the black rocks as the neighbours
loaded up the boat and left,
the scrape the hull sent into the
sky echoed by an observant

and now that they are gone:
the call of the lambs, lows
of mothers in reply.
grass birds,
the whoo-ee of some unknown singer
turned by mist.

Ann Drysdale, Commended


Pale lips, Ophelia’s, kissing the cool surface
before the grey-green turn, the disappearance.
A swift glimpse of an unsuspected tench
left in the depths of the abandoned pond
the day I shut the gate and let it be.

Now, decades later, I’ve reclaimed the land,
stepping back into the old shared vision,
renewing my acquaintance with the trees,
keeping our promise to the unseen creatures
that have made homes among the dereliction.

I am restoring our beloved pond,
wondering if I’ll see those waxy lips,
wishing I might, hoping I don’t, believing
that for as long as I remain unsure
the old tench will be safe among the lilies.

Taken for granted, hypothetical,
my faith will save it, like applause for fairies,
like the imagined cat of every colour
preserved forever in a lidless box
as a beloved possibility.

Robin Gilbert, Commended


Where sea becomes river, river
sea, not even the wind can tell.

There is a line far out
where a paler grey becomes
abruptly dark,
but, month on month
between Wirral and Wales,
year on year
as far as Flint,
the moon-dazed tide
drains, floods, drains
the mudflats, melding
land with ocean,
salt with fresh.

Out on the estuary
within an oarspull of the Little Eye
a small breath of birds
wheels in a close-shifting
convex cloud
as a magnet draws iron filings
on paper from beneath,
and is lost to sight.

Here on Red Rocks Marsh
a long fallen tree
bleached white,
the sea’s writhings locked in wood,
and smart as humbugs
the lemon and chocolate whorls
of countless snails.

A single lark
chimneys upward
to the battling wind.

Doreen Hinchcliffe, Commended

The Yearly Trick

‘The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said
The recent buds relax and spread
Their greenness is a kind of grief.’                Philip Larkin’s ‘The Trees’

I walk the graveyard in deep snow,
listening to muffled echoes – the slow
drip drop of water from overhanging
branches, the distant hoot and rattle
of trains, the cawing of a crow
in flight, rasping its leitmotif
across the valley. Though winter bites
the earth and seeks to tighten its hold,
though March is cold and sunlight brief,
the trees are coming into leaf.

The sky, an unrelenting grey,
shrouds what still remains of day
in an impenetrable gloom.
And yet, beneath my feet, something
is shifting, stretching, stirring the clay.
Like Lazarus rising from the dead,
the earth discards its cerements.
New twigs are springing into life,
their green tips arching overhead
like something almost being said.

Beyond the cemetery gate
where rows of ancient oaks await
the end of winter, I climb the stile
that leads me back to childhood woods.
I walk its paths, investigate
a snowdrop thrusting its pallid head
through frozen earth, piercing the shroud
of white. Camellias, too, are striving,
beginning to show faint hints of red.
The recent buds relax and spread.

A wind from the antipodes
breathes life into the forest. The trees
are quivering with an age-old song
that speaks of hope and of despair,
of summer’s warmth and winter’s freeze.
Nothing can shake their firm belief
that all rebirth requires a death.
Deep down they know the bitter truth –
their finery is all too brief,
their greenness is a kind of grief.

Neil Richards, Commended

Heron (After Roy Marshall’s Heron)

The weir is fisherless, apart from a heron
On the opposite bank, up by the salmon ladder,
Reading the river. I stand and watch,
My stillness presses down upon its own, 
Until it looks up, losing its place 
As ever it’s the going that’s striking
That stuck in the mud take off, and
In the flight something of the roll right drunk;
Making heavy weather of the air

Michael Coy, Commended


1.                  Instruct and Delight

The question is, what should a poem be?
Un hommage à Bukowski or Wim Wenders?
An hour of stress-release before East Enders?
A binge of autopsychotherapy?

It must be more than this: don’t you agree?
Then what?  It should have beauty, structure, meaning
(but beauty must not mean mere damascening).
Romantics think that “meaning” starts with “me”.

The utterance should offer an idea
aesthetic, philosophical or felt:
the poet’s place, to metamorphose, smelt,
Pygmalion preparing Galatea.

You’re forging something for the world to see?
Then take on full responsibility.

2.                  Chateaubriand or Shelley?

A dialectic (use the funky term!)
must needs exist between subjective “me”
and universal “you”.  This has to be,
regardless of objections.  Why so firm?

If all is Neoclassical, we share
a reasonable rock to work upon,
but rock is rigid exoskeleton.
Who’d thrive inside a vat that’s pure Voltaire?

Sunflowers we, who track the Ego’s sun,
but Icarus’ is not the path to follow.
We love to shove the gears onto “Apollo”,
but undiluted Byron’s not much fun.

Boileau?  Rousseau?  Or why not span both poles?
The poet is a Fellow of All Souls.

3.                   A Fly in Amber

We marvel that a liquid can be stone,
its treacle-clear consistency transformed
to glassy permanence.  Gnats swarmed
(a million years before Man snatched the throne)

on summer evenings, as they swarm today.
Those lacewing legs alighted on the sap,
the aromatic tacky honeytrap,
and life, though forfeited, escaped decay.

We hold it to the light, revolve it, wonder
that something so exquisite can exist.
A creature so impossibly remote
from our obsessions nestles in the fist,
and colour, shape and story all connote
a unity that time can never sunder.

4.                   Cimarosa

You see me as a mad, outmoded martyr,
constricted by mistaken moeurs of duty,
adhering to a style that’s senile, snooty,
impaled upon the spines of the sonata.

“Why struggle with le stravaganze, conte?
Just loosen up and let it all hang out.
Go freestyle, and you’d even have a shout
at working with a winner like Da Ponte!”

But structure doesn’t mean I can’t intuit.
A frame’s not lame that fosters something fruity,
an armature with fancy flowing through it,
like cellos wafting from Palazzo Muti.
Formality contains its own fierce beauty …
(and doing it this way, shows I can do it!)

5.                   Nothing Really Matters

Can anything amount to something, or
must everything mean nothing?  Hard to say.
Vignettes are fine enough, and metaphor
explosive: what of Timothy McVeigh?

Is Nihilism positive, or not?
Does Innovation simply change the guard?
Can Himmler be despised by Bernadotte?
Has Hemingway more balls than Abelard?

The constant “me” defeats the fluid “you”.
The Golden Mean means, those who own the gold
can be the meanest.  If the truth be told
(assuming anyone can light on “true”)
if execution features on the map at all,
the ones who tolled the sentence, hold the capital.


  1. From here - France - Paypal comes up only with the login/set up an account option, not the pay-by-card option. So looks like I can't pay..

    1. Ignore - for unknown reasons after trying again several hours later, this time it DID bring up the pay-with-card page. So away I go!

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