Judging Poetry Competitions: some notes on the process

I am half way through the process of judging this year’s Segora Poetry Competition. I’ve been lucky enough to judge several such competitions in recent years and in 2015 I published a version of what follows on my blog as a compilation of my thoughts on the judging process. I’m tweaking and re-blogging it here in response to my experience of judging this new competition in 2020. As I have always found, the initial sifting of so many poems can be a slog, but the latter stages are unfailingly fascinating as the best poems – those that set little hooks in you from first reading – gradually rise to the top, their internal coherence emerging, alongside their skills with language, tone and form. So what follows is inevitably a personal take on the business – becoming more so, perhaps, 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. Follow this link to see more upcoming competitions.

MV5BNzMyZDhiZDUtYWUyMi00ZDQxLWE4NDQtMWFlMjI1YjVjMjZiXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjU0OTQ0OTY@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Some films stick in the mind for reasons beyond the cinematic, don’t they? In the 2003 comedy Bruce Almighty, Jim Carey plays the character of God and, along 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 possibly respond. He decides to set his e-mail account to automatically answer “yes” to all, assuming that this will make everybody happy. Of course, it does not.

Now – a poetry competition judge comparing himself to a character playing God lays him/herself open to some obvious criticism – but I have indeed found the initial phases of judging poetry competitions 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 submitted is impossible to deny. There are moments when 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.

What does that mean? The numbers involved are always a bit daunting. Many hundreds of poems have been submitted. Perhaps only 10% of these will demand a further reading after the brutal first sifting. Poems face an early, red stoplight from most judges because the basic poetic elements are not competently done. Here are some of the obvious failings:

  • Competitions are full of pieces where a particular verse form or rhyme pattern tyrannises the sentiment and/or sense. 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. Thankfully, this problem seems to be fading as more and more people actually read contemporary poetry books.
  • Choice of diction can also derail 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.
  • A fourth error is using language without being fully conscious of its likely resonance with a reader. A poem using the verb ‘gaslight’ without knowing its current slang meaning or another called ‘Mother’s Pride’ which seems unaware of the loaf of bread, well, they are going to have unanticipated clutter to climb over in any 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 bang up to date with the way words live then he’s right.
download
Rainer Maria Rilke

If you are still thinking of submitting to a competition, it’s worth recalling Wordsworth’s formulation – familiar though it will feel to most – that poetry is built from “emotion recollected in tranquillity”. Poems forged in the heat of the moment (and not revised or reviewed) are seldom without their flaws. And this is the kind of distinction Rainer Maria Rilke makes when he denies poetry is composed of feelings. Its constituents (he says) 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?

41Stephen1books
Stephen Spender

Stephen Spender argued 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?’

Reaching the final stages, the judge will be focusing more on positives and hence more precisely on the sense, the story, the thought and feeling 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 . . .

download (1)Perhaps one explanation of why the question ‘what is poetry?’ is so difficult to answer is because it is, to a large extent, 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 Hughes, Plath, Duffy, Oswald . . . But we also posture like mad in ‘real life’. We may take up the pose of grief, melancholy, love, liberalism, environmentalism . . . For me, 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 if the attitude is one 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.

4756
Philip Pullman

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.” 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.

Ben Wilkinson on Poetry, Sport and Men’s Mental Health

During lockdown there has been a proliferation of on-line poetry readings and launches and most of those I have attended have been very successful. I had to teach my (well educated) daughter the meaning of ‘necessity being the mother of invention’ the other day and the poetry world is not the only one learning new ways to do old things. My publisher, Seren Books, has been particularly active in this area, recently staging the launch of Katrina Naomi’s new collection, Wild Persistence and running a mini festival, their Stay-At -Home series. It was during this series of events that I heard Ben Wilkinson read from his 2018 collection, Way More Than Luck. As part of his own reading, Wilkinson also read Louise MacNeice’s ‘Wolves’: “Come then all of you, come closer, form a circle, /Join hands…”

