Meet the winner of the 2024 Telegraph Poetry Competition

The Seagram Murals: Black on Maroon (1958) by Rothko
The Seagram Murals: Black on Maroon (1958) by Rothko - Wiktor Szymanowicz/Future Publishing via Getty Images

Today we announce the shortlist and winner for The Telegraph’s 2024 poetry competition. Watch award-winning actress Niamh Cusack read the winning entry – Untitled by Ben Philipps – then scroll down to read all five shortlisted poems, and our interview with Ben.

For The Telegraph’s fourth annual poetry competition, we invited you to paint pictures in words, asking for poems responding to the theme of “art” in the broadest sense – from music to ballet to TV.

Among the hundreds of entries, Van Gogh, Edward Hopper and prehistoric cave paintings all proved popular topics. Several poets poked fun at the twisted pipes that recently won the Turner Prize, though one wrote in to defend them.

Several readers mentioned their own artistic qualifications (“Should I have a go? / I really don’t know / I got Art GCE / Back in 1963”), while one poet amused us by sending in an ancient photo of Joan Collins in lingerie, unrelated to his poem. Sir, we will not be so easily bribed!

There were a few memorable poems about theatre and film, but the overwhelming majority of entries we received were inspired by visual art.

So it’s no surprise that our guest judge, Seamus Heaney Prize-winning poet Laura Scott, settled on a final shortlist of five poems about painters – though all very different from each other. By clicking on the video above, you can watch a short film of the winning entry, recited by the actress Niamh Cusack, and read all the shortlisted poems.

Olivia Cowley’s shortlisted poem “The Studio (Revised)” re-paints the “hiraeth blue” of Vanessa Bell’s attic studio at Charleston in Sussex, her retreat after the death of her sister Virginia Woolf. Scott says: “I love the balance and poise of this poem, and the way it pulls time into itself and then slows it down in its structure like a fly caught in a spider’s web.”

Filled with musical repetitions, Maria Isakova-Bennett’s gorgeous, elliptical “Composition in Blue” responded to an abstract painting at Tate Modern by Lebanese artist Saloua Raouda Choucair – “a delight in its ease and elegance”, Scott says.

“The Skating Minister” who glides across the ice in Henry Raeburn’s painting at the Scottish National Gallery is “a man / who knows about work-life balance”, Gwen Owen wrote, in her light-footed poem. ‘’The Skating Minister’ is winning in its simplicity,” says Scott, “but the descriptive briskness of the writing is deceptive because the poem is shot through with questions which open up several points of view.”

And we see another side to Suzon, the Parisian barmaid immortalised by Manet’s A Bar at the Folies Bergère, in Maria Woodford’s sensuous prose poem “other ways of seeing”. With a title that thumbs its nose at art critic John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, it’s “clever, ambitious and assured right from the start,” says Scott.

Poetic justice: Ben Philipps is now working on his first pamphlet
Poetic justice: Ben Philipps is now working on his first pamphlet - Rii Schroer

But our winner is 23-year-old Londoner Ben Philipps, with Untitled – a haunting poem inspired by Mark Rothko’s Seagram Murals, those vast, forbidding abstract studies in red at Tate Britain.

“The poem is all about silence, and I think that quality of silence is something many viewers of Rothko respond to,” he tells me. “The silence you get from a Rothko, it’s not peace and quiet – it’s something terrifying… an intensity of feeling that pushes you past words.”

Looking at Rothko’s paintings can be frustrating, he says: “The frustration is that you want them to say something, or you want them to divulge something, but they’re so withholding.”

At the same time, his abstracts draw attention to the paint itself as raw material. Philipps tries to bring the same attention to his own raw material: language. “Poetry is odd, because it’s the artform made from the thing we use all the time – words. The material of it does not specifically belong to the artform, so you come across words in poetry and think, ‘Well, it’s words, I know what words are, I use them all the time’, but then they seem to be doing something a bit different.”

In Philipps’s semi-abstract poem, words and sounds repeat from one stanza to the next, just as shapes and shades reappear from one painting to the next in Rothko’s murals. “In the first stanza I talk about ‘tymbals’, which is quite an obscure word – it’s the bit on the end of the insects’ legs that they beat together to get that buzzing sound. And then in the second stanza that becomes ‘cymbals’, as a metaphor for words. It makes you see the words not just as the vehicle of meaning, but as something constructed out of sound.”

