As always, reading the 300 some poems submitted to the Occasional Verse contest—and spending an afternoon in conversation about the 25 or so on our longlist—was one of the year’s great pleasures. TNQ’s OV contest is unusual in that it’s a poetry contest judged mostly by non-poets, many of them friends and relations of the occasional poet for whom the contest is named. This year they included, alongside TNQ’s lead poetry editor Barb Carter, Nick’s son and surviving daughter, a son-in law and grandson-in-law, two of his granddaughters, and a family friend.
I devoted my introduction to this year’s contest (see issue # 152) to giving a sense of how we, collectively, view the genre, speaking primarily to our sense of occasion. But what do we mean by verse, sometimes considered the country bumpkin of poetry? [For a spirited discussion of this prejudice, see John Barr’s “Is It Poetry or Is It Verse?” on the Poetry Foundation website]. We don’t ourselves consider “verse” a pejorative. I suspect we inclined toward using it in order to open a door to mirth, delight, and celebration alongside the elegies and lamentations that inevitably come our way. Some years our finalists run one way, sometimes another. This year, the times being dark, we had an upsurge of light verse, among them Elanor Sudak”s “In Winter,” the classic Canadian comic complaint about shoveling one’s driveway only to have the snowplow come by and block it in again, a familiar anecdote complicated (as one of our judges pointed out) by our having been told the shoveler is “a lonely man,” a detail that elevates the poem into a reflection on unrequited love.
Then there’s Frances Boyle’s delightful “Comrade Birds” which turns on a misunderstanding, and Lisa Martin’s “Prologue to a Bliss State” which describes the first stirrings of love, “…something so / startling you can see it only after // you have started to believe it is already here.” I’d also put our winning poem, Terence Young’s “Tender Is the Night”, in the category of light verse, not because it’s funny (though it is) but because it’s so delightfully clever in its reversals and its sly allusions to a trio of poems by Keats. It tells the story of someone travelling by boat who, much “like a kid who can’t believe / his room contains a real secret passageway” (a seductive delight all our judges could appreciate), wakens from a nap to discover the ship docking in a strange harbor. To one of our adjudicators (me) the poem felt, at first, like it needn’t be a poem at all, that it was something more like an anecdote dressed up as verse, the rhythm beguiling but the line breaks arbitrary. But then I hit “stout Cortez ” and the line on which the whole poem turns, “silent, upon a peak in Darien” (from “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”) and I saw suddenly that it’s a poem about poetry. The title is taken from Keats as well (“Ode to a Nightingale,” which describes a similar state of half sleep/half waking), and the closing line recalls the famous equation of truth and beauty in “On a Grecian Urn.” Other adjudicators admired the poem’s “diction and deft sense of lining.” One was reminded of “the magical realist Latin American fiction that I read years ago, where some small detail creates a magical, but very real, experience for a character.” Another appreciated “the means by which the poem simultaneously lionizes and humanizes Keats, magically accessing him as fabulous and fallible, as a literary great and a literal human,” also the way the poem reveals “the sublimity of our [own] epic fantasies compared to our mortal humanness—fallible, vulnerable to a medical emergency.” Terence placed second in last year’s Occasional Verse contest with a poem that went on to win the silver medal at the National Magazine Awards. We like to think our contest turns up good call it poems or call it verse, but also good poets.
Second Prize went to Deb O’Rourke for “The Kindness of Port Angeles, 2002,” a poem about the bereaved family of a beached orca that speaks interestingly, and movingly, to the question of whether we anthropomorphize or recognize a truth when we speak of a whale as broken-hearted. The poem makes use of an irregular rhyme scheme to good effect, and the closing lines, where the bereaved whale finally gives in and swims off with his grief, resonate with those of us who remember how, after a period of public mourning, we are left to carry forward as best we can, our grief not so much diminishing as going deeper.
Third place was a three-way tie between Frances Boyle’s “Comrade Birds”, Sarah Yi Mei Tsiang’s “First knock down”, and Rob Taylor’s “Transmission Tower.”
Boyle’s poem is based on the mistaken understanding of a word—“comrades” for “cormorants,” a confusion that leads the poet into a series of comic images of who these comrades might be and what up to. The confusion resolved, the poem ends with some delightful and vivid metaphors for and mythologies around the actual birds. The diction and the subtle humour in this poem are its appeal.
One of our judges cited Sarah Tsiang’s “First knock down” as the one of all the poems on our longlist “to take [her] breath away. One feels the adrenaline of the blood rush of violence, the admitted bonding between men of physical conflict. Yet the poem itself is tender with its extended metaphor comparing fledgling birds in their nakedness to men born helpless in order to become men. The poem takes hold of the reader immediately and doesn’t let go, its lining and imagery giving the dilemma potency.” We had some spirited debates as to the identity of the speaker.
Rob Taylor’s ‘Transmission Tower” brings together “a tension of imagery and content that ultimately recreates the subtle hum of our generational connections.” It’s one of those poems that can draw you even when you don’t fully understand it. Sound, and also touch, it seems, are the “transmission tower” between father and (3 year old) son, the way they create intimacy. That intimacy is set against the father/poet’s loss of his own father. He tells us slant that he is thinking about his own mortality, and about the way we all broker our lives for the next generation.