download (1)I’m not proud to admit that Way More Than Luck passed me by when it was first published. As you are probably aware, Wilkinson reviews poetry regularly for The Guardian, and he’s very familiar on social media as a poet and critic, a distance runner and a passionate Liverpool football fan. But the book’s cover (Dalglish, I think), its title and some of the publicity persuaded me that the football bit was going to be predominant. It’s certainly an almost unique aspect of the collection, but it turns out the debilitating darkness of psychological depression is an even more significant one. Wilkinson signals this concern via the book’s two epigraphs. One is about the nature of depression by Matt Haig and a second by John Hanc links challenging physical activities with mental strength, with “state of mind”. And the opening poem immediately suggests the un-put-downable burden of depression for those who struggle with it, while ‘Days’ obsessively lists multiple occasions blighted by it. Both poems use repetition as a device to evoke the persistent nature of depressive episodes, while ‘Pal’ uses that plus personification to convey its haunting, abusive nature:

 

Next time you’re trying to stand your ground –

argue your case, sprint the home straight,

stare yourself down in the mirror at eight –

he’ll be there alright. His smile is a frown.

His frown is a scowl. His scowl is the fear

you hoped was long gone. Still here. Still here.

 

Macniece-lecture
Louis MacNeice

Wilkinson’s admiration for MacNeice can be heard in the vigorous syntax here, the use of form and rhyme and his liking for repetition perhaps reflects something of the 1930s poet’s “controlled flamboyance of diction”. Even more successfully, ‘Hound’ treats depression as a beast (an idea famously and perhaps erroneously linked with Winston Churchill):

 

Know it’s no dog but a phantom,

fur so dark it gives back nothing,

see your hand pass through

 

its come-and-go presence,

air of self-satisfied deception,

just as the future bursts in on

the present, its big I am, and that

sulking hound goes to ground again.

 

Troubling dreams feature in two powerful poems. ‘The Nightmare’ is all the more frightening in remaining aware of the real-life episode the dream is based on. A long drive, “to Newby, Lawkland, Cleatop”, is transmuted as the car shudders, the windscreen warps, roadside trees shrivel and the narrator’s companion is suddenly “nowhere to be found”. ‘Stag’ rehearses something similar – the real animal, “on the bypass that night – / antlers like a winter oak”, is, in the dreamed version, pursued vainly across a landscape, seemingly in hope that some secret communication might be recovered from “those cavernous eyes”.

download (3)
David Foster Wallace

Perhaps the best poem in the book, ‘To David Foster Wallace’, is addressed to the American writer who himself struggled with depression and alcoholism. Wilkinson’s poem takes up a wholly convincing, chatty, MacNeicean tone to discuss – frankly – the experience of despair, “the unpindownable feeling / of hopelessness, hard frustration”. The poem itself declares it takes “courage” to appear weak and it certainly takes courage to write as nakedly as this. Of course, all lyric poetry is to some degree “dramatic”, but there seems a strong autobiographical element to this poem (and others). The poem ends with the narrator explaining that there are occasions, while out running (“my breath dogged on the fellside”), when he experiences something of “peace”, something of psychological relief. Wilkinson’s book title turns out to be not an allusion to a Fernando Torres wonder goal, but what the struggling narrator is left hoping for from David Foster Wallace, even from beyond the grave: “Wish me way more than luck”.

download (4)For me, it’s these psychological truths that Wilkinson is so good at conveying. There are other poems later in the book (and perhaps ‘Stag’ is an elusive example) which begin to sketch episodes of a foundering romantic relationship and ‘Building a Brighter, More Secure Future’ is a very effective excursion into witty political satire (a skilfully handled sestina based on the Conservative Party election manifesto, 2015). And there are the football poems. They comprise the central sequence of 14 poems, introduced with a heart-felt Prologue that says what follows is for the ordinary football fans, written out of “a love beyond the smear campaigns, / the media’s hooligans”. A large part of what Wilkinson has in mind here is the shocking response in parts of the media to the Hillsborough tragedy in 1989, when 96 men, women and children died (David Cain’s Forward prize shortlisted book, Truth Street, from Smokestack Books, movingly dealt with this event and the media and policing responses and I reviewed it last summer). Wilkinson obliquely refers to the occasion in ‘Kenny Dalglish’ and several poems have worthwhile things to say about racism in the game (‘John Barnes’) and how the game can offer an escape route for working class boys (‘Billy Liddell’ and ‘Steven Gerrard’).

