Posted by: noelwilliams | February 25, 2013

Comparing apples with chairs

A few days ago I finished judging a poetry contest (for Sentinel Literary Quarterly). I enjoyed it, and also learned a few things along the way.

But it was a tougher job than I expected. It was tough because there turned out to be very few really stand out poems. And tough also because quite a few of the poems simply couldn’t be considered and had to be put aside for quite minor reasons. Even, in fact, for minor – let’s not mince words – errors.

Admittedly, you can get away with a lot in poetry. You can claim misspellings are part of your distinct personal voice. You can say you omit possessive apostrophes as a form of ironic stance against punctuation nazis. You can argue that your grammatical awkwardness is a deliberate attempt to forge a new language of popular argot. Poets are allowed to make such claims (even though most of them are probably spurious or specious). But there’s no point in relying on such claims if you want to win popular poetry competitions. To win a competition you’re going to be judged by a single poet (in most cases) and the chances that they will subscribe to your particular view about the irrelevance of spelling in homophones or the need to keep a rhyme scheme constant once you’ve set out on a given route, are slim. So you need to spell correctly, make sure you’ve chosen the correct homophone, put all apostrophes where they belong, and make sure the tense, voice, mood and all those awkward grammatical agreements are in proper harmony throughout.

As far as I could, I aimed to judge the poems by their own criteria. If a poem seemed to want to be a sonnet, that’s how I looked at it. If it had the form and tone of a meandering Frank O’Hara street ramble, or a vitriolic political diatribe, I tried to judge it by the criteria it seemed to want. That’s not an easy job, of course. It’s also one ultimately doomed to failure, because the judge still ends up comparing completely unlike objects, and so has to resort, at some stage, to personal preference.

Where I found this most difficult was not, in fact, with the very best of the poems nor, by and large, with those which I felt obliged to put aside. In the latter case, if a poem had a weakness (a cliché, an overused phrase, a clunky ending, an overstretched metaphor) sooner or later it was going to go, no matter what other strengths it might have. Once I’d noticed a flaw, I couldn’t really keep it in consideration. And, having created several hundred such flaws in poetry myself, I think I can claim some authority in the field. And with the really good poems well, they were really good, so there was no particular issue in placing them in their special pile.

All of this, pretty naturally, made me think about the business of judging poems, and poetry competitions, in general. I’ve entered a fair number, won a few, and often wondered what it was I was doing, and why poem X won whilst poem Y never got a look in. I guess it’s usually because, whilst the worst poems are easily seen, and the very best tend to rise to the top, there are generally (as I found this time) far too many jostling in the middle, neither stand-out brilliant, nor particularly problematic. They are solid work. They are capable. They are workmanlike, well crafted, able, meaningful, acceptable. They represent the vast tide of the reasonably good, which have much to offer, but don’t glitter and glow once held in the hand.

In the end, of the fifteen poems that received a prize or commendation, I found I’d chosen only two which I felt were clearly, obviously and perfectly what they set out to be. I would have liked to have written these myself (but couldn’t have). They were likely to do well in any similar competition. But the other thirteen were poems that “spoke” to me, in one way or another, interestingly but not really remarkable. I might find the subject or its treatment intriguing or unusual. I might like the tone that had been established or the music that was created. Perhaps its absurdity stimulated my Spike Milligan gland or its well-crafted structure showed a sensitive artifice or it hit the prefect lyric spot – minimal words doing maximal work.

I think the lesson I took from this exercise is that my own poems need to be better. If they don’t sparkle with something new, perhaps they should stay in their dusty little drawer. Yes, I can write well, but is that really enough? Maybe there are simply too many poets who are writing well but have nothing exciting to say.

lal 164


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