Contests : War Poetry Contest : Past Winners : 2007 : Judge's Comments
Thanks to everyone who entered our sixth annual War Poetry Contest. This year we received 840 entries of 1-3 poems each. Formal poetry dominated the winners' circle for the first time, with ambitious epics that took creative risks with traditional techniques. War is tragic, wasteful of life, giving birth to atrocities from which writer and reader look away in horror. Yet the extremity of war can also call forth something noble, even starkly beautiful, in human beings pushed past the limits of normal existence. Our winners and finalists captured the multifaceted nature of warfare in memorable, unique stories.
I was immensely pleased to find such skilled formal poets among this year's entrants. The winning authors did not simply imitate outworn romantic styles, but engaged with the classical tradition on a sophisticated level and made it their own. Not content with technical virtuosity for its own sake, they carefully chose (or invented) forms that fit the tone and subject matter of their poems. Musicality is not only the concern of formalists, however. Whether formal or free verse, the winning poems were chosen for their beautiful language and authoritative voice.
Fresh perspectives on well-known events are essential for a poem to advance in the judging. One way to do this is by choosing an unusual narrator, someone with an interesting back-story in her own right, who stands off-center to the conflict and therefore sees things that the conventional wisdom misses. Examples include the child-protagonists in Aliene Pylant's "Girl in the Fire" and Pan Morigan's "Napalm", the dead soldier in Starkey Flythe's "J-P", and the wife of the foreign aid worker in Adrie Kusserow's trio of poems. Kusserow, Patricia Smith, Corrinne Clegg Hales and Chella Courington were among those who explored the intersection of class, race, and violence in incisive and discomforting ways.
Many new names appear in the winners' list this year, another sign that our contest is fulfilling its mission of discovering the best new thinking and writing about warfare. We also welcome back 2004 first-prize winner Robert Hill Long with his second honorable mention, along with past finalists Martin Steele and Brenda Tate.
My first thought upon reading Kyle McDonald's astounding epic "The Rose of Ilium" was that it was impossible for a modern author to have written such a fluent, erudite and dramatic poem in this style—a dozen pages of iambic pentameter couplets worthy of 18th-century luminary Alexander Pope. My second thought was to Google the definitions of "reboant" and "orgulous" because McDonald's vocabulary is as wide-ranging as his imagination. Modeled on Pope's adaptation of the Iliad, "The Rose of Ilium" portrays a fateful battle between the Greek hero Achilles and the Amazon queen Penthesilea, who is fighting for the Trojans. McDonald captures the heroic grandeur of equally matched warriors who lament yet succumb to the fate that made them enemies instead of lovers. This tragedy makes the poem intensely personal and moving, notwithstanding the epic scope of the storyline.
Julian Damanas' "Gasoline" similarly masters challenges that other poets rarely even attempt. Imagine the peak oil crisis as an apocalyptic allegory, narrated in a sinister, exotic, prophetic voice that reminded me of Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" as well as T.S. Eliot's multilingual chorus of voices and genres in "The Waste Land". Damanas evokes the ecstatic frenzy of great powers moving inexorably toward mutual obliteration.
Aliene Pylant's "Girl in the Fire" begins on a more intimate scale with a young girl watching her father build a bonfire, but this small destructive act opens up a chasm that only she can see. In it is contained the whole human potential for violence, which her parents' well-meant but shallow spiritual reassurances cannot contain.
Many thanks to all our entrants, who probed terrible depths to bring back wisdom, compassion and honesty. May these poems remain in our memory and inspire us.
Click here to read all
of the 2007 winning entries.
Click here to read
the winning entries from other years.
Click here for more comprehensive
advice for war poetry contestants.