download (2)But the poems also show how difficult it is to escape the miasma of cliché that seems to engulf football itself. Anfield is filled with a “fabled buzz”, then “the place erupt[s]”. Barnes unleashes a “a sweeping, goal-bound ball”, and a particular game offers one “last-ditch twist”. I’m reminded of Louis MacNeice’s observation (now sadly compromised in various ways, but the spirit of it remains valid, I think) that he wanted a poet not to be “too esoteric. I would have a poet able-bodied [sic], fond of talking, a reader of the newspapers, capable of pity and laughter, informed in economics, appreciative of women [sic], involved in personal relationships, actively interested in politics, susceptible to physical impressions’. There are many more of these poets around these days and to bring (even) football into the purview of poetry can hardly be a bad thing. Yet it is not an easy one and there may be some risks in deciding to headline the attempt. Ian Duhig’s blurb note to Way More Than Luck has gingerly to negotiate this issue: “The beautiful game inspires some beautiful poems in Ben Wilkinson’s terrific debut collection … but there’s far more than football to focus on here”. Yes, indeed.

Mallarmé’s Beautiful Intoxication: a new translation by Ian Brinton and Michael Grant

Mallarme-600x600-1I am very grateful to Ian Brinton’s and Michael Grant’s recent translation of a selected Mallarmé (Muscaliet, 2019) for sending me back to a poet who has always proved problematic for me. My natural inclination draws me more to Louis MacNeice’s sense of the “drunkenness of things being various” (‘Snow’) – his emphasis on poetry’s engagement with “things” – and his desire to communicate pretty directly with his fellow wo/man, than with what Elizabeth McCombie bluntly calls “the exceptional difficulty” of Mallarmé’s work. I appreciate that such a dichotomy seems to shove the French poet into an ivory tower (albeit of glittering and sensuous language) while casting the Irish one as too narrowly engagé, but I’m also aware that Sartre praised Mallarmé as a “committed” writer and that, despite some evident remoteness from the ‘tribe’, the French poet’s political views were both radical and democratic.

Yet the question of difficulty remains. Proust is said to have berated Mallarmé for using “a language that we do not know” and Paul Valéry’s first encounter with the poems was also troubled: “There were certain sonnets that reduced me to a state of stupor . . . associations that were impossible to solve, a syntax that was sometimes strange, thought itself arrested at each stanza”. Yet Valéry also notes the tension between Mallarmé’s fierce semantic difficulties and his deployment of traditional form, rhyme and rich phonetic patterning; the latter inevitably suggesting that there is (or ought to be) some semantic completion in the poem. But (as J.H. Prynne comments in his Preface to Brinton’s Muscaliet translations) Mallarmé’s “flamboyant boldness, by leaps and pauses and leaps again” serves to disrupt such conventional expectations of interpretative transparency, a resolution of the many puzzles. McCombie again, writing in the Oxford World’s Classics Mallarmé: Collected Poems and Other Verses: “criticism has been dogged by an erroneous belief that such completion is recoverable”.

9780199537921So, if we must give up on such ‘understanding’, what was Mallarmé – writing in the 1880-90s – doing? Something recognisably very modern, it turns out. Contra Wordsworth (and MacNeice, I guess), Mallarmé and his Symbolist peers, held ordinary language in suspicious contempt as too ‘journalistic’, too wedded to a world of facts. Poetry was to be more a communication, or evocation, of emotion, of a detachment from the (merely) everyday and a recovery of the mystery of existence which rote and routine has served to bury. Such a role demanded linguistic innovation as suggested in ‘The Tomb of Edgar Poe’ in which the American writer is praised for giving “purer meaning to the words of the tribe” (tr. Brinton/Grant). Writing about Edouard Manet’s work, Mallarmé saw the need to “loose the restraint of education” which – in linguistic terms – would mean freeing language from its contingent relations to the facticity of things (and the tedium and ennui that results from our long confinement to them) and hence moving language nearer to what he called the “Idea” and the paradoxical term Nothingness (as Brinton/Grant translate “le Neant”).

