The winner of this year’s Eugene Lee-Hamilton Poetry Competition is St Hilda’s Undergraduate Tayiba Zeenat, with her sonnet ‘Reading’.
Eugene Lee-Hamilton was a poet and novelist who studied at Oriel (1864-66). He revived the use of Petrarchan Sonnets in his own work, and encouraged it in others. The poetry competition prize was founded in 1943 and is open to all undergraduate students at the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge.
Tayiba is in her third year studying English and German at Oxford, and is currently on her year abroad. Her sonnet explores themes around the experience of reading and what it means to learn to read a language that you don’t speak. In her own words:
“The sonnet was partly inspired by evenings that I spent at madrasahs as a kid (a madrasah is a kind of Muslim Sunday-school where you get to know faith and learn to read the Quran). Everyone’s aware that the Arabic text is beautiful and complicated as they learn, but since many are learning to recite a language they don’t speak, there’s naturally a gap when it comes to understanding it. Some people thrive there, some find it frustrating, some classes make it a joy and others make it daunting – there’s a huge range of experiences there. But outside of lessons, madrasah was also just somewhere to play. As kids, we’re brilliant at running with new languages and images, blending them into what we know and stretching them to their limits, and it’s the odd balance between elaborate, meaningful text and a childlike, playful curiosity that I wanted to explore.”
We’d like to offer our congratulations to Tayiba!
Iqra! – her turn, a finger starts to trace
the clots of knotted thread across the row.
If all the seas were ink, but channeled slow
from smudged teen mouths, her reading would erase
all blots, would overtake the noontide race
and beautify all that she does not know.
I’d stutter, gasp. In flattened carpet snow
I scrawl my name in wayward lower case.
A hair slips from my scarf and seems to clutch
the paper’s edge. At break I wish she’d teach
me how to strike its line, split page, recite
by peering in between the seas which nudge
each other, never mix. Figures of speech
play hide and seek – they hopscotch and I write.
by Tayiba Zeenat, St Hilda’s College, Oxford