Day Fourteen: Judging Torbay

One of the great and abiding delights of ‘small’ poems is the discovery that we and a poet are making similar stumbling pathways through similarly problematic little worlds.  I am using the idea of a ‘small’ poem in the sense of unambitious in the scope of its chosen subject. Small is absolutely not pejorative, nor are there many real constraints on what a ‘small’ poem can achieve.   Small poetry is an art charged with companionship and sympathy, and a great blessing to those who have discovered that a book of well crafted ‘small’ poems is a far better investment than a middling bottle of supermarket wine.

Much of daily life is fairly dull and some of it is fairly disappointing.  Sadly, though, the mere mirroring of these truths is not going to be sufficient to carry off the prizes in Torbay.  Today I am working on fifty of the final one hundred and seventy poems left in the cut.  Of these fifty, twenty six, sadly, are going down, many of them either to dullness – their twenty four competitors were simply more interesting – or because they made  the judge feel too dispirited to want to read any of them any more times than she already had.

The melancholy textures of waning marriages. The careful performance of familiar domestic tasks. Weather events, unspectacular. Everyday personal possessions (including clothes) and the memories they evoke. The passing of the seasons. Delicate flurries of sentiment. Small poignancies. Poems which merely record these familiar truths generate very proper affection and solicitude among good friends. Among the many big hitters on my desk, however, too many of them are like ducklings on a motorway.  They are not going to survive.

I have set aside several school children poems today.   Also poems where the poet looks at nature. Poems about different kinds of water features.  Quite a few poems looking back at a vanished past.  But every single one I set aside this afternoon MIGHT have made the shortlist – if their poets had taken on their subjects ‘slant’ perhaps, or had known better how to find its undoubtable inner light. 

As this one does….


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.

Day Six: Judging Torbay

If a poem is telling the truth, it will ring true…

but only if its author really listens to what the poem wants to say.

Three momentous events are featuring quite regularly in the Torbay submissions pile. The First World War, unsurprisingly, since we are currently living through the years of its centenary.  The migrant crisis whose insoluble heart-searching presence is never far from our television screens. And the European Holocaust, in particular the events in the Nazi  extermination camps. 

Some  poets are simply underestimating how hard it is to write convincingly about other people’s truth when that truth is part of the weave of well known public history. But there are also some poets  who appear to be  mining other people’s tragedies without having the empathy and tact which these massive subjects really do demand.  There are poems among the submissions which are not failures of expertise, but failures of the heart. 

I have been thinking about this over the past few days when I have been sadly and slowly reducing my pile of nine hundred Torbay poems by three fifths. Despite their huge variety of subject matter and approach, many of the poems I have set aside have this  in common: they are essentially programmatic.  They knew exactly where they wanted to make landfall before they cast off the boat.

Paul Klee’s idea about taking a line for a walk ( brilliant as an account of how to draw) needs a bit of adapting when it comes to poetry. It  seems to suggest that the poet will be in charge of the line, whereas in many of the best poems, of course, it is the line which is in charge.  The best poets step off the known when they start to write and allow themselves to discover the previously unknown places where their line is leading them. The spaces of the heart open up when you listen to your line and tend to remain closed shut if you do not. Poems written to  preset programmes  are often limited and predictable, with language predictable and  limited to match. Even more damaging, the preset poem often reveals serious failures of sympathy because the poet’s imagination has never really been receptive to what the subject wants to say.

If you know exactly what you are going to say about a subject, before you begin your poem,  it is probably better to say that thing in prose.    

Strangely, it is often poems where sympathy is most necessary that are imaginatively and emotionally shackled by their programmes being too strong.  Poems about very old people. About people who are soon to die. About people with addictions. About people without countries, without homes.  About victims of violence.  About victims of abuse. About doomed soldiers.  About the victims of the Nazi Holocaust. Subjects often so harrowing that you are surprised a poet would chose to tackle them unless he or she was willing to live for a while inside the spaces of these devastated lives and find out, by allowing the line to lead them,  what was really going on.

Two poems came into my mind while I was trying to catch this thought. One is Robin Robertson’s astonishing  ‘The Park Drunk’ which you can download from the Poetry Archive site. The poem opens his collection 2006 Swithering.  Who would ever have expected such a subject could begin like this?

He opens his eyes to a hard frost / The morning’s soft amnesia of snow

Soft amnesia of snow….the low pulse of blood orange riding in the eastern trees…here is the intricate arresting beauty of natural things, seen with an agonised intensity of loss by someone who knows he  has fallen off the edge of the safe and familiar world. It is easy to shrink from an urban alcoholic. Robin Robertson’s line leads  away from judgment into the heart of the individual  human tragedy.  The other poem I kept remembering, as I read and re-read Torbay submissions where the heart was not engaged, was Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Last Post’, the poet laureate’s compassionate poem about the First World War with its poignant final line

If poetry could tell it backwards, then it would.