This latter term is a key to Mallarmé’s work. Nothingness is non-meaning, but not as “an absence of meaning but a potentiality of meaning that no specific meaning can exhaust” (McCombie, p. xii). There are Platonic, Hegelian elements here, but I’d like to understand this as alluding to what Yves Bonnefoy terms (more obviously positively) Presence. In considering both ideas, we are likely to feel some anxiety or even terror (again Mallarmé tends to accentuate the dislocation involved), simply because we are being taken beyond what is familiar. And what is familiar (both French poets understand) is largely contrasted from language use, as language is a conceptual vehicle. So the poet must re-make language and Mallarmé is much more thorough-going about this and looks, in part, to music as a non-referential model. Language must be freed from a narrowly denotative function, revelling in reflections, connections, silences and hermeneutic lacunae which simultaneously allude to, but knowingly fall short of, articulating Nothingness. Mallarmé’s use of form suggests but fails to deliver resolution in this same way, what Henry Weinfield has called a “tragic duality” at the heart of Mallarmé ‘s project.

51+1t59dKgLFor these reasons, Mallarmé “cede[s] the initiative to words” (‘Crise de Vers’), to language’s material aspects as much as to its referential functions. Carrying over the material aspects of his French verse into English is then, to say the least, difficult. I’m inclined to agree with Weinfield (Introduction to Stephane Mallarmé Collected Poems (Uni. Of California Press, 1994) that it is “essential to work in rhyme and metre, regardless of the semantic accommodations and technical problems this entail[s]. If we take rhyme from Mallarmé, we take away the poetry”. But is that even possible? The accommodations and problems that arise are huge! Mallarmé placed the sonnet, ‘Salut’, at the start of his Poésies as a toast, salutation and mission statement. Weinfield gives the sestet as follows:

 

A lovely drunkenness enlists

Me to raise, though the vessel lists,

This toast on high and without fear

 

Solitude, rocky shoal, bright star

To whatsoever may be worth

Our sheet’s white care in setting forth.

 

A concern for form and musicality throws up problems like the near-identical rhyme (enlists/lists), the choice of ‘lists’ which underplays the dangers envisaged, the adjectival filling out of the toast line itself and the final line’s inversion and convolution. I prefer Brinton/Grant’s more flexible approach, lowered register (with some humour) and half rhymes:

 

A beautiful intoxication urges me

With no fear of keeling over

To stand and raise a glass

 

To solitude, rocky shore and star

And whatever else was worth

Hoisting our white sail for.

7173779.image_
Stephane Mallarme

Mallarmé’s sonnet, ‘The Tomb of Edgar Poe’ opens roundly and clearly in Brinton/Grant’s translation: “As if eternity at last transfigured him into himself’ where Weinfield again inverts and clogs the line: As to himself at last eternity changes him”. The poem ends with the wish that Poe’s granite tomb might mark an end to the disparagement (blasphemy in Mallarmé’s mind – the many attacks on Poe himself) of poets by the generality, “the tribe”. Though Brinton/Grant’s translation is a bit rhythmically inert, both Weinfield’s and E.H. and A.M. Blackmore’s Oxford World Classics translations groan under the constraints of rhyme and metre. Here are all three:

 

Let this same granite at least mark out a limit for all time

To the black flights of blasphemy scattered through the future.   (Brinton/Grant)

 

Let this granite at least mark the boundaries evermore

To the dark flights of Blasphemy hurled to the future.                     (Weinfield)

 

.. this calm granite, may limit all the glum

Blasphemy-flights dispersed in days to come                                      (Blackmore)

 

