Contests : War Poetry Contest : Past Winners : 2002 : Judge's Comments
Thanks to everyone who entered our first War Poetry Contest. We received 712 entries of up to 3 poems each. I read everyone's poems anonymously, many of them several times, and was deeply moved. It was an honor to be entrusted with your stories. I worked hard to do them justice.
I sought three qualities in a winning poem: original use of language, an engaging and nuanced story or message, and a poetic ear.
For language, I sought poems with rich and varied imagery, unusual yet apt metaphors, and a distinctive voice. Poetry by novices is often indistinguishable because of its reliance on stock images (e.g. angels, teardrops). Another hazard is to let the story overwhelm the lyric. Many engaging entries would have made great personal essays, but did not sound enough like poetry. A special hazard when writing about current events in poetry is to slip into the cliché-ridden idiom of the news magazines.
Compelling stories were many. Some told of combat or homefront hardships in World War II, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf; others brought to life Civil War battles and classical mythology. I regretfully passed on dozens of poems that told fascinating and raw tales of warfare because the verse needed more work. The poems whose subject matter fell short tended to be simplistic, with too much unreflective patriotism or ridicule of politicians.
The poetic ear was the most elusive trait. By "ear" I mean an ability to write with a poetic cadence - a combination of rhythms and sounds that is more lyrical than ordinary prose, but not sing-song or pretentious. For free verse, the danger was sounding too much like prose chopped up into short lines. With many of the formal poems, I admired their mastery of traditional rhyme and meter but the text itself was awkward, prosaic or clichéd.
Themes in the Poems
Most of the entrants told stories of battlefield horrors or wartime loss. While not all of these were anti-war, the view that the soldier's life is a noble calling was in the minority. Many poems juxtaposed the heroic doomed soldier and the corrupt politicians or negative social trends that caused the war. There were some poems that honored war as an instrument of justice, but many of these, particularly the September 11 poems, were disappointingly clichéd. Perhaps we are still too close to September 11 to avoid sentimentalism.
Overall, the novice poems - those showing less poetic training or familiarity with contemporary work - were more likely to celebrate patriotism and wartime valor, and less afraid to tell an emotional story that ended on an uplifting rather than a darkly ironic or despairing note. Our more learned poets could learn from them.
All of the winners, honorable mentions and finalists showed a sophistication of ideas and a superior mastery of language and imagery. (I admit Claire Braz-Valentine's "An
Open Letter to John Ashcroft" is no paragon of subtlety, but the "terrible ten-foot tin tittie" provided welcome comic relief.) At the semi-final stage, the challenge was how much to weight beautiful language as opposed to emotional richness or graphic storytelling. In the end, I leaned towards the latter factors. War is ugly. A preference for the pretty turn of phrase can feel emotionally dishonest, taming the experience and allowing us to hide from its evils.
Ned Condini's "1960-2002,
A Testimony" had a cadence and sweep that reminded me of T.S. Eliot's "Four
Quartets", one of my favorite poetic works. The haunting and lyrical last section, "January 2002", makes me shiver. Unlike many of the other entries, this poem did not leave the reader helpless before war, but convincingly offered a hope of redemption.
The same quality appealed to me in Charles Atkinson's "Rehab
Journal", a disabled vet's journey from shock and bitterness to acceptance and a determination to love whatever life is left.
We Are Men" stood out because of its nuanced understanding of the needs war fulfills in the psyche.
Rather than excoriating humanity for a fascination with violence, he acknowledges that "nothing, besides tumescence/ or death's husky whisper, brings a man so alive."
All three of his winning poems show mastery of the music of language, the poetic ear.
Richard Levine's Vietnam War sequence - "The
French Railroad at Quang Tri", "Snapshots
from a Battle", and "Mud-Walking" - took me on a journey from which I emerged sadder and wiser, like the Ancient Mariner's companion. Its detail, at once realistic and hallucinatory, set the standard among the battlefield memoirs we received.
Click here to read all
the winning entries from 2002. Thanks again to everyone who entered. So many entries showed promise. Keep writing!
Click here to read
the winning entries from other years.
Click here for more comprehensive
advice for war poetry contestants.
Further Reading in War Poetry
Two of my favorite poems about war are Henry Reed's "Naming
of Parts" and Wilfred Owen's "Greater
Love". The former is a masterpiece of irony and understatement; the latter is heartbreaking like a Puccini opera.
poems) and Siegfried Sassoon are two leading poetic chroniclers of the horrors of World War I. For work in a contemporary style, Mark Levine's book Enola
Gay is an amazing, surreal meditation on the apocalypse that we are now capable of bringing on ourselves.
Levine is also an example of someone with an excellent poetic ear, who understands the sounds of the English language so well that his free verse has the inexorable rhythm of formal poetry.
Though not a war poet per se, Richard
Hugo also shares this quality, and for that reason is one of my favorite poets.
He has an extraordinary ability to capture the feel of a place. His poems are collected in
Certain It Goes On.
Among literary journals, War,
Literature & the Arts, sponsored by the English Department of the US Air Force Academy,
publishes such notable poets as Richard
Wilbur and Carolyn