‘Running a pub quiz and doing crosswords made me see language in a new way’
‘Running a pub quiz and doing crosswords made me see language in a new way’ - Rii Schroer

As well as writing poetry and book reviews, Philipps works as a barman at the Westbourne Tavern, near Paddington, where he runs the pub quiz. “Doing pub quizzes and crosswords made me see language in a new way – I think everyone who wants to write poetry should do cryptic crosswords.” He says his writing is inspired by the American poets Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery, but also draws on the song lyrics of Paul Simon and Talking Heads’ David Byrne.

His poem’s religious imagery is also inspired by Rothko, who famously built a nondenominational “chapel” in Texas to house his paintings. “Rothko, like me, is a more-or-less secular Jew, and Judaism is just absolutely fascinating for its combination of mysticism with a hard-edged legal and practical aspect,” says Philipps. “Rothko who makes these mystical paintings, but in order to make them he’s had to create a pulley system in his studio – a lot of it was manual labour, putting those giant paintings together and doing something like 20 layers of underpainting.”

Philipps, who has been writing poetry for six years, is currently working on his first pamphlet, which he describes as a “journey across London” in prose, poetry and images. A photographer as well as a poet, for Philipps the trick to good photography and good writing is allowing yourself “to be pleasantly surprised by things – and that includes words”.

The Winning Poem:

The Seagram Murals: Black on Maroon (1958) (R) with Red on Maroon (1959) in the background
The Seagram Murals: Black on Maroon (1958) (R) with Red on Maroon (1959) in the background - Wiktor Szymanowicz/Future Publishing via Getty Images

‘Untitled’ by Ben Philipps

after Rothko

Aspiration to nothing framed the maw
you hemmed on taut linen. To nothing
at all, or to the something that silence is, caught
in a prime world. Hear, already
tymbals beat, and wind in a new field.
Ingress to a black chapel.
The whirr fuzzed our tongues.
We move about our sphere like so much gone.

Aspiring to your silence, and hemmed
by crowd words: the rack and crash of cymbal
language. To freeze as caught in a prime space.
We move, fugitive in your church, a place
of red sentence. Does that river river by?
Within is a layer room, and stalks inside
the rectangle an old wound
marred. We call
it talk and cannot say it here.

You aspire to silence and silence redoubles
in the voice of language, a hemming-in
of normal linen. This field is all oxblood.
It is the devising of a harsh rabbi, a fullness
of falling short and back
in the dirt, the pigment where we live, now.
Where you don’t. It cannot be said, it can
not be said. Yours is golden, else red, red.

The Shortlisted Poems:

The Reverend Robert Walker (1755 – 1808) Skating on Duddingston Loch by Henry Raeburn
The Reverend Robert Walker (1755 – 1808) Skating on Duddingston Loch by Henry Raeburn - National Galleries Of Scotland/Getty Images

‘The Skating Minister’ by Gwen Owen

after The Reverend Robert Walker (1755 – 1808) Skating on Duddingston Loch by Henry Raeburn

Statue – still. And yet
forever in forward motion.
You lean in, like the prow of a ship
in the Firth of Forth.

Or you’re like a crow,
black and sleek,
beak pointing into the chill wind.
Poised for flight.

Penny for them minister.
Sunday’s sermon?
Problems at the manse?
Lord knows working from home isn’t easy.

Are you a boy again in Rotterdam?
A childhood pastime giving you pleasure still.
You’ve grown into a man
who knows about work-life balance.

Or perhaps you are thinking
that this is the only way
that you, a mere mortal,
could ever walk on water.

Vanessa Bell's final studio in Charleston House
Vanessa Bell's final studio in Charleston House - The Charleston Trust

‘The Studio (revised)’ by Olivia Cowley

This poem is after the painter Vanessa Bell and her final studio in Charleston House. Bell was said to have increasingly retreated to the studio after the death of her sister, Virginia, and son, Julian.

You came to this room after a sister and a son
and painted it a hiraeth blue. You came to this 
old attic room, while the house below bletted
and distempered from its mass.

