Binsted Arts Poetry Competition 2016
In the 2016 competition, two hundred and sixteen original unpublished poems were submitted on the theme:
A way through the woods
The winners received their prizes at the poetry evening during the Binsted Arts Weekend,
in Binsted Church, West Sussex, BN18 0LL, on Saturday 11 June at 7.30.
The Winners and those with Commendations read out their poems,
supported by a commentary from Maggie Sawkins.
The competition judge, Maggie Sawkins, won the Ted Hughes Award for
New Work in Poetry 2013, for her Live Literature production ‘Zones of Avoidance’.
Rose Bray, from Steyning, West Sussex, for ‘Raising the Bowman’
Margaret Jennings, from Waterlooville, Hampshire, for ‘Bramble’
Ken Sulllivan, from Reading, for ‘Congo Boy’
Michael Langrish, from Walberton, West Sussex, for 'Song Thrush'
Phil Vernon, from Tunbridge Wells, for '1955'
Sue Davies, from Fareham, Hampshire, for 'Wytham Woods'
Dana Littlepage, from Exeter, for 'A Way through the Woods'
Geoffrey Winch, from Felpham, West Sussex, for 'Lignivores'
Jenna Plewes, from Alvechurch, Worcs, for 'Private Woods. No Trespassing.'
Claire Pankhurst, from Brighton, for 'Island'
Mark Haworth-Booth, from Swimbridge, Devon, for 'Trespass'
Pat Murgatroyd, from the Isle of Wight, for 'Return to the Forest'
Malcolm Watson, from Hull
Raising the Bowman by Rose Bray
If her father had not fancied mushrooms for breakfast
she would not have gone into the woods at Binsted
to forage for the pink gilled treats
between the fallen trees.
If the early sun had not been shining
on the clearing where she knelt,
the archer may not have seen
her simple grace
and sought her hand in marriage
and she would not have borne his son.
If he had not been middle aged
he may not have been so patient with the child,
making a small bow for his play
as soon as he could walk,
bending, shaping each yew branch
as he outgrew the other.
If the boy had not grown so tall
and become a master bowman,
he would not have been a chosen one
to serve on Henry’s flagship.
His mother would not have stood on Portsmouth’s Hard
waving off her firstborn son
as the Mary Rose sailed on the morning tide.
She could not have guessed,
amongst the nit combs, the wooden bowls
beside his scattered arrows,
her son would lie
five hundred years
rocked gently on his bed of sand.
Bramble by Margaret Jennings
( Blackberry brambles can be stripped of their thorns and used to fashion baskets and other useful artefacts)
The first man clips off her thorns one by one,
turns her placid and tractable,
cuts her off close to the roots,
twists her into something useful,
something of his own making.
The second man threads her through a hole
in a tin which tears off her thorns,
shreds her pristine flesh.
This task makes a sound like a strimmer,
reshaping, remoulding, destroying.
He puts string in her carcass.
The last man leaves the thorns that defend her,
allows her blossom to feed the bees nectar
and helps her grow the fruit
that might bloody his fingers,
applauds as she strives for the tops of trees,
rejoices as she waves at the sun,
becoming all she was meant to become.
Congo Boy by Ken Sullivan
Seep of wet through toes and sound
of breathing, heavy as night, no dipping
stars or wind to warp.
The forest listens, Mother said.
I am sweet and the soot black waits
for me, a hungry, singing mouth.
I take the forest road.
Sliding mud to the river and then, like a tree,
I listen to the men talk.
Planning, joking me with threat of
teeth, guns at a cocky
jaunt and glowing tobacco tip.
I try to remember. Oh Mother!
They beat it from me if I don’t
make it up good and quick.
A slow walk to freedom,
a way through the woods,
sliding mud red to the river.
Ducking lights of the camp
fires, across the field of rice
and buffalo bird.
Under the eyes of the dead,
the night owl cries to the crocodile.
Snap of bean sticks.
Old man of the river, I hear you.
Mother, I hear you.
Mountains, you are calling. I hear you.
Onward the red path, the slow way
through the woods, listening
like a tree, inching a way to freedom.
Song Thrush by Michael Langrish
In the woods alone
- or so I thought -
until, upon a stone,
my eye was caught
by a memory of childhood:
upon a bush.
Bright of eye,
his gaze upon mine
upon what I meant;
the snail within his bill,
half housed already
by relentless steady flicks
against the wall -
Later it is not my eye
that knows he’s near
but now I hear
his song, his sigh,
as, when a boy, was I;
and now - so rare -
even more a thing of joy
in that cool
1955 by Phil Vernon
i.m. Richard Langridge *
Magpies love a rabbit halfway dead –
to peck its weeping eyes, disdain the rest
then nonchalantly pause and lift their heads,
hop down and pick their way along the vale
of pain to blind and leave undead, the next.
