Writer best known for her novels, who submitted work at the last minute ‘on impulse’, takes £5,000 award for single poem ‘The Malarkey’

Read the winning poem here

Picking through the 10,467 anonymous entries for this year’s National Poetry Competition, judges and poets Ruth Padel, Daljit Nagra and Neil Rollinson were sure of their winner, “The Malarkey”, which Padel described as “completely arresting in its quietness [and] hidden strength”. When they discovered it was by Orange prize-winning novelist and poet Helen Dunmore, “we all threw our hats in the air”, said Padel.

The haunting, carefully structured poem about loss sees an unidentified narrator asking “Why did you tell them to be quiet / and sit up straight until you came back? / The malarkey would have led you to them … You looked away just once / as you leaned on the chip-shop counter, / and forty years were gone.” Dunmore, whose novel about an incestuous sibling relationship during the 1930s, A Spell of Winter, won the inaugural Orange prize, is best-known for her fiction, but has published nine collections of poetry. She hadn’t entered the National Poetry Competition “for many, many years”, and submitted “The Malarkey” at the last minute, just before the deadline closed, “on an impulse”.

Hearing that she’d won the £5,000 prize, which is awarded this evening, left her “in a state of ecstasy”, she said. “I was standing in a cold car park putting things into the back of the car [when I heard]. It was very emotional, very moving,” she said. “I’d written the poem shortly before sending it in – it’s quite a tightly organised poem, in terms of the rhymes and the near-rhymes. It’s very much about containment … I’ve written very few poems over the past four years … but now I have the feeling that there is the kernel of a new collection. It is a great boost to receive the prize – a confirmation.”

Padel said that she’d liked “The Malarkey” “right from the beginning”. “It hit me with its language – ‘the malarkey would have led you to them’ is an extraordinary thing to say. It reminded me of [CP] Cavafy,” she said. “It’s very adept but quite unobtrusive – it’s not a flashy poem at all, but there’s a lot of integrity to it. It shows what a poem can do.”

The National Poetry Competition, founded and run by the Poetry Society, was set up in 1978 and has been won in the past by poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, Tony Harrison and Padel herself. The second prize of £1,000 was won by Ian Pindar for Mrs Beltinska in the Bath. Pindar’s first collection of poetry, Emporium, will be published next year. Third prize of £500 was won by John Stammers, whose third collection is published in April, for Mr Punch in Soho.

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