Our guest judge for this year’s competition is Victoria Kennefick, whose book Eat or We Both Starve won the 2022 Seamus Heaney Prize. “Why Whistlejacket? immediately stood out to me, his clever couplets galloped across the page,” she says. “Taylor’s writing is fresh, confident and original, especially in creating a very sensual experience for the reader, ‘the taste of peat … the scent of a mare in his nostrils’.” Taylor amplifies and expands the painting’s meaning as she creates a work of art and a Whistlejacket all her own. It’s a poem, and a painting, to which I will return again and again.”
Above you can watch a video of Dame Harriet Walter performing Why Whistlejacket? “This poem ticks so many of my boxes,” she says: “A personal particularity of words, some sensual alliteration and tight rhymes and an immersion in place and tempo that in turn immerses the reader.”
Below you can read Why Whistlejacket? along with the other poems that made our shortlist. Among hundreds and hundreds of entries, there were many that raised a smile – I smiled at Telegraph crossword fan Frank Pearce’s ode to the okapi, an animal “of interest only for cross-commitments” – but we had to limit it to a final four runners -up.
Alex Faulkner’s Crane Fly, a witty, rhyming tribute to the ephemeral insect, was a reminder that the best light verse – like the best comedy – doesn’t leave you hanging for the last line too long.
Sharon Ashton’s Dying Swan seduced me with its pure musicality – “down, boned and tight-sewn” – as she portrayed the bird’s last moments. Just read these lines aloud: “this shift to winged others/ this step from flesh to graded feather”.
In Elizabeth Soule’s Creature – a riveting flight of gothic imagination, with shades of Sylvia Plath – the poet creates a kind of Frankenstein’s monster from bric-a-brac. It’s a revamped golem that “uses splintered fence posts to form a stiffened spine”, a “hanger pelvis” and “a birdcage for a ribcage”.
Hannah Gillie’s King Prawn was the only illustrated entry we received – and it’s a delight, her joyous cartoons adding an extra kick to the tight rhymes.
Anyone with a funny bone will smile at the sight of the titular crustacean in its crown, a hot pink despot carried around in a palanquin by two mice.
Poor old King Prawn’s ego takes a hit when he realizes he’s not the only ruling animal (don’t forget the Emperor Palanquin and Kingfisher).
I’ve read every single entry over the past few weeks, and I’ve appreciated the effort and imagination that went into all of them. It was especially encouraging to hear from readers who were inspired by this competition to try their hand at poetry for the first time in years. If you entered and didn’t make the final list, please don’t be disheartened. Rosamund Taylor has some great advice for aspiring writers: “Just the act of sending something out, even if it never gets beyond that, is a very important step on the writing journey.
“The more you send out, the more confidence you gain.”
After all, Whistlejacket didn’t win his first race at Newmarket in 1755 – but returned the following year and galloped to victory.
The winning poem:
Why Whistlejacket? by Rosamund Taylor
(After ‘Whistlejacket’, George Stubbs, 1762)
Not because he is a horse
⠀⠀ but because he makes me nimble,
run weightless through willow grass
⠀⠀and yellow-rattle, a delicious
wildness; because his smooth muscles
⠀⠀ could carry him
to another eternity; because his eyes
⠀⠀ miss the roll over the downhills,
and because he knows the taste of turf
⠀⠀underhead, the scent of a mare
in his nostrils, and because when he charges
⠀⠀to me in the gallery
the nubile women and Persian armies
⠀⠀ next to him gets tough
and because I tried to lose myself
⠀⠀ in the is-ness of things
and Whistlejacket it is is,
⠀⠀ eruption, in
himself; it’s not because he’s a horse
⠀⠀and that’s because horse is all he is.
The short list of poems:
Crane Fly by Alex Faulkner
the crane flies,
⠀⠀ One cannot disapprove
is good until it hits the wall
⠀⠀and then it can’t fly at all
Dying Swan by Sharon Ashton
It doesn’t grow easier,
this shift to winged others,
this step from flesh to graded feather ─
⠀⠀⠀⠀ to scapular
⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ to flee;
this flattening of chest, compression of ribs, pause for breath
as wombs are exchanged for cages of down, deboned and tightly sewn up
to coagulate, release any blood that may drip through quills
through a thousand flexions and extensions of neck,
arches of spine, convolutions of joints as limbs realigned
⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ to tremble
⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ to hang
⠀⠀⠀⠀ to shudder
⠀⠀ until death
on boards becomes moonlit water.
Creature by Elizabeth Soule
Give me your cast-offs.
I’ll pick up your splintered fence posts
to form a stiffened spine,
tibia, fibula and femur,
gangling limbs swinging
of wire coat hanger basin
to patrol the borders of worlds
not on feet of clay
but broken souls.
Snapped pins, bent spears, included pins
will pinch, stab, write
in the future.
The rusty cage
in which your trapped canary
sang his life away
will form the ribs
and I will fill his void with poems
torn from books
which you have thrown aside.
I’ll take the radio you threw away
to keep up with a digital world
and I will make a skull
filled with echoes
of old music, wise discussions
and I will gather fallen feathers
that my creature may have wings
to ride the lightning.