Romans loved rabbits, too: their settlers sailed
with does and bucks, as well as laws and peace.
We love them less – we've placed them on a trail
where gun-green birds glint in the April sun,
imperious at their casual charnel feast.
We met the halfway dead, half hidden among
the dead, as we advanced towards Berlin.
I lift the stricken rabbits one by one,
take cover from their blank and aimless stare,
then break their necks and set them down within
the shadowed margins of the coppice, where
last autumn's leaves lie cold and half decayed.
The magpies scatter but they reappear.
I'm tired of asking if this horror show
would have me save or kill, or kill to save,
and – as I watch myself deal every blow –
if Romans' clearer view of dying made
them kinder. Perhaps the feasting magpies know.
* Lt. Langridge helped liberate Belsen concentration
camp in 1945. Mixomatosis was introduced to Britain
on his farm in Kent in 1953. Two years later,
he shot himself, by which time the number of rabbits
in the country had declined by 95%.
Wytham Woods by Sue Davies
We left Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds playing
on the turntable, the music splintering
to jazzy riffs of songbirds, stepped out barefoot
on tussock grass and took the gentle path
through the woods. Tilted forward, you toddled ahead,
pale as a wild orchid just sprouted from the earth
not yet made solid by light, unlike the throng
of small creatures – ants staggering, bundles in pincers,
earwigs, and stag beetles, the trees skiddling
their leaves. Your insistent This? This? - a revelation
that everything is given a name – tried patience.
But you gave generously, gubs for celandines,
and skitty-skits for bluebells, my borrowed Pussy-
willow and Catkins on your breath nevertheless
charmed against the silence of dark hollows.
Pockets lumpy with woodland relics, we climbed
the hill lording over the meadows, the roads like
mourning bands wavering to the troubled
island of Cyprus where finely turned to little else –
neither the squint of sea through the olive trees,
nor the Bee-eater’scry on the wire, but the deranged
ram of clouds, enemy planes swooping low
when we ran for cover in the lemon grove.
A Way through the Woods by Dana Littlepage
My parents wait by windows,
watching deer shape-shift
the leafless space between the trees.
Taupe grey, the forest walks.
We wake. Sip coffee, eat eggs
off old maple planks
my father planed. Forty years
go by: the woods, our witness.
Water moccasin, cicada dreams.
When my parents leave
the oaks bear down,
Acorns drum on slate.
The blue owl sings.
I go back to find the house
enclosed by sumac, pines.
By my parents’ bedroom window
a doe and buck sleep.
I kneel in leaf meal, touch
the earth, still warm. Fragrant
with furred rain, the sweet radish
whiff of something I cannot name.
Their lives. The mystery of red moon
rise. Maples’ winter arms snow-sleeved.
Tonight I find my parents out
in the cold for one last walk.
A neighbour has laid boards
down through the woods.
My father’s wheel chair sinks.
My mother’s knees are stunned
by fallen trees.
Her heart cannot bear---
And so they leave. Again.
Back in their city flat,
my father googles whippoorwills.
They listen to bull frogs mate,
fall asleep in chairs, the woods
alive inside them.
Lignivores by Geoffrey Winch
we harvest trees
and re-shape their wood
to feed our exotic desires
we rank as waste
broken branches and twigs in bud
then consume these with our fires
we burn the fingers of the gods
who planted trees in our
of another breed
cultivate a hundred million seeds
these friends of trees
as if noble g
replace the trees on which we feed
their trees are promissory notes:
future generations will inherit
woods through which to walk
yet as we walk
through our woods
of grubbed-up roots and ashes
we have a clear view
of where we’re heading
while the friends of trees
have no clear view
of the future or understanding
of our intentions
Private Woodland. No Trespassing by Jenna Plewes
No Access – black letters on a lopsided gate,
unhinged, padlocked, chained shut.
No-one will follow her here, a woodpecker
drums a broken heartbeat, a thin rain roll
off the needles of hemlock and pine.
There is no path, animal tracks meander,
double back, disappear. Fears
burrow under bramble wires, thoughts
step-change, root where they land, wildlings
rustle the dry leaves of her days, wood anemones
thread small white beads through her sleep.
She places one foot in front of another,
waits for light to break through the canopy
guide her back to the gate.
Island by Claire Pankhurst
a bracelet of rocks
circles the forest with charms
of heron, seal and otter
surrounds the green melt
of moss and pine needles
gashed with red cedar
in the silence
fanned by the eagle’s wing
there is always something falling
ready to fall
snow still fastens to bark and pine cone
but a startle of buds
interrupts the comfort of frost
branches push against the sky
break the light into fragments of
grey glass just the right size
for birdsong to fall through
to seep into bracken
settle under stones
a coded message
its letters dissolved in leaf stain
Trespass by Mark Haworth-Booth
OK, if I get stopped
I’ll just point to my binoculars
and say I think I’m lost.