From the north window, the sable pond quickens 
with the black-knife tails of the carp. 
The weald goes beyond the eye— green sags 
into the lead white of sky.

But here, in this room, is the cool of work and the hour spent.
Here the window’s world reduced to perimeter 
and subject. Here heaven is a campanile tower—
And Death must knock before entering.

At night the wide of the window invites
the moonlight in. The moon leaves its dammar
over everything— a single rose, the oil-flecked easel, 
the walls dialling back their colour

coat after coat   skin after skin
breaking into seven rings.

In this place, this place balanced just above life, 
this place of the moon and hiraeth blue, of the cool 
of work and the hour spent, of sable knives and 
the soul’s dark bloom

and you & you & you & him & this & then

one colour, just one colour
at a time.

‘Composition in Blue’ by Maria Isakova-Bennett

after Composition in Blue Module (1947-51) by Salouda Raouda Choucair  

Repeat me across canvas like a kiss 
my body traced, turned in a dance

through planes. Beautiful contradiction— 
I’m moving on but part of me remains

as proof. Every gesture’s observed— 
I come alive again and again in this choreography,

re-made in wood, in terracotta, in brass.  
I am always becoming


I want to be repeated across canvas like a kiss 
my body traced, turned in a dance

through planes. I’m moving on 
but part of me remains:

proof I was. She observes every gesture— 
I am her choreography.

She remakes me in wood, in terracotta, in brass. 
For her I am becoming always


Repeat her like a kiss across canvas, 
her body turned in a dance, traced

through planes. Beautiful contradiction— 
She is moving on but part of her remains

as proof. Observed: every gesture 
She comes alive again and again

to be remade in wood, in terracotta, in brass, 
becoming: she is, always

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère by Édouard Manet
A Bar at the Folies-Bergère by Édouard Manet - Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

‘other ways of seeing’ by Maria Woodford


in my art history lecture we are reading john berger, again.

men look at women. women watch themselves being looked at. berger, i think, must watch himself, watching us, watching ourselves, in some absurd recursive fashion. I wonder if any of his three wives caught him gazing from ceiling height like some troubled, all-seeing god, as they undressed one another and she inevitably dissolved into the impersonal figure of the female nude.

thus she turns herself into an object of vision. a sight. 

i have a point to make about reflexive verbs and the displacement of blame, but the moment has passed. the boy who never raises his hand to speak (and whose name i have cheerfully forgotten) has begun to trundle woodenly through his appraisal of A Bar at the Folies Bergère.


when the music finishes, and i have pilfered the last few of his fries from their overstated metal basket, i realise he is not looking at me at all, but at himself in the glass panelled wall behind me. i observe how he adjusts his collar, how nonchalantly he confers with the ghostly image, knowing well his own solidness, his undoubtable presence. and when i turn, and see my own face catapulted back like an anagram of features swimming in the soup-like darkness, i think: women appear. i think: i have not sat in this bar tonight, if he never watched me do it.


she hurries with polishing the glasses, knowing he is already outside, waiting. the owner says rub, harder - rub until i can see my face in it, and when he disappears upstairs, she plucks a singular orange from the bowl in a pedestrian act of disobedience. she begins to peel it beneath the counter, and as the rind loosens, she thinks of layers of crinoline, removed to reveal her own slender pink legs. but he is already calling, suzon! and the purple dawn is beginning to unfurl slowly down the rue richer.


reflexive: a transitive verb whose subject and object always refer to the same person or thing. a sentence which turns itself endlessly inwards. a phrase which collapses, continuously, the doer into the deed:

yes, i have enjoyed myself very much tonight. 
yes, i can walk myself home.

the bedsheets are just as they left them, curled up in the lamplight like a headless contortionist. the orange, which she has brought with her, and which he finds so peculiarly endearing, sits sternly on the windowsill, as if keeping watch.


the barmaid appears as just another item in the enticing array on offer in the foreground: wine, champagne, peppermint liqueur and British Bass beer, with its iconic red triangle logo.


and so they go to bed, and he says fervently, mon amour, my love, and then yes, yes YES again and again and again.

and she, who is thinking only of the orange, only of herself displaced by the decapitated linen, only of paris emerging slowly from behind its gauze curtain of mist, says yes, faster, and to the orange, coyly,

mon amour, my love, 
you make me hungry.