Press release: 25 March 2009

The Winner of the 31st National Poetry Competition is Christopher James with 'Farewell to the Earth'

       We buried him with a potato in each hand
on New Year’s Day when the ground was hard as luck,
wearing just cotton, his dancing shoes plus
a half bottle of pear cider to stave off the thirst.

In his breast pocket we left a taxi number
and a packet of sunflower seeds; at his feet was
the cricket bat he used to notch up a century
against the Fenstanton eleven.

(Excerpt from ‘Farewell to the Earth’)

Suffolk-based poet Christopher James’s poem ‘Farewell to the Earth’ was chosen as the winning poem of The National Poetry Competition, in the Poetry Society’s centenary year. The judges were poets Brian Patten, Frieda Hughes and Jack Mapanje. What made this poem stand out for the judges out of all 7,500 entries? Brian Patten reflects on what appealed to him: “The idea of burying someone with a potato in each hand and a taxi number in their breast pocket has a dead-pan humour that at first seems rather at odds with the subject matter of Christopher James's poem, ‘Farewell to the Earth’ – which is about the burial of a friend’s father. But one of the marks of a good poet is the ability to turn the private into the universal, and that is what Christopher does in this affectionate poem, in which he takes on the persona of his friend.”

Patten goes on to say that “The poem avoids easy sentiment – in fact it shies away from sentiment, and the sparseness of the language used is one of its strengths. The father is saying farewell to the earth, but he is also merging with it. He is becoming what he loved.”

Christopher is no stranger to winning prizes for his poetry. He has won the Bridport (2002) and the Ledbury poetry prizes (2003 and 2006) and is also the recipient of an Eric Gregory from the Society of Authors. But one of the biggest achievements for any poet is seeing their name added to the prestigious list of National Poetry Competition winners including Carol Ann Duffy, Tony Harrison, Ian Duhig, Jo Shapcott, James Berry and Ruth Padel. As Christopher explains: “If there is an unspoken Grand Slam circuit for poetry prizes, then the National Poetry Competition is definitely Wimbledon – it’s the one everyone dreams of winning. What makes it special is not just the calibre of the judges and the distinguished alumni, it’s the kudos it carries in the poetry world. There may not be the roar of the crowd in your ear, but you know that somewhere out there, whether it is with delight, appreciation, envy or disdain – the poem will be read.”

His poems have appeared in The Rialto, Smiths Knoll, London Magazine, Iota, Magma and other periodicals. His first collection, The Invention of Butterfly, was published by Ragged Raven Press in 2006. Born in Scotland and educated at Newcastle and UEA, James now lives in Suffolk with his wife, young family and a banjo.

The second prize went to London-based poet Charles Evans for his poem ‘Libretto’. He is a published playwright and poet who has won two national playwriting awards. His poems have appeared in The Rialto, The Tablet, The Month, Poetry Life and several anthologies, and he has won awards in local and national poetry competitions.

Clive McWilliam took third prize with his poem ‘Holding On’. He studied Landscape Architecture in Manchester and has worked throughout the UK and abroad. He has won first prize in the Virginia Warbey Prize and his poems have appeared in various magazines.

- ENDS -


Notes to editors

  • The National Poetry Competition was founded in 1978. Prizes of £5000, £1000 and £500 are awarded to the first, second and third-prize winners respectively. The commended poems are awarded £50 each. The winners’ poems will be published in Poetry Review and the winners will read at the Ledbury Poetry Festival this summer.
  • The Poetry Society was founded in 1909. Centenary celebrations gather momentum from April 2009 onwards.
  • The Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition 2009, with judges Daljit Nagra, Ruth Padel and Neil Rollinson will be launched on 14 April 2009. Entrants can enter online, download an entry form at, or send a stamped addressed envelope to Competition Organiser (PR), 22 Betterton Street, London, WC2H 9BX.


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