Meet the winner of the 2023 Telegraph Poetry Competition
It was a close race. Hundreds of Telegraph readers saddled up their similes and gave mixed metaphor a few strokes of the whip for our third annual poetry competition (this year’s theme being “animals”). Many fell at the first hurdle.
A few looked like champions right up until the final furlong.
But now, after a steward’s inquiry with my fellow judge and poet Victoria Kennefick to ensure none of the racers had a chemical advantage (laudanum, absinthe, etc), we’re pleased to announce that we have a winner.
Rosamund Taylor, 33, saw off all rivals – by a nose – with her poem Why Whistlejacket?, inspired by George Stubbs’s famous painting of the Marquess of Rockingham’s racehorse. Taylor first saw the life-size portrait at the National Gallery as a teenager, visiting family in London, and was spellbound.
“It’s enormous,” she tells me, down the line from her home in Ireland. “It dominates the gallery that it’s in – it’s really hard to look at anything else because it almost feels like there’s an actual horse in there.” In her recent writing, she found her imagination returning to that painting. “I’m always trying to find new ways of looking at animals. What made the painting speak to me is that I want to resist personifying them – it’s hard not to because you do develop a bond with them quite quickly. But with Stubbs’s painting, I got the feeling that he was just standing back and letting the horse be itself.”
Taylor has spent much of her adult life working with animals – first in shelters, then as a nurse in veterinary surgeries. “I didn’t have any official qualification, but I did all the odd jobs – like taking X-rays of snakes and birds.
“Once we had a dog brought in that had eaten just an enormous amount of toffee, and its teeth were absolutely glued together. I spent about 45 minutes trying to unstick this dog!”
After a few years working in veterinary practices in Edinburgh, while writing the occasional poem in her spare time, Taylor decided to move back to Ireland and dedicate herself to poetry.
“For a long time, I thought poetry wasn’t a serious form of writing,” she says. “I saw novelists and people who wrote prose as very serious writers, and people who wrote poetry as just dabbling.” But then she took a class with the poet Ruth Padel “which made me realise that you can just dedicate all your creative life to writing poetry”.
These days, Taylor is a full-time writer, living in the coastal town of Dún Laoghaire, near Dublin, with her wife Milena and their three cats, Fifi, Selkie and Myszka. Devoting more time to her writing has paid off: her first collection of poems, In Her Jaws, came out to much acclaim in May last year.
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, its clever couplets cantering across the page,” she says. “Taylor’s writing is fresh, confident, and original, particularly in creating a very sensual experience for the reader, ‘the taste of turf...the scent of a mare in his nostrils’. Taylor amplifies and expands the painting’s meaning, while creating a work of art, and a Whistlejacket all her own. It’s a poem, and a painting, that I will return to again and again.”
On The Telegraph website, you can watch a video of Dame Harriet Walter reciting Why Whistlejacket? “This poem ticks so many of my boxes,” she says: “A personal particularity of words, some sensuous alliteration and close rhymes and an immersion in place and pace that in turn immerses the reader.”
At telegraph.co.uk/poetry you can also read the other poems that made our shortlist. Among hundreds and hundreds of entries, there were plenty that raised a smile – I chuckled at Telegraph crossword fan Frank Pearce’s ode to the okapi, a beast “of interest only to cruciverbalists” – but we had to narrow it down to a final four runners-up.
Alex Faulkner’s Crane Fly, a witty, rhymed tribute to the short-lived insect, was a reminder that the best light verse – like the best comedy – doesn’t keep you hanging around too long for the final line.
Sharon Ashton’s Dying Swan seduced me with its sheer musicality – “down, boned and tight-sewn” – as she portrays the bird’s last moments. Just read these lines aloud: “this shift to winged other/ this stepping of flesh to gradated feather”.
In Elizabeth Soule’s Creature – a compelling flight of gothic imagination, with shades of Sylvia Plath – the poet creates a kind of Frankenstein’s monster of bric-a-brac. It’s an upcycled golem, using “splintered fence posts/ to fashion a stiffened spine”, a “wire coat-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 giving an added kick to the tight-knit rhymes.
Anyone with a funnybone would smile at the sight of the titular crustacean in his crown, a tiny pink despot carried around in a palanquin by two mice.
Poor old King Prawn’s ego takes a blow when he realises he’s not the only reigning critter (don’t forget the Emperor Palanquin and Kingfisher).
I’ve spent the past few weeks reading every single entry, and I’ve appreciated the effort and imagination that went into them all. It was particularly 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 sound advice for emerging writers: “Just the act of sending something out, even if it never gets any further than that, is a really important step on the writing journey.
“The more you send out, the more confident you get.”
After all, Whistlejacket didn’t win his first race at Newmarket in 1755 – but returned the very next year and galloped to victory.
The winning poem:
The shortlisted poems: