On Having to Choose Only Three Out of a Whole Rainbow of Wonderful Sonnets

23rd June 2016
5 min read
8th December 2020

The time has come. Ruth Padel, prize-winning poet and guest judge of our Sonnet Writing Competition, has chosen her two runners-up and overall winner. Without further ado, over to Ruth to talk us through her decision...

On having to choose only three out of a whole rainbow of wonderful sonnets.This was a very hard decision. 

 There was so much rich work, with really accomplished cadence, original thought and powerfully concentrated feeling and intelligence packed into the poems. I read that it was really hard to leave any of them behind. There was lovely imagery, shadows ‘pleated’ against a couple sleeping together in the dark, TV screens flashing in an electrical shop against ‘a gauze of rain’, and lively double entendres: walnut-halves ‘gift-wrapped in membrane’, laid out before a ‘surgeon’s knife’, spring as the ‘shy blond visitor who stopped by one weekend in April but refused to sit on our knees.’ There were also poignant new angles and approaches to both the Shakespeare poem invoked and to individual lives. 

To honour Shakespeare’s sense of the moment, I kept to poems that were written in language we speak today - no archaisms like “nigh” – and were recognisably of the world we live in now. It was very hard, as I said, to leave others out, but these are the three poems I picked and even then it was terribly hard to order them, they are all so good.

3rd Prize 

Incident by Robert Maslen

This had an interesting narrative drive and though it is not exactly clear what happens it does not matter, the voice is so confident, humane with a slight smile in it, and a lovely control. There is an economically swift pace, no wasted words, a humorous convincing way with different registers, and a mysterious but vivid evocation of a social landscape: a really enjoyable, effective poem.

It happens to me in a school yard. Words

come roiling up like flies in the tundra.

There's been another incident. And though

the penitent parka pulses with hooded sobs

they hand me the whip. But O, I hear that song,

the song of David. Do not be far from me

for trouble is near and there is no one to help.

And my blood is my blood, and what will I do

but carry her gaze from the ground to meet my own,

and harbour her limp form against my neck

and sweep her out and away? It is spring, 

all said and done – at the chicken-wire shrine

our mother blooms toss away their colours

with abandon, then bow and die for us.

2nd Prize 

 Sonnet C by Rachel Burns

I loved the intimacy of the voice here, addressing a ‘you’ which might be the poet herself, taking us right into the PlayStation on the son’s bedroom floor - a very original take-off point for a Shakespearian sonnet - and a brilliant end which celebrates the fact that writing a poem is an act of discovery. Even with a rhymed couplet at the end, you never know where it will end up. 

You read about the Pillars of Creation

a place where a star is born

in a magazine next to the PlayStation

on your son’s bedroom floor ― amongst torn

Notelets and tangled headphones and chord.

The tinny sound of an old Verve song,

... don’t sound like no sonnet, My Lord.

The view from your son’s window ― long

sky ashen-white, trees spider webbed and stark

a blank canvass, days dull and lifeless

strength sapped, hurtling towards the same dark

the same hum drum of the keyboard’s caress

the monotonous screen, a little white lie ―

his heart beating fast, as he writes across the sky.

1st Prize 

 Silver Surfing by Jan Moran Neil

A lovely poem, with a beautifully confident voice, starting in medias res as Shakespeare sometimes does too, and a vivid, beautifully contemporary take on the universal feeling addressed by Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30. Lively, alert, convincing language.  

So quite suddenly I Google your name.

And there you are. Whisper of what you were.

Oh, how I want you back again the same.

Not bald and at odds with the camera.

This is not the face that lives in my head.

Or the boy who surfed distant, dazzling seas.

No. This is what I would have had instead:

a faded photocopy creased like me.

Two spools of thought cannot be reconciled:

the past that glides, the one that’s on this screen.

Whichever way both images are lined

with my not knowing the one in between.

Inadequate pixels and lines that flow

show nothing of my ebb. I let it go.

About the winner:

Jan Moran Neil www.janmoranneil.co.uk has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. Her poetry collection: Red Lipstick and Revelations is to be published by Indigo Dreams in 2017. She was trained at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and is a widely published and performed playwright on the London Fringe and Masambe Theatre, Baxter, Cape Town. Her poetry has been commended and published in many anthologies in the UK and South Africa: New Contrast, Lunar Poetry, Four Corners (Oxford University), South, Reach Poetry, Sarasvati

A big congratulations to Jan, Rachel and Robert and all those who took the time to pen a sonnet! Keep your eyes peeled on our Competitions page for future opportunities. 

Writing stage



I agree with you. Archaic writing is very much Shakespeare. Had I been judging poetry related to Shakespeare. I would indeed be looking for

nigh, thee, thou, etc. Also, iambic pentameter is not truly convinced in these sonnets.

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alice lynch

Although I congratulate the winners, I do feel a little bit peeved that Ruth says that she has automatically excluded everyone who interpreted the competition guidelines literally. I wrote a response from Shakespeare's time, from 'the dark lady'.

I'm not upset at not winning, but I am cross that the competition guidelines were so inaccurate, as to mislead me completely. I didn't use old fashioned words such as 'neath (knowing that this was likely to make it unacceptable even if I was supposed to be writing in that time). Can we have a competition to write imaginatively, and actually do something to do with Shakespeare next time please? Note: Guidelines for all poetry competitions are ridiculously vague. Please, please could the competition organisers be more specific about what they want? I'm talking about form here, not just language.

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Pippa Roberts

Great Poems and worthy winners.

I first started writing poetry before moving on to fiction. It was always an adventure to put a creative idea into verse. I wrote and self-published a collection of seventy-five poems spanning a period of twenty years. "The Lady of the Sea" was my first poem and "Master of the Field" was my second.

I was inspired by a number of poets from Shakespeare, to W B Yeats, John Keats and Longfellow, Robert Burns, John Milton.

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