Whoever owns this land
must be selling the logs
in that old shed beside
the dead quadbikes
and the full-length bath –
A barrel swings in the breeze –
DEOSAN RED LABEL HYPOCHLORITE –
now a bin for pheasant feed.
Further up the track,
a little tunnel shelter.
Inside it a spring trap.
This old quarry is a dump
for plastics, white goods,
cisterns, oil drums.
What’s at the top of the field?
A video-den in brown
and green – camouflaged –
but the roof is off. TV,
kettle, gameboy, torch,
Squeeze through a wire fence.
This place has an earth mound
about the size of a horse
topped by a china book –
In loving memory of someone –
and wilted roses in a crock.
There’s part of a lavatory stand,
the bulbous white piping –
there’s always a lavatory stand.
This is owners’ nature.
We do what we like here.
Our property. Our affair. We can.
Return to the Forest by Pat Murgatroyd.
Long before, they’d drained the blood from the last black boar
over centuries of beech nuts on the forest floor.
Ferns unfurl, a man approaches the forest asleep,
crossing meadows where he used to holler home sheep.
Round his neck a tusk, a trophy claimed by grandf'er Dan
when the men beat a path, when they ran
chasing squealing piglets through the wood,
sharpened poles to spike suckling sows. Smear their blood.
The silvered tusk protects the youngster in an ice-bound land
where cold grips men's thoughts with an iron hand.
Day after day he flays flesh, soused in oil-stink, hardly breathes,
hears night screams of glaciers, dreams of light through leaves.
He scrapes his dreams into scrimshaw tales where bear and boar
cavort with whales on the woodland floor.
Ferns unfurl, a man wanders forest paths in his sleep.
Hollering for home, he dreams and weeps.
He craves the truffle-scented moss, grass verges where once more
in a scatter of what might be fallen trunks appears a bristled boar.
It snouts the ground with the lopped smile of a broken tusk
like the one round his neck that he grasps for luck.
Maggie Sawkins comments on the competition:
A Way through the Woods
'Tread softly because you tread on my dreams,' wrote W B Yeats in his beautiful poem, 'Had I the Heavens Embroidered Cloths'. Judging a poetry competition is an onerous task. So firstly I would like to thank the 140 poets who submitted a total of 216 poems. I want you to know that I became acquainted with all of them.
I imagine there are as many ways of writing a poem as there are of navigating one's way through a wood. The poems that grabbed my attention were those that dared to stray from the well-trodden path, the ones that dared to sprout wings and fly.
It was fascinating to see how the theme was tackled. Little Red Riding Hood and wolves appeared in various guises. There were poems that used the theme to explore mental states: the labyrinthine worlds of dementia, mental ill health, and sexual abuse. Others addressed ecological issues while some used mythology and folk lore to find a way in. There were many interesting settings from Binsted itself to Austria and Sweden and even the Congo.
The poet Douglas Dunn advised his students that 'a good poem should work in the mind, in the heart and in the ear.' I would add that a good poem should also work on the eye. The process of judging, especially of poetry, can never be entirely objective. But I believe there are some givens. Firstly, does the way it's been laid out on the page appeal? Secondly, does the title provide a hook - did the writer even give it a second thought? And, thirdly, what about that vital first line - does it entice you to read on?
I ended up with three piles. The last was the one I took with me to bed. These were the poems that entered my dreams, the ones I didn't mind waking up to. After a process of close reading and reading out loud the pile had whittled down to 20. I was left with the question: which were the ones I could spend my life with?
What I was looking for was an element of surprise, some clarity of thought, a poem with the ability to move me. Most importantly, did further readings reveal at least another meaning?
The winning poem, 'Raising the Bowman' intrigued me with its gripping first line: 'If her father had not fancied mushrooms for breakfast ...' The following three stanzas continued in the same questioning vein allowing the narrative to unfold slowly. The ending made me want to read the poem all over again. 'Raising the Bowman' succeeds because it creates its own believable world.
I settled on 'Bramble' as a runner up because of its clarity of diction, the way it skipped logically from stanza to stanza, and because subsequent readings offered up another meaning. Like many of you, I imagine, I've been following the saga of Rob and Helen in The Archers. For me this poem captured the zeitgeist of domestic abuse in an original way. That 'Bramble' of the poem could have been Helen!
Choosing the third prize winner was more problematic, and all of the commended poems were strong contenders. The one that won me over was 'Congo Boy'. It was a joy to read out loud and the imagery was surprising. To be honest there were bits of the poem that I wasn't quite sure of, but in the end, I believe, it's what works on the heart that matters.