Contests : War Poetry Contest : Past Winners : 2006 : Judge's Comments
Thanks to everyone who entered our fifth annual War Poetry Contest. This year we received 868 entries of 1-3 poems each. The range of responses to the topic was diverse as always, from myth and history to contemporary conflicts, and from celebration of the martial virtues to prophetic lament over innocent victims of violence. The extreme experience of war can show human character at its most purely courageous and sublime, and also at its most grotesque and absurd. I was looking for poems that could hold these contrasting aspects of warfare in a creative tension and do justice to the paradox instead of reaching for a neat solution.
In addition, I wanted stories that crackled with individuality, that took the poem out of the realm of generic war anecdotes and made me believe that I was meeting real people. If it was a well-known episode in myth or history, the poem had to make me feel that I'd never heard it quite that way before. The visceral, cinematic details of EP Allan's "The Sacrifice" are a good example of this technique. An interesting tale became a real winner when the author also connected it to a point of larger significance about human nature, as in Linda LeGarde Grover's reflections on class and femininity during the Vietnam War in "Casualty Days", or drew unusual connections between historical incidents, as in Lynn Shoemaker's "9-11 Nampit", Paula Smith's "The Third Line", or Colleen Williams's "Trojan Horse".
I was glad to find some high-quality formal poems this year, Paul Hamill's "The Submarine Cakes" (written in blank verse) and Jeff Streeby's "LeRoi 'Ace' Evans", and hope to see more in the future. The challenge is to sustain a disciplined form over the course of a poem that's also long enough to say something substantial. Streeby solves this problem by freestyling, like his virtuoso pilot character, with different patterns of rhyme and alliteration instead of a rigid structure.
Ed Frankel's first-prize poems, "Instrumentum Vocale" and "Gladium Vocale", retell key episodes of Spartacus' ambitious but doomed slave revolt against the Roman Empire in the first century BC. The legend of Spartacus has long been a symbol of struggle against oppression. Frankel's taut, unsparing verses bring these characters to life amid a host of paradoxes. A "just war" that is still brutal and marred by treachery; a war that (as always) dehumanizes the combatants, even as it gives an exploited people a fleeting, glorious opportunity to claim their birthright as human beings and not "tools with a voice"; an honorable defeat that ultimately casts a longer shadow than any victory. The psychological realism of Frankel's characters brings out this story's universal aspects. His portrait of decadent late-Roman society, where sentimentality and refined pleasures coexist with a taste for murderously violent entertainment, holds a disturbing mirror up to our own culture.
Willam Pitt Root's "El Comandante Has Asked for a Song" is a jewel-like tragedy about the assassination of Chilean poet, singer and activist Victor Jara. In 1973, when the authoritarian General Pinochet toppled Salvador Allende's popularly elected socialist government in a US-backed coup, Jara was among thousands of prisoners tortured in the Chile Stadium by the new government's military forces. This poem shows him turning his captors' taunts into a moment of beauty and courage that brute force could not overcome. The burning outrage of Root's lines coexists with an uncanny, slow-motion lushness and even a kind of peace. Like the Spartacus poems, "El Comandante" questions whether power is the same as true strength.
Carrie Preston's poems "I Also Married the War", "The camis come out", and "War Paperwork" complete the picture with a military wife's love-hate relationship with the Marines. The narrator's voice is trustworthy, poignant and relentlessly honest about the compromises she must make between loyalty to her conscience and support of her husband. She accepts that they have antagonistic yet complementary and equally necessary roles to play—his to submerge himself in collective defense of the nation, hers to insist on the preciousness of the individual and to keep alive the compassion that crosses national borders. Preston showed us an earlier stage of these characters' relationship in her 2003 Honorable Mention poem, "You Haven't Killed Anyone". Taken together, these poems make an even more fascinating picture.
Other repeat winners this year are Honorable Mentions Robert Hill Long and Jude Nutter, who won first prize in our 2004 and 2005 contests, respectively, and Viktor Tichy, one of our 2004 Honorable Mentions. Several more familiar names appear among the finalists. Since the contest is judged completely anonymously, we aren't sure what this means, except that we've discovered some consistently talented writers.
Thanks again to all of you who submitted such compelling reflections on war and peace. We began this contest five years ago to encourage original thinking, informed by history and literature, about the conflicts that continue to afflict our world. If we have succeeded at all, it's due to the talent and wisdom of our contestants. I look forward to reading more of your fine work next year.
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of the 2006 winning entries.
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the winning entries from other years.
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