Famously, Mallarmé took his concern for the material aspects of language (hence to the placing of words, the white spaces between them) to stunning extremes. He gradually dropped most punctuation and ‘Un Coup de Dés (‘A Roll of the Dice’ tr. Brinton/Grant) spread the text across two pages with variations in both font and size, to create something more akin to a musical score (see image below). In his own Preface, he explains how the white spaces of paper “take on some importance . . . The paper asserts its presence every time that an image comes to a halt and vanishes before accepting the presence of its successors” (tr. Brinton/Grant). The result is that the “fictive reality” of language is endlessly sinking and surfacing into/out of the white of Nothingness. We read a musical score evoking the struggle (imaged as another sea voyage) between our efforts to make conceptual sense and our glimpses and intuited (?) accesses to “a potentiality of meaning that no specific meaning can exhaust”.

mallarme

As words reach for meaning, so it slips away and so we are intended to experience both the attempt and the plenitude of what is lost . . . I think. I don’t know that I DO experience anything like this in reading Mallarmé – my limitations too often leave me with something more like Valéry’s “state of stupor”, a sort of numbness (and a headache), a sense of my own falling short. My French is not really good enough to ‘enjoy’ the original poems, so I must depend on translation and, happily, those by Ian Brinton and Michael Grant have helped me move a notch or two along the road towards appreciating Mallarmé’s still extraordinary work.

Inner Emigres – Heaney and Huchel

Googling the term ‘inner émigré’ I come up mostly with links to Seamus Heaney’s use of it in the poem ‘Exposure’, the poem with which he ended North (1975):

I am neither internee nor informer;

An inner émigré, grown long-haired

And thoughtful . . .

heany_profile

In a 1998 interview, Heaney discussed his use of the term: As far as possible, you try to remain a mystery to yourself. Living in Ireland, not being an exile, living in Ireland as a social creature, as a familiar citizen, I think there is a great danger that one’s social persona might overwhelm one’s daimon — if you’ll permit me such a grand term . . . And so what one is always trying to do is displace oneself to another place or space . . .Wicklow is where I first thought of myself as being an inner émigré. Since 1988 . . . I’ve been able to own the cottage and to think of it as my “place of writing.” When I said “inner émigré,” I meant to suggest a state of poetic stand-off, as it were, a state where you have slipped out of your usual social persona and have entered more creatively and fluently into your inner being. I think it is necessary to shed, at least to some extent, the social profile that you maintain elsewhere.

Heaney’s explanation of the term here is almost wholly personal and uncontroversial. Most of us would agree that we need to slip the moorings of our more socially tied selves in order to find the place of poetry. This is in part simply the required liberation from the way we use language to operate in (utilitarian) society though it’s also a shaking loose from the (again utilitarian) intentions and feelings of the quotidian. Having said that, Heaney does not mean a retreat into some up-dated Celtic Twilight world, soft-focused and fey, an abandonment of MacNeice’s requirement that modern poets are readers of newspapers, capable of pity and laughter, involved in personal relationships, actively interested in politics, susceptible to physical impressions.

This is more clear when Heaney acknowledges the term ‘inner émigré’ once had a specific meaning in the 1920s and 30s in Soviet Russia. It referred to someone “who had not actually gone into exile but who lived at home disaffected from the system. Well, to some extent that was true of myself. Certainly, in relation to Northern Ireland.”

seferisbio
George Seferis

Heaney goes on to talk of finding in George Seferis’ work a connected idea, developed in The Redress of Poetry (1995): Seferis is reading Greek poetry during the war in the nineteen forties and he’s trying to write an article. There is distress, uncertainty, destruction all round him, with civil war looming. And he’s reading poetry and he’s really testing it. Does this thing have any value? And at one point he says: “Reading X this morning, I found that poetry is a help.” I think that what he means is that poetry secures some final place in your being, some little redoubt in your consciousness that will not be taken over by history or the world or disaster . . . Poetry’s value is established and promulgated by people who have known that feeling or something like it.

