Anyone who has ever attended the annual poetry festival in Strokestown will be grieving its loss this year. The Strokestown experience is unique, bringing together, as it does, poets from all corners of the globe and an equally global attendance by lovers of poetry. (They are, mirabile dictu, often one and the same!) It is characterised by a deep seriousness, a deep love of fun and laughter and a dedication to poetry that sees a good attendance for the first readings of the day on the Sunday morning of the festival, despite any exploration of the town's eminent watering holes the previous night.
It is a particular sorrow that visits me as judge of the Percy French competition, as the year 2020 is the centenary of the death of the great man. We had planned to mark it in a special way, but Covid-19 put paid to that. And so, I judged the poems without the benefit of audience reaction and simply read the shortlisted poems out loud to myself, as the best entries in this category must sound good when recited.
There was a large entry and it's heartening to see how many poets out there have a real grasp of rhythm, rhyme and a sense of the comic. Surprisingly few poems made an incursion into the world of politics. On second thoughts, maybe that's not surprising. I wasn't expecting the frequency with which I came across poems whose theme was internet dating! But there were plenty of delightful surprises to be had along the road and it was tough to make the call for a one, two, three. I did it, though.
In third place is 4864, it is only now I learn that this is Flob Robertson. Shaken is an entry that needs to be read aloud to get its full impact. It's characterised by a driving, urgent rhythm, some inspired rhyming and the whole builds breathlessly to a comic climax. It's a list poem executed with great gusto.
In second place is The Man from Katmandu, written by Theodor Bernard Küng. The permutation of rhymes that the poet calls on for the two simple syllables oo and im is dazzling. This poem is a real tour de force by a master wordsmith. No repetition creeps in and one reads or listens with incredulity as the inventiveness continues, stanza after stanza. The story told is ludicrous. Farcical. And very funny.
And the first place goes to poem 4578, written by Celine Naughton. It's called Ode to Mná na hÉirean by the Ghost of Matt Talbot and it is a concrete poem. The rebuke of the women of Ireland for their feckless drinking is wittily presented in the shape of a wine glass. The poem begs to be read aloud and it's a beautifully crafted diatribe in the voice of the late Matt Talbot. He accuses the women of Ireland of being the seventh greatest drinkers in the world, drunk as skunks. It's an impassioned plea, with scientific backing, for them to stop damaging their health and he urges them to pour the booze down the drain. Why? Because he loves them. The pure Dublin twang of Matt Talbot's voice comes across, the rhymes are clever and the rhythm speeds up as he gets increasingly frustrated. It's a very well-judged comic piece. The overall winner.
This Competition is now closed. The Shortlist has been announced. Due to the cancellation of the festival the winners will be announced on May 3rd at 2pm.
Percy French Prize for Witty Verse 2020
William Percy French (1 May 1854 – 24 January 1920) was born at Cloonyquin House, near Elphin Co. Roscommon, only a few miles from Strokestown. He was one of Ireland’s most popular songwriters and entertainers in his day, writing primarily in comic verse. He is also well known for his landscape watercolours.
Writers are invited to compete for the Percy French Prize at the Strokestown International Poetry Festival. This is the category where humour is prime. The poems here are intended to be recited to a live audience, so they need to be easily understood on first hearing. And they need to have a lightness of touch combined with a wry take on life. If you want to get a flavour of the sort of tone the judges will be hoping to find, you should read through some of Percy French’s well-loved verses, or listen to his songs.
Some examples: Are Ye Right There, Michael, Are Ye Right? Abdul Abulbul Amir. Eileen Og. Shlathery’s Mounted Fut.
We don’t want you to ape Percy French, of course, but we hope to find a confident and original entry that raises a laugh and raises the spirits.