Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Joe Hoover, S.J.May 31, 2018

Nearly 1,000 poems poured in this year for America’s annual Foley Poetry Contest from writers of all ages. Entries were postmarked from all over the world: Tunisia, India, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Germany, Botswana, Cameroon, New Zealand, Israel, Iraq, Thailand and, of course, the United States.

Several of the poems, whether they made the final cut or not, contained wonderful lines or phrases that were poignant, funny or simply rang true.

   God is the net under the Golden
   Gate Bridge.
   I remember the first time you
   bested me in a match.
   I was scared that you would win,
   and equally scared that you wouldn’t.

          Each year I mean to see
          when Winter hands the earth
          back to Spring.

         Keep praying, and go to church.
         I’m always beside you,
         but also,
         you’re on your own.

         where’s the rehab in a broken mind
         left alone feasting on itself?

Some poems dealt, as they do every year, with current events, such as school shootings, refugees, opioid addiction, violence against black men and U.S. prison culture.

The most discouraging poem we received was “Ruination.” It began: “I swim in the black river/ and wash my sins in the oil/ of death. I bathe in the melted poles/ and sing among the gmos.It continued in that vein.

Once in a while a poem’s cover letter had the makings of a strong poem in itself. This is because, I think, the letters are often more freely written, unconcerned with being good or worthy.

“I was a 20-year league bowler who scored a 259 clean game/630 series.”

“[the poet] hopes to eventually write something as beautiful as the song ‘Africa’ by Toto.”

“My great-grandmother had a floor to ceiling glass display case in the far corner of her 200-year-old tobacco farmhouse. This is where she kept a collection of painted porcelain dolls and figurines. They absolutely terrified me. Patterned lace circled the necks around pink inflated cheeks that would make me sick if I stared for too long.”

“The following words were said to me after I gave some of my poetry to my mother to read: ‘This is sick! You belong in an insane asylum!’ It took me 32 years to finally put pen to paper again.”

“I spent my whole day on this, so pretty please, pick me as the winner.”

That one came from a 12-year-old girl. It was not a winner. A poem also came in from a member of the Little Sisters of the Poor. It did not make the cut either. I had to reject a 12-year-old’s poem and a poem from a Little Sister of the Poor. Just sit with that for a moment.

Dealing with the winning poem, “Whales,” by Richard Lewis, was not so distressing. Chosen from a final batch of 25 with the help of the poets Shannon Camlin Ward and Emma Winters, the poem managed to draw out a wise and lovely metaphor all the way, 26 lines, without apology or strain.

The runners-up, to be published in subsequent issues, are “I’m Never Told of Family Funerals,” by George Rappleye; “Only Grain and Goats,” by George Longenecker; and “e.g. sublimation,” by Jasmine Throckmorton.

As long as America keeps running this contest, I imagine we will keep getting a bundle of poems sent in every year. And thank God. Sometimes poems tell the truth about the world better than anything else can.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

The latest from america

Elizabeth Cullinan's literary output was not prodigious—but her memorable characters and close attention to the Irish-American culture in which she lived made her a prominent fiction writer in the '70s and '80s.
James T. KeaneApril 16, 2024
Pope Francis and his international Council of Cardinals continued their discussions about the role of women in the church, listening to women experts, including a professor who spoke about how culture impacts women’s roles and status.
For Bonaventure, to eat spiritually is to approach eating the Eucharist both with faith and ultimately with the affection of charity in one’s heart.
Being a member of the “I don’t know club” means you will be attacked by both sides. It does not mean you have nothing to say.
Thomas J. ReeseApril 16, 2024