The term ‘inner émigré’ is also often used to describe Peter Huchel’s work though he was in the unusual situation of having to develop the strategy twice over.  His very early poems were linked to the sort of art fostered around 1920 by the League of Proletarian Revolutionary Writers. There’s no doubt he was on the side of the proletariat, the servants and exploited farmhands. He once said: “What did I care about in those days? I wanted to make visible in the poem a deliberately ignored, suppressed class, the class of the people, the maidservants and coachmen”. Even at this early stage his work did not include any proposals for a political solution and his concerns over social deprivation (witnessed from childhood days in the Brandenberg countryside) led him not to public proclamation but more inward to articulate a vision of a more fundamental relationship between productive human activity and the natural environment. It’s no surprise that Huchel felt close ties to the work of Robert Frost, though Huchel’s early verse (more than the American poet) is concerned with a representation of harmony and continuity, more fulfilment than frustration of fulfilment.

huchel
Peter Huchel

But with the rise of Hitler in the 1930s, Huchel began to develop the strategy of the ‘inner émigré’, publishing very little, even deciding to withhold an entire collection of poems, fearing it might be associated with the kind of blood-and-soil nature verse approved by National Socialism. His response to political changes was silence and non-cooperation.

It’s best to understand Huchel’s short-lived flash of faith in East German land reform in the immediate Soviet-Occupied post-war years in terms of his earlier social concerns. As John Flores argues, Huchel’s praise of the “law” of land reform is “not to be viewed as a sudden sacrifice in answer to official decrees, an unwilling turn to a theme totally incongruous with all his earlier poetic concerns, but as a logical continuation, in a way the culmination of his sympathy for the unprivileged classes inhabiting the countryside of his origins.” Within a few years, as the poet grew increasingly discouraged by developments in DDR society, his emphasis shifts from the praise of productive human activity in nature and the social order, to a concern for the enduring misery of men, regardless of the structure of society.

imgres

Huchel again had to adopt the role of ‘inner émigré’ being now at odds with East German politics yet still writing (and editing Sinn und Forme). His work becomes characterised “less by sympathy with those denied the privileges and rights due to them, more by meditations on the pain and uncertainty which permeates all human existence” (Flores again). Huchel’s tone becomes sombre and melancholy, poetic diction cryptic, his palette narrows, full of recurrent symbols. Poems from the 1950s are implicit statements of his ‘counterposition’ to the ‘construction of socialism’. Franz Schonauer suggests Huchel’s poems are not the expression of a direct opposition or political protest and express a loss of confidence. These poems are winter psalms. What is at stake is the human intellect and its power of resistance when reason and culture seem brutally damaged, in a frozen motionless state. This is from ‘Exile’, published in 1972:

 

With evening, friends close in,

the shadows of hills.

Slowly they press across the threshold,

darkening the salt,

darkening the bread

and strike up conversation with my silence.

 

Outside in the maple

the wind stirs:

my sister, the rainwater

in the chalky trough,

imprisoned,

gazes up at the clouds.

 

Huchel could still write: “The creative, even eruptive, element in lyric poetry only rarely exists without rules; it needs a container, a form, so as not to disperse. Spring water spilled on the floor has only a dim glow – but when poured into a glass it is full of light”. This is the same little redoubt that Seamus Heaney found in Seferis; each hard-won poem as a receptacle of something that will not be taken over by history or the world or by disaster.

north

 

A Living Hanging Hemisphere: Ted Hughes’ ‘Meeting’:

One of my most visited blog posts in recent months has been the discussion/analysis  of Ted Hughes’ poem ‘November’, The Month of the Drowned Dog: click here. The poem had been in my mind as we are studying it (along with a range of other poems by Hughes) in the Cambridge International Exam Board’s A level course for Literature in English. I suspect I am getting hits from students around the world also following the same course and – without wanting to become a major source of plagiarism – I thought this week I might discuss another poem from the same selection.

