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First world war poem wins National Poetry Competition 2013


Patricia McCarthy wins £5,000 prize and comparisons with Wilfred Own and Siegfried Sassoon

Click here to read the winning poem

A poem inspired by her late mother's stories of the first world war, which has drawn comparisons with Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, has won the poetry journal Agenda's editor Patricia McCarthy the National Poetry Competition.

McCarthy, who has published several poetry collections of her own, beat 13,040 other entries to win the anonymously-judged prize. Her winning poem, "Clothes that escaped the Great War", tells of the plodding carthorse who would take boys away to war, and then return, later, with just their clothes. "These were the most scary, my mother recalled: clothes / piled high on the wobbly cart, their wearers gone," writes McCarthy.

Judges and poets Vicki Feaver, Nick Laird and WN Herbert said they were first struck by the poem's unusual title, but then drawn in by its atmosphere. "We loved the journey it takes – both literally, as the horse and cart piled high with old work-clothes trundles down the lanes, and metaphorically, as these clothes come to represent the ghosts of all the young men lost in the Great War," said Feaver. "It follows on from the wonderful poems written by poets like Owen and Sassoon about their war experience, to show the grief of the women left behind."

McCarthy said winning the £5,000 prize was "just extraordinary". "I've never even won a raffle. I don't go in for competitions – the only other time I did was decades back, when I got runner-up," she said. "But I'm really down on my finances – I edit Agenda, and was really struggling, and thought this was probably better than a gamble on the horses. I'm just delighted ... I am very honoured to win with this particular poem as it is a small part of our oral history, transcribed here into a poem – which will now live on."

She was inspired to write it, she said, by her mother, who lived to be nearly 100. "She was a tiny girl in the First World War, living in a little market town in Yorkshire," said McCarthy. "She remembered this old horse, who would collect all the young fresh lads from the farms, and would come back with their old dungarees piled high … She gave me the poem, really."

The National Poetry Competition, for a previously unpublished poem, has been running since 1978, and has been won in the past by Carol Ann Duffy, Jo Shapcott and Tony Harrison. Second place this year went to Jane Draycott for "Italy to Lord" (£2,000), and third place to John Freeman for "My Grandfather's Hat" (£1000).

Click here to read Patricia McCarthy's winning poem

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