The opening night of each Aldeburgh Poetry Festival is about young poets stepping into the spotlight and taking the applause that their poetry so richly deserves.
The judges of the Suffolk Young Poets Competition received 1067 entries from 41 schools, from poets ranging in age from 6-17.
They chose 11 winning poems, with 10 Highly Commended and 25 Commended poems.
The Hardiman Scott Cup was presented to Occold Primary School for the best overall entry. In his acceptance speech the headteacher remarked that they are a school ‘where the children love to write.’ One of his pupils writes ten poems a week, he said.
Thomas Lux would have approved of the first poem, ‘The Fridge’ by James Choi (13). A praise poem that starts with a deadpan pun (‘I like fridges because they’re cool’) and proceeds to grow ever more fantastical: ‘I bit my fridge and it tastes like/ Ivanovic and now I feel like Suarez’.
Lilith Hudson’s (15) poem has a deceptive title: ‘Boring Bowl Ballad’, being neither boring, nor, strictly speaking, a ballad: ‘This bowl’s a drum,/ This one a cymbal,/ One is a hat and these two are earmuffs.’
I love these young poets’ playfulness, their lack of fear, the joy they take in their spiralling metaphors.
Javine Kimani’s (10) poem describes a meeting with a dragon. I loved the twist in the tail (sorry) of its last line as she catches a glimpse of ‘a violet smudge of his leathery hide’. ‘Violet smudge’. Leathery hide’. These are phrases you can spend your whole day relishing.
Anyone that writes about cricket bats already has me signed on the dotted line, and Joe MacGregor (12) is no different, with his marvellous ‘Cherry from a thick edge through/ Gully.’ That phrasing and that brilliantly placed line break are as good as Peter Carpenter.
Niles Schilder’s (11) poem about ‘The Ditch’ is disturbing, in a the tradition of the best traditions of spooky writing. It reminded me a little of the short stories of Kevin Crossley-Holland. ‘The slow climb to reality’ is a fine phrase on which to end the poem, as it takes the reader into a whole new area of interpretation and meaning. Wonderful stuff.
I adored William Evan Sheppard’s (8) ‘The Field of Cats’ (another knock-out title), with its sad and touching final lines sending me back to the beginning for another look at what he is up to: ‘In a nearby garden/ I hear a lonely dog.’
‘Hovering at Low Altitude’ is a tour de force of a poem by Jacob Simmons (17), tackling the difficult and necessary subject of the First World War and giving it a superb, everyday twist: ‘I am not here amongst the cruel, cold screech of bullets./ I am flying west towards the field where I spent most of my childhood/ playing football with my friends.’ This is a poem of great phrase-making and real ambition: ‘I know the owner’s son, from Boxing Club,/ who slips me a bag of batter-crispies’.
The youngest prizewinner of the evening was Olly Stacey (6), who delivered his dramatic monologue ‘The Russian Doll’ with quiet confidence. It is five lines long: ‘I can get smaller and smaller./ When you put me back together/ I grow to the right size./ My secrets are inside me./ I have flowers on my dress.’ This is perfect, I think, because Olly shows he has already apprehended that poetry is about transformation through observation: ‘My secrets are inside me.’
Alexander Webb’s (10) ‘Attic’ is a marvellous, rolling list (‘Cobwebs, thick dust,/ spiders falling like rain’). Like so many of these young poets he has already learned that you can change everything you mean by stopping just at the right time: ‘wooden beams, roof tiles, rot,/ jumps that are nearly impossible.’
It reminded me of other prizewinning lists in the group: Ryan Ellis’s (13) ‘All that is gold to me’ (‘all the marshmallows disappearing’) and Mollie Mason’s (10) ‘My crazy little brother’: ‘When my mum can’t take any/ more my step-dad puts him outside’.
Later in the evening we had a chance to hear the two most recent winners of the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize: Dan O’Brien giving his reading for winning in 2013, and Helen Mort accepting her prize for 2014, with a short and gracious speech. It is worth noting that they both mentioned the encouragement they had felt by coming to Aldeburgh, Helen as a young writer participating in the Jerwood Arts mentoring scheme, and Dan as a ‘moonlighting’ playwright.
The quality of a culture should always be measured by how it treats its young. On the evidence of last night’s reading by these outstanding young poets, the Aldeburgh Poetry Trust has created -with the help of teachers, parents, and schools- a very vibrant culture indeed.