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Winner of the 2017/18 New Poets Prize

Judged by Kayo Chingonyi


Lost and bewildered, cursed to flit from tree to tree, Sweeney has lived in the woods so long he’s almost forgotten who he is. Most of us have forgotten, too. Playful and poignant by turns, Woodsong reinvents the medieval epic Buile Suihbhne as a sequence of slant lyrics about loneliness, companionship and what keeps a myth alive.




It is apt to find the word 'song' nestled in the title of this manuscript which regales us so deftly with its tunes. I am reminded, by reading this, of poetry’s capacity to tell a tale and to sing at the same time, and in so doing give us a sense of a word’s arcane resonances; those that show themselves only if we take the time to listen. - Kayo Chingonyi


A brilliant, bright debut. Tristram Fane Saunders’ retelling of this Irish epic is, at times, beguiling and sad. These poems have a haunting musical quality but it is offset by playful, visceral language. Sweeney’s sense of loss is palpable, terrifying even, and the beauty and harshness of the natural world abounds.  – Luke Wright

Woodsong is so immediately engaging and readable it makes the arcane material as alive, urgent and present as the world outside your window. Whenever I looked up I expected to see Sweeney hobbling towards me, feathers flying. It conveys you through history and myth with such wit and power – and you only notice the strange places it’s taking you once you’re there. Formally dazzling – it demands to be read aloud – the phrasing, and the tragic and comic timing of its lines are such a pleasure I know I’m going to be re-reading this for many years to come. It’s exceptional. – Luke Kennard




Tristram Fane Saunders lives in London with a patient and understanding girlfriend, three cacti and a cat. His poems have appeared in journals including Poetry Ireland Review, The Dark Horse and The London Magazine, and he has performed his poetry at Latitude Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe. His last chapbook was Postcards From Sulpicia (Tapsalteerie), a version of Ancient Rome’s only extant female poet. He works as a journalist.




Sweeney Learns the Language of the Birds
extract from Woodsong


Utterly barking, up the wrong

tree for the season, thorn and brush

piercing his naked skin, Sweeney

halts in his howling, listens. Hush.

Caught on the wind and held, a song

fainter than breath, and cold. Sweeney

embraces the little melody, takes

to the air, and raises

his ear:


              who killed cock robin, cracked his bell

                                broke his quiet chapel?

              twig-boned, he flits from brook to dale

                                a shivering clotheless cripple


              who lost his lover, lost the land,

                                lives by his wits and has none?

              whose life is pith and bitter rind

                                and teeth too sharp for wisdom?


And Sweeney, listening from the sky

to the lark’s soft voice below, remembers

Ronan’s curse, and Eorann’s kiss,

Dal-Arie’s hearth of golden embers.

Since every question starts with why,

and every answer comes to this,

he shrugs a gooseflesh shoulder, shakes

from his cheek, as it freezes,

a tear.

More by Tristram Fane Saunders

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