static1.squarespace

‘Meeting’ was first published in The Hawk in the Rain (Faber, 1957) and is one of several poems in that collection to present what has been called “the central theme or event in Hughes’ poetry: the usurpation or invasion of the world that the rational intellect has constructed by a power that is represented as greater and ultimately more real” (Neil Roberts, Ted Hughes: A Literary Life (Palgrave, 2006). The poem ‘Egg-Head’ is a much less concise treatment of the same issue. The common meaning of ‘egg-head’ – an intellectual, probably arrogant, person (usually a man?) – operates in Hughes’ poem which intends to berate such characters for what they exclude from their life experiences. But the egg image also implies a fragility which suits the poet’s purpose of critiquing the limits of such attitudes. Egg-heads, like Humpty-Dumpty, are always in danger of being cracked open. So the ‘Egg-Head’ character peers at life (this latter word gathers to itself extraordinary power and significance in Hughes’ as in D H Lawrence’s work) “through his fingers”. He deploys methods of “defence”, is “walled in” and “shuts out” and he “resists”. All this is achieved, Hughes roars in an angry, flurried combination of chewy consonants and Latinate vocabulary (that is perhaps not as controlled as it might be):

 

By feats of torpor, by circumventing sleights

Of stupefaction, juggleries of benumbing,

By lucid sophistries of sight

 

This is the vitriolic tone of the attack on the rational mind’s defences. It is countered by not wholly convincing phrases intended to be representative of life such as a “leaf’s otherness, / The whale-monstered sea-bottom, eagled peaks / And stars that hang over hurtling endlessness” quickly supplemented by “the flash / Of the sun, the bolt of the earth”, then “the looming mouth of the earth” and finally “the whelm of the sun”. What does emerge from such phrases is the link of life with the natural world, with great power, with incalculable scale.

horse-in-the-rain-750395940

All these ideas are better conveyed in ‘Meeting’ and a prose/short story version of Roberts’ “central theme or event” can be seen in ‘The Rain Horse’ (from Wodwo (1967); also found in the CIE Prose Anthology called Stories of Ourselves (p.271)). The young man at the start of this story has already come “too far” from the orderly “tarmac lanes” he had intended to walk. He had come hoping vaguely for “something, some pleasure, some meaningful sensation, he didn’t quite know what”. His encounter with the uncanny, threatening, apparently evil-intentioned horse of the title instead gives him a “fright and shame”. At the end he strips himself naked, sits staring at the ground “as if some important part had been cut out of his brain”. Roberts again interprets this sequence of events such that the horse is representative of un-delimited life, a “shamanic spirit” challenging the young man’s rational control and perception. So it’s less that something has been cut out of his brain (though he may feel the loss of self-constructed barriers as a loss) more that whole fields of experience, emotional and spiritual possibilities have been opened to him. This misinterpretation of the impact of life (in Hughes’ sense) is something also seen in ‘Meeting’.

imgres

‘Meeting’ opens with another of Hughes’ straw-men, a self-regarding male whose “smile”, in the first phrase, suggests he is well-pleased with what he views in the “mirror”. But as with ‘Egg-Head’, it is the exclusion of all else, all otherness, that concerns Hughes. Even as he smiles, the man “shrink[s]” the rest of the world to a “trinket”, the tinkling consonants (t-k-t) here neatly suggesting the insignificant bauble all else becomes in his view. The word is then countered by the grand sweep of the poem’s key phrase intended to evoke the too-often unregarded universe beyond the rationalist’s view: “the whole / Sun-swung zodiac of light”. Here the wide open vowels (o-u-u-o-a-i) suggest breadth and scale, the sibilance suggests a dynamism, the zodiac evokes images of both night sky and astrological/mythic  elements, the light suggests the elusiveness of life on this scale. For all this to be reduced to a “trinket” feels both absurd and tragic (for Keith Sagar this is both “hubristic and solipsistic”, reducing the universe to the point where man can erroneously “feel himself to be a god in it”). To drive the reductive point home even more clearly the trinket shape is said to appear “On the rise of his eye” which I take to be the curvature of the man’s pupil, but describing it as a “rise” also reminds us of the man’s own arrogantly elevated self-image.

