Contests : War Poetry Contest : Past Winners : 2005 : Judge's Comments
Thanks to everyone who entered our fourth annual War Poetry Contest. This year saw a record 1,036 entries of 1-3 poems each. As always, the volume and quality of the submissions meant that there were not enough prizes to reward all the well-crafted and moving poems that you sent in.
This year, one of our winning entries and one finalist entry were poems that had been submitted to previous War contests. I remembered the unique stories they told, and was glad to have another chance to publish them. Perseverance pays off. (If you are going to resubmit past entries, though, I recommend including a mix of old and new work to increase your chances.)
Choosing the top 23 entries from the shortlisted group of 50-100 was quite challenging. Most of the honorable mentions, finalists and semifinalists displayed similar levels of poetic craftsmanship. The factors that tipped the balance were a memorable storyline, a satisfying conclusion, and a nuanced perspective on war and human nature. Several well-written pieces were spoiled for me by a heavy-handed moralism or a simplistic understanding of the causes and consequences of war. I encourage you to read my judging
comments from previous years for more guidance on what I'm looking for, and my advice
on common mistakes to avoid.
I knew Jude Nutter's poems "Infidelity," "For Those Held Captive for Decades in Darkness" and "The Map" would be our first-prize winners as soon as I read them. Her elegiac verses brim with tenderness and insight, offering hope to heal war's scars. These are intimate and patient poems, rich with observations that touch the heart. In "Infidelity", for example, the narrator wants to believe that her father "spent the war/safe from yourself, in reserve, your rifle clean/and unfired". Instead, he tells her how he felt obligated to bury the first German soldier he had shot. "You are married, you said,/to the first man you ever kill, and then you went outside/to gather even the smallest feathers that had drifted/and caught against the hedge" from the sparrows that a hawk had preyed upon. The soldier may be unable to stop the cycle of killing, but these gestures of respect, though inadequate, help him cling to his humanity.
T.P. Perrin's second-prize poems, "McVay" and "Thersites", ring with the gallows humor that soldiers employ to stay sane in the face of war's absurdity and unendurable suffering. Charles B. McVay III was the captain of the USS Indianapolis, a battleship sunk by the Japanese during World War II (read
McVay's account). Only 316 men survived out of a crew of 1,199. He was court-martialed and convicted of negligence, but his penalty was remitted in light of his outstanding record. Perrin's poem vividly recreates the horrors of being lost at sea, as well as the complex mixture of guilt, bitterness and resignation that the captain might have felt.
"Thersites" shows us the Trojan
War, that supreme myth of military heroism, through the eyes of the lowliest character in Homer's epic: a cynical, deformed, thoroughly unlikeable foot soldier who dares to mock his betters (read about Thersites here). One can't help but delight in the cocky patter of Perrin's Thersites, who refuses to flatter anyone, even himself. The chorus may get the last word, but their glorification of war trails off into childish babble ("Killing's a kind of caring,/A kind of curing..../Only a crazy would want/To think different. Da. Da."), leaving Thersites' ghost as the only one willing to tell the ugly truth.
Our third-prize winner, Dr. Alan Farrell, is the first poet to place in the top three in both our War Poetry Contest and our Wergle
Flomp Humor Poetry Contest (first prize in 2005 for the parody "Blaming
of Parts"). He has a matchless ability to capture the patois and perspective of the ordinary soldier. Military life has been described as long stretches of boredom punctuated with moments of sheer terror. In "Martyrdom
of a Mutt", humor arises from the collision of these incongruities, ending with a bit of wisdom that adds gravity to a compelling anecdote.
Thanks again to all of our contestants for thinking deeply and writing from the heart about one of the enduring problems of human existence. Poetry can change the world, not merely by persuading readers, but also by challenging us as writers to look beyond political slogans and stereotypes, to see the world clearly and tell the truth with compassion. Keep writing, for yourselves and for all of us.
Click here to read all
of the 2005 winning entries.
Click here to read
the winning entries from other years.
Click here for more comprehensive
advice for war poetry contestants.