How Do You Judge a Poem?

I am half way through the process of judging this year’s Torriano Poetry Competition (https://torrianomeetinghouse.wordpress.com/2014/10/27/torriano-poetry-competition-2015/). I’ve been lucky enough to judge a few such competitions in the last few years and what follows is a compilation of thoughts on the judging process. Though the initial sifting can be a slog, the latter stages are fascinating as poems that set little hooks in you at first reading, gradually become more clear, their internal coherence emerging alongside their skills with language and form. What follows is inevitably a personal take on the business – more so as the process unfolds – but I hope it may cast some light on it for those (of us) tempted to spend hard-earned cash on entering the numerous competitions now running (here are a few . . . http://www.poetrylibrary.org.uk/competitions/).

In the 2003 comedy film Bruce Almighty, Jim Carey plays God and, alongside with more obviously useful powers, he has to respond to the prayers of the world. But people are always praying; he rapidly approaches a kind of madness as voices swim around him, clamouring for attention.  He takes to reading the prayers in the form of e-mails. He tries to answer them individually but is receiving them faster than he can respond. He sets his e-mail account to automatically answer “yes” to all, assuming this will make everybody happy. Of course, it does not.

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A poetry competition judge comparing himself to a character playing God lays himself open to criticism – but I have indeed found the initial phases of judging rather like Jim Carey’s experience. There are so many and such a variety of voices clamouring to be heard and every one of them is heart-felt, recording significant moments in people’s lives. There is a similar sense of responsibility too – the raw nature of much of the writing is impossible to deny. I’d like to set my response mechanism to say yes to everybody, but the judge’s task has to be how to distinguish submissions as poetry.

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The numbers are always frightening. Many hundreds of poems will be submitted. Perhaps only 10% of these will demand a further reading after the brutal first sifting. Poems face an early red light from most judges because basic elements are not competently done:

  • Competitions are full of pieces where a particular verse form or rhyme pattern tyrannises the sentiment. The writer’s submission to this tyranny becomes clear quickly through the contortions imposed on the language to achieve a rhyme.
  • The writer’s choice of language can be devastating to the life of the poem. It just isn’t right to opt for forms of language or abbreviations that died out early in the nineteenth century.
  • Choice of diction also derails an entry if it is doggedly abstract. Sure, there remains much debate about whether it is the narrow English tradition that insists on things rather than ideas – but poems about Fear, Ignorance, Poverty, Eternity and Love which refuse to dip a toe into anything resembling a real life situation are going to find progress hard.

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  • A fourth error is using language without being fully aware of its likely resonance with a possible reader. A poem called ‘Mother’s Pride’ which turns out not to be aware of the loaf of bread is going to have unanticipated clutter to climb over in the reader’s mind. Louis MacNeice wanted the poet not to be an ivory tower type, but rather “able-bodied, fond of talking, a reader of the newspapers, capable of pity and laughter, informed in economics . . . actively interested in politics”. All a bit Boys Own perhaps, but if this means the poet stays up to date with the way words live then he’s right.

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If you are thinking of submitting to a competition, it’s worth recalling Wordsworth’s formulation – familiar though it will feel – that poetry is built from “emotion recollected in tranquillity”. Poems made in the heat of the moment (and not revised and reviewed in the name of not tainting spontaneity) are seldom without their flaws. This is the kind of distinction Rilke also makes when he denies poetry is composed of feelings. Its constituents are rather “experiences” which he clarifies as “memories” though even with these, we “must be able to forget them when they are many and one must have the immense patience to wait until they come again . . . Only when they have turned to blood within us, to glance and gesture, nameless and no longer distinguished from ourselves – only then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them”. On the other hand, such recollection can sometimes create an intellectualised distance that may do harm to a good poem. Who said writing a poem was easy?

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Stephen Spender argues that a poet should try to acquire skill and virtuosity through the study and interpretation of other poetic works in the way Mozart and Beethoven did in playing the music of their predecessors.  Spender suggests translating poetry is the best possible exercise in interpretation. But the really important lessons (Spender says) are those of the eye, the ear, the athletic/poetic muscles. A poet can go a long way without a developed heart, but, he says, can get nowhere at all without these skills. The poet must ask continually of his lines: ‘Do they make the reader see, or hear, or feel, this experience which I am trying to re-create?’

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Reaching the final stages, the judge will be focusing more positively and more clearly on the sense, the story, the thought of a poem. Personally, I like poems that focus on small things and, in effect, make arguments for the ways in which they communicate the bigger issues that concern us all. I’m with Thomas Hardy in believing that “he used to notice such things” is one of the greatest of compliments. Edward Thomas’ poem about Spring, ‘But these things also’, likewise echoes this focus on what most people tend to overlook:

The shell of a little snail bleached

In the grass; chip of flint, and mite

Of chalk; and the small birds’ dung

In splashes of purest white . . .

Perhaps one explanation of why the question ‘what is poetry?’ is difficult to answer is because it is an art of the negative, of avoidance. The Daodejing says what is rigid and inflexible is a companion of death; what is flexible is a companion of life. I’d guess there would be general agreement that poetry is an art on the side of life. So poetry must eschew the inflexible; we must avoid the posture. And that’s very hard. In judging a competition one comes across the Wordsworth-posture, the Ginsberg-posture, alongside those of Betjeman, Hughes, Plath, Duffy . . . But we also posture like mad in ‘real life’. We may take up the pose of grief, melancholy, love, liberalism, environmentalism . . . The mark of the absence of posturing is an instability, an openness, an awareness of time (which posture tries to deny) and this is something I look for in a good poem. If a poem strikes an attitude my attention diminishes (even the attitude that wants to show a rejection of attitudinising through the hall of mirrors of ironic distancing). When the poem unearths a pulsing, shifting, live relationship between the self and the other, then I am captivated, recognising something that is both commonly human and uniquely personal.

But having said all this, I’d assure potential competition entrants that anything resembling a rule is there to be broken. Philip Pullman has said, “We don’t need a list of rights and wrongs, tables of dos and don’ts: we need books, time, and silence. Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever.”

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So any poem in any form can work its magic. It will haunt its reader for days; it will make me change the way I think and feel; make me see the world differently. Ultimately, a poem contributes to who the reader is becoming. That is an exciting prospect for the writer. It is an even more exciting one for the judge who settles down to read.

2 thoughts on “How Do You Judge a Poem?

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