zodiac-header

After the colon/caesura of line 3, Hughes uses the metaphor of a dramatic “role” for the man’s behavior to stress both its importance and falsehood. The role Hughes gives the man (or the role the man imagines himself to be playing) is that of Dr Faustus, the arrogant over-reacher, so consumed with his own importance that (in Christopher Marlowe’s play) he barters his soul for earthly power and pleasure though clearly warned of the consequences. He simply doesn’t seem to think the ordinary rules apply to him. The image of flinging “a cape” suggests an Elizabethan stage scene and that word “life” reappears here in all its significance since this is what the actor/man feels he can “outloom”. That Faustus himself outloomed ordinary life and religious sanctions for 24 years is relevant here; as is the fact that he was dragged screaming to Hell at the close of the play. Hughes imagery contains within it the condemnation he intends in the poem.

images

These opening four and a half lines set up the character of the young man. After the full stop in line 5 the “event” begins (and consists of one sweeping, irresistible sentence). Like the man in ‘The Rain Horse’, this man also wanders into the wilder realms of nature, to “an empty mountain slope”. To apply the adjective “empty” to this place is just one of the man’s errors, imagining a terra nullius where there is multifarious life and significance. What he actually encounters here is a “black goat”. It’s around here perhaps that a reader becomes more conscious of the poetic form Hughes is using. It’s terza rimaa form of triplets rhyming aba bcb cdc and so on. On the whole, Hughes manages this really well (line breaks at lines 5 and 8 perhaps turn more for form than sense and the rhyme word demanded in line 16 is awkward). The difficulty and complexity of this form might be a gesture to the rational man whose mind enforces order and organization, or contrastingly, the looping, self-involvement of the scheme might suggest Hughes’ own perception of the lived world’s interconnectedness.

The goat’s appearance has conventional features suggestive of threat and this means we are seeing it from the man’s perspective. Colours of “black” and “yellow-eyed” are ugly, as is the hyphenated phrase “square-pupilled”. Its onomatopoeic, assonontal and threatening movements (“clattered and ran”) are a challenge as is the position it takes up, “forefeet firm on a rock”, the sizzling fricatives and the ‘clatter’ of the monosyllabic “rock” further reinforce this. Of course, the goat’s placement “above” the man is significant of Hughes’ true valorization of this encounter. This is contrasted with line 11, as the “black devil head” is the man’s assessment of the creature, a designation that what lies beyond his usual comprehension must be categorized as evil.

images

One reason why this poem is more successful than ‘Egg-Head’ is that Hughes, in the final 7 lines, takes us seamlessly into the man’s transformative experience as a result of the encounter. Images of startling differences in scale occur. In contrast to the earlier belittling of the universe as a “trinket”, the man’s experience is now likened to being gathered up in “gigantic fingers” and placed on a “bare / Palm” for examination. The man’s littleness is the point and the “eye” of the universe (via a simile in line 15) is likened to “a living hanging hemisphere”. This eye is like the whole visible sky above him; a powerful contrast to the way in which the whole “zodiac” was itself reduced to a flickering shape on the man’s own “eye”. The reversal from arrogance to a newly-realised humility is brilliantly conveyed.

But perhaps there are doubts about the man’s epiphany. He is studied (or feels he is being studied) by the vastness of the real universe. His littleness and vulnerability, as in the phrase “his blood’s gleam”, is being examined by the “ray” of the world’s eyebeam. The differences in scale between “gleam” and “ray” are accentuated in line 17’s cosmic simile, describing the ray’s gaze as “Slow and cold and ferocious as a star”, the polysyndeton slowing the phrase down to again evoke a sense of great scale and distance. The goat’s exit is rapid (and again onomatopoeic) and the final ray/away rhyme of the terza rima brings the event to a definite sense of closure. So the man does not have a moment like the young man in ‘The Rain Horse’ where actual changes in his mind are suggested but it’s hard to believe he will return to his mirror smiling in quite such a self-satisfied way. I’d like to think him more open to experiences of “world” such as Louis MacNeice describes (from a less primitivist, more political perspective) in his poem ‘Snow’:

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes–
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of your hands–
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

(read Olivia Cole’s discussion of ‘Snow’ from Magma Magazine. 

p01g51yw
Louis MacNeice

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.

imgres

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.

**

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.

leaning-stack-of-papers-and-files

  • 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.

 **

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?

louis-macneice

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?’

 **

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.”

114650911_345473c

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.