East Coker Poetry Competition 2022

This year the poetic subject was ‘The Calendar’ and was left to the writer to interpret the theme in whatever way they wished.

Our judge was Graeme Ryan assisted by Annie Fisher.

Here is the judges report on the entries:- 

Firstly, we enjoyed the responses to the stimulating theme. Thank you for inviting us to judge and be part of this evening.

The poems took us on many imaginative journeys. There was a rhymed evocation of the year’s cycle of moons, some of them taking their names from those of the American first Nation; a poem about what is evoked by each month as we experience their arrival and passing; a window opening onto Bruegel’s wedding feast; seasonal phenomena of the natural world; Beryl Cook’s Fat Ladies and other themed calendars; the tyranny and mystery of the calendar; heartfelt meditations on memory and time; the 2004 Tsunami as it affected a member of a family in Chennai – a poignant mark in time – and others.

A key part of the process was to read all entries out loud, before Annie and I finally decided on the two winners. Only by reading a poem out loud do you fully get to feel its cadences, the rhythm and hinterland of it, the voice it speaks with and the taste of it.

After several recitals of all of the poems and much discussion, we were unanimously in choosing our two winners, They are And Time Passes (by Maya Pieris) and Calendar with Ice Cream (by David Cloke)

And Time Passes is a sestina, a complex French verse form, difficult to pull off because the last word of each line in the six line verse follows a recurring pattern throughout the poem, with a three line envoi to finish it, using all the key words with a flourish. The key words in this case are: seconds, minutes, hours, days and months. The poet must weave variations to maintain drive and interest, give legitimacy to the keywords so they make sense within the whole and don’t become too obvious or merely ornamental. The sestina needs to take the reader on a journey into a narrative or series of moods or observations, and we felt the writer of And Time Passes managed this successfully, creating an almost incantatory feel with its voice as the year unfolds – with all its progressions, uncertainties and switchbacks in both human and natural time.

Calendar with Ice Cream is wry and self-depreciating, with a hidden punch. There is gentle humour in the bathos of picking out prosaic entries on a calendar eg August 31st Phone about gas cylinder, then expanding on four particular days in the year in all their ordinary distinctiveness. The rhymes help the poem speak engagingly and emphasise the personalities of the narrator and their companion. The comic touch of the recurring ice cream works well and is unforced (not easy to achieve). Above all the poem voices real humanity throughout – it finds poetry in the everyday – and the final lines create a very different mood, bringing the reader up short with a pithy and genuine reminder of our mortality. That depreciating simple line in the coda: ‘But then there are the blank days’ quietly summons a world of meaning and shows the poets skilful control of their material as the poem signs off – with a final wry reference to ‘ice cream’.

Here are the winning poems:-

And Time Passes

and I shall make a book of those hours
our memories of many seconds
recording those long slow minutes
minute moments that led to those rare days
each meeting anticipated after endless weeks
of moments sustaining the loneliness of months

the shinning possibility of those months
examined endlessly over the hours
that led to those serried weeks 
weakened by the counting of every second
of living through each next day
life caught within each minute

when I could still feel a minute   
and make it last a month
and recollections of brief days
hazy lingering over passing hours
and then the vanishing seconds 
and that heavy weighting of the weeks

bleak with the dark of those weeks
of scudding cloud passing in minutes
wind whipping up dried leaves in seconds
swirling the green finery of past months
a world hurtling out of control for hours 
and rain lashing for endless days

and no longer the light summer shower of days
of blue skies and sharp sun in weeks
leaking bee drowsy warmth of soft hours
flowering meadow and woodland minutes
powering all sense and sensations of months
into a raging torrent in seconds

and then stilled, stopped in so few seconds
and a return to a slow, leaden tedium of days
glaze dulled, no shine of those months
once more slipping back into dead weeks
and the clock face counting the minutes
to make up life’s inevitable hours

past months no longer passing in seconds
and long hours consumed by longer days
and endless weeks not ending the minutes.

Maya Pieris
Calendar with Ice-cream

That was then; this is now
The crumbs and drips of time.
A chequerboard of squares and lines
Little boxes all the same
of life reduced to cryptic jottings.
No hint of what the day became

31st      Phone about gas cylinder 

We sat in the sun on the bench outside
watching the sea and the passers-by 
and cars drift past by the old rope coils
and ate our cheese and vegetable pie
at a windswept table where a dog 
scratched and scratched at the grass nearby.
Here on the moor of the Purbeck Hills 
we had parked our van by a council bin
left out alone on the dusty road 
to be emptied later, then taken in.
Then on to Swanage, down by the sea
where we watched the gulls that swooped and spun 
and later, chocolate dripped unforeseen
from ice-cream that melted in the sun

21st      B&R lunch out

It served its meals in a film set room
with portraits and old maps and yet
this mock grand Duchess of Cornwall
strangely works, its regency palette
softly woos the diners to its theme
and each pudding comes with rich ice-cream

13th      Lytes Cary

Now we view the destruction
standing where the dead grass lies.
A couple of weeks before
small Brown Argus butterflies
like blown confetti flew here, 
jinking along the green way
in that lush, flower filled meadow
that today is just mown hay.

And after, people slowly, like cattle to a stream
came and went past where we sat and ate ice-cream

26th      Lucy 7.30-8pm

Her face on Skype, and the children eat
breakfast with chocolate powder on top.
Ollie dips his finger in the jar,
caught brown-handed on a far laptop.
We see that distant sun, rising red
on mountains ten thousand miles away 
and the frosted grass and dank woodsmoke
in New Zealand, on an ice-cold day.

Here, it was hot: the end of summer
and their winter seemed a far off dream.
We sat on the lawn under the tree
and (you’ve guessed it) ate deliciously cold ice-cream.

But then there are the blank days,
The squares that leave no trace
that we ever lived or loved

or ate ice-cream.

David Cloke