Budding bards invited to enter one of Adelaide’s oldest poetry prizes

A more than 100-year-old Adelaide poetry prize that launched with a donation of £200 and has been won by writers including Max Harris and Kate Llewellyn is up for grabs again this year.

Sep 18, 2023, updated Sep 18, 2023

The Bundey Prize for English Verse is one of the oldest poetry prizes – if not the oldest – in Adelaide.

Ellen Milne Bundey, whose father Sir William Henry Bundey was appointed as the third judge in the South Australian Supreme Court in 1884, donated £200 to the University of Adelaide to establish the prize in 1912 in memory of her parents.

Ellen Bundey with her mother. Photo: State Library of South Australia / B15673

Bundey was a well-known local poet herself, with her short and lyrical verse frequently published under the pen name Lyell Dunne in early newspaper The Register. Aside from poetry, she also translated news stories from French for The Register, on subjects including the death of Madame Curie’s husband and a lecture tour of America by Rudyard Kipling.

The original prize money awarded to a Bundey Prize winner was £10, and although that has increased to $200 today, the statute under which it was set up states that “the title and purpose of the prize shall not be changed”. While it invites entries from undergraduates and postgraduate students of the university, the conditions set out by the donor mean it is open only to applicants born in Australia.

Around 25 poems are submitted each year and judged by a selection panel chosen by the University of Adelaide’s Department of English, Creative Writing and Film, according to a university spokesperson.

In the early years, however, it took a while for the prize to gain traction. A “sufficiently worthy recipient” wasn’t found until Leon Gellert won it in 1917, Phillip Butterss wrote in A History of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Adelaide 1876-2012.

Gellert was born in Walkerville and educated at Adelaide High School, according to an article on the Virtual War Memorial Australia, which features a sonnet from his winning collection Songs of Campaign, written during his service at Gallipoli, in Egypt and in England during World War I. Gellert’s repetition of heavy sounds and his preference for 1-2 syllable words creates a relentless pounding. It’s like shells exploding and troops marching, and is similar to the work of more famous WWI poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.

In 1935, RC Ingamells won the prize with Forgotten People. The collection of traditionally structured sonnets spins a Wordsworthian ode to Australia’s natural beauty, the Indigenous people whose culture Ingamells saw as at one with this bucolic splendour, and the destruction of both by the white man.

Well-known recipients over the years that followed have included poet and critic Max Harris, co-founder of the literary journal Angry Poets and, later, manager and owner of Adelaide’s Mary Martin Bookshop. Harris won the Bundey Prize in 1941 for Myth, a hymn to the Allied war effort that eschewed enough rules of grammar to uphold his reputation as Australia’s maverick modernist.

Aidan Coleman is a former winner of the Bundey Prize for English Verse.

Kate Llewellyn (recently announced as one of the poets who will participate in the 2023 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art) won the Prize in 1975 for Teeth and Other Verse when she was studying arts at the university. Kerryn Goldsworthy, who launched First Things First: Selected Letters By Kate Llewellyn 1977-2004, wrote in The Rochford Street Review about Llewellyn’s joy after winning the Prize: “The day that Kate won the Bundey Prize for English Verse is my earliest memory of her, exulting in the corridor of the English Department. She was, if memory serves, actually jumping up and down.”

Llewellyn isn’t the only poet encouraged by winning the prize.

The 1997 winner, Aidan Coleman, says it was the first prize he won. “My family took me a bit more seriously. And it gave me confidence at the time.”

Coleman’s advice for poets who want to enter their work in the prize this year is simple: “Give it a crack and make sure it’s well drafted.”

Applications for the 2023 Bundey Prize for English Verse close at 5pm on September 20. Details can be found here.

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