Day Nine: Judging Torbay

I have spent the past three days on my second trawl through the Torbay submissions pile.  Three hundred and fifty poems survived the first read-through and found themselves in the generous fat folder  called ‘the possibles’.  Meaning that it was possible they would find themselves on the shortlist – if they were among the twenty which ( unknown to me at the moment )  already outshone the rest.

All these second trawl poems have merit. Some have a great deal. Readings now, alas, are essentially fault-finding.  There are unique faults, of course, but also prevailing ones and I am going to write about one of these today.  The name it has found for itself is

beautiful card houses falling down.

Many of the poems I am having to set aside are growing a little too obviously from their first idea.  At first – even at second – hearing or reading, it is often enchantment enough to admire and enjoy the way a first idea dresses itself, develops and discovers its final shape, like watching a Cinderella in transformation for the ball. A tantalising  wordsmith, an inventive mind, a masterly painter, a good ventriloquist – the Torbay  poets have a wonderful range of skills for turning a first idea into a delightful construct on the page. It is lovely to be taken over and diverted by these sleights of hand. 

But the time must come – and for me it is coming at third and fourth reading – when you ask whether the first idea has really justified the effort the poet and the reader between them have put in.  This is of course particularly true of the intricate, challenging and ambitious pieces where considerable efforts of attention and/or emotional engagement are required.

Often the slenderness of the first idea is revealed only in the final lines.  You can feel cheated, particularly if the poem has asked a lot of you, and then, at the last moment, almost literally, has offered very little in return. With some of most ‘worked’ poems, even as you register your disappointment, you realise that all along you have almost heard the poet thinking “that’s a /clever/unusual/ impressive idea for a poem. I’ll  try that.” I sometimes think of these ‘worked’ poems as pyrotechnical.  The fireworks have to be very, very good to go on impressing through the many readings needed to keep their poems in the possible shortlist pile.

With other poems, though, it is more that the driving  idea was one of the very familiar, by now almost standard templates. For example  

  • it is sad to have to leave a once loved home …
  • it is nicer to be young than to be old …
  • I have sympathy for  people less fortunate than myself…
  • it grieves me to lose the people I have loved…
  • I like the countryside …
  • animals and birds are rather interesting …
  • it is more exotic to be abroad than to be at home…
  • man the species does not look after his planet very well.

These  templates are so familiar and trusted, so well worn that you are bound to expect quite a lot of these poems if you are going to let them through.

Yet every one of these familiar themes, in the hands of the masters ( and of the mistresses) has generated  poems of staggering range, complexity, impact and power and will go on doing so as long as poetry exists.  The weakness cannot be in the ideas themselves, or we would have much less wonderful poetry than we do.  The weakness must be in a flawed relationship between the idea and its execution – in it being evident, in fact, that the idea and the execution are separable at all.

In a good poem, you cannot tell the dancer from the dance.  If you can, if the poem feels like a  house of cards ( however lovely the cards) balancing on the thin foundation of an first idea, rather than an organic, breathing whole, shapeshifting unpredictably with every line –then, most likely, if read too often, the card house will fall down.

One Comment

  1. Hi Sue, I’m really enjoying your refreshing comments about the poetry judging competition – your ideas and thoughts breathe new life into thinking about why we write poems, the subjects, treatments and the need to keep thinking about the process. Looking forward to the next instalment! Sarah



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