Orpheus and Eurydice poetry competition (2010)

Last year, Iris magazine and Tellus magazine teamed up to run a joint competition for under 18s on the subject of Orpheus and Eurydice. The story of Orpheus and his doomed mission to save his dead wife has long been a favourite of mine, as there are so many things about it that haunt me. Why was he told not to look back? And why did he give in at the last moment? What was the song he sang in the underworld? I also love the contrast between super-humanness of Orpheus, the poet who went where the living cannot go, and whose song was so beautiful that it softened the hearts of Hades and Persephone, and his profound humanity, when he turns around to look just at the last moment.

So it was especially exciting to be able to read through the many entries we received for this competition, and to experience different interpretations of the story. Ailsa from Tellus joined me in judging, as did Maureen Almond, the well-known poet who has written her own wonderful interpretation of the story in poetry.

We were impressed by how inventive and varied the ideas and perspectives were, and how many different styles and descriptions had been used. It really was a treat to read such a high standard of poetry, and while we had to select only three, there were very many excellent entries, and every one made an effort to engage with the myth.

We chose Kevin Ritter as our winner, whose poem will be published in Tellus magazine's second edition this March. Arjun Alim and Bryony Harrower are our very worthy runners-up, and you can read their entries below.

Congratulations to them, and we hope you enjoy reading these as much as we have!

Kings, Queens and Fools
by Bryony Harrower

Together we watch the live man
clamber towards us like a dead, dead hunchback,
and you turn to me and you say,
“Humour him”.

He sings to us of love and we say we cry
from our dead, dead hearts
that lie fossilised in our chests
like two shrivelled ammonites.

You tell him he will have his girl,
his dead, dead girl
back again if he does not look
until he has found the light.

I see your words slither
over his dead, dead body
just like the serpent dripped
down Eurydice’s back…

And I think, poor Orpheus, what a fool you were,
to trust two dead, dead souls.

by Arjun Alim

And then I was gone
The green devil, sprouted fangs and pounced
And I fell, down into Hades,
He greeted me like an old friend
Bearing his smile like a cat about to pounce
I would rather have been with Cerberus.

But then, I saw you again,
Coming down the steps of hell,
Lyre in hand, looking alive, tanned and fresh,
You talk to death, you reason with him,
He laughs at you,
But then you play him a song and he is enthralled.

He whispers in your ear and points to me,
His eyes glaze over, he can’t see me at all
Hades leads him over and points at me
He shakes his head,
Hades smiles, and prompts Orpheus to leave,
He lets me follow him, and whispers in my ear “Don’t let him look back!”

I only see the outline of your head and shoulders,
black against the cave mouth,
and so could not see your face at all, when you turned and called to me because you had already lost me.

The last I saw of you was a dark oval.
Though I knew how this failure would hurt you, I had to fold like a grey moth and let go.
You could not believe I was more than your echo.