The poet steps off the edge of her own world and goes where the line wants her to go, which is not to any of the places you might expect in a poem about the War. If you haven’t heard Carol Ann Duffy read her poem, or even if you have, listen to it again.  Here is the link.

Day Two: Judging Torbay

Melancholy, but inevitable day….

I have been doing my first read-through to discover the imaginary line which divides the Torbay poems which might make the eventual shortlist from the poems which will not. I am being generous at this stage, of course, determined not to overlook a poem which deserves more admiration than I gave it at first glance. As a result, of the four hundred poems I have read so far, almost half are in the possible shortlist pile.

These poems are safe, for the moment, so my attention has been on the ones which are about to be left behind. I read them a second time, as promised, and begin to feel that they have something in common with each other which the ongoing poems do not share.

This has nothing to do with their range of subject matter, relationship to formal technique, linguistic register, or length.  In all these respects, they seem to inhabit exactly the same poetic space as the poems in the other pile.

It has to do with loneliness and it surprised me to find that word asking to be the one that expressed my thought.

Competition and magazine poems are sent into the world to reach an audience, even if it is in the first instance only an audience of one.  They are artefacts made of words.  Although words have other important dimensions, and can be used to create wonderful visual and aural shapes, they are primarily carriers of meaning.  It is important that a poem’s audience understands what the poem wants to say. A poem which wants to say something, but cannot make itself understood seems to me an intrinsically lonely creature, mumbling barren syllables into bewildered space.

Many of the poems in the set aside pile haven’t quite managed to communicate what they want to say.  They aren’t obscure because they are erudite, nor because their subject is unfamiliar, nor because they are conducting daring experiments with words which are seldom used. They are obscure because the poet seems  not to  have asked the bedrock question, as he or she revised and edited, ‘am I writing in such a way that my impulse to share this will be understood?

I have been wondering why…. and wondering whether we have somehow accidentally created a culture where it isn’t considered quite kindly or appropriate to require a poem to say something which its audience will be able understand.  Many of the poems in the left hand pile on my desk seem to have been composed without regard to their future audience.   Yet I also feel that almost all the poems which fail in this particular way have been written by serious  poets who have something important longing to be heard. Are there too many models of lauded poetic impenetrability leading some of them astray ?  In other parts of their lives, are they composing beautifully lucid prose?  Perhaps they think it is easier to write a poem – any poem – than it is?

“To create a little flower is the labour of ages.”
William Blake, English (1757-1827)








Day One: Judging Torbay

Nine hundred poems on my desk. 

What if one of them blindsides me?  What if I let a work of breathtaking excellence pass me by?  What if I am THE TORBAY FESTIVAL COMPETITION JUDGE WHO FAILED TO SPOT THE FUTURE WINNER OF THE FORWARD PRIZE?  At the start of the first day’s judging, that terror certainly concentrates the mind.

Patricia Oxley handed over eight hundred  poems to me yesterday outside Bath rail station in a Marks and Spencer recyclable dark green plastic bag. They join the so far scrupulously unread hundred poems in the brown manila envelope which I collected in July at John Miles delightful pamphlet launch in Brixham when I was down in Devon for Oversteps Day at Dartington.

Nine hundred brand new windows on the world.  I love not knowing who the writers are.  It should be impossible to bring any preconceptions to the reading. All the clues will really have to come from the black marks on the white page.

Last night, I treated myself to just one poem, drawn at random from the Brixham manila envelope.  I don’t know why these lines were so immediately haunting, and may never know who sent them in.  But a big ‘thank you’ to whoever began this wonderful journey for me in such an enchanting way.

A place where tap water is refreshingly cool / in the early days of good weather….

The first thing I will do this morning is to shuffle the whole pack to prevent poems by the same person appearing adjacent in the pile. If you develop a suspicion that poems come from the same hand, you can allow improper ideas and judgments to creep in and I want to block that from the start.

The second thing I will do is to bluetack the following  axioms to my study wall.  The Bath Poetry Cafe devised them several years ago as common ground for the twelve first stage judges we used in our own competitions and they served us well.  The only change I am going to make is to the first.  ‘Like’ seems a rather narrowing word so I will amend it to I like/admire/respond to this poem and I think other people will like/admire/respond to it too. 

  • I like this poem and I think other people will like it too.
  • I am convinced by the observation and emotion in this poem.
  • This poet is sensitive to language and uses it well.
  • The treatment of the subject engages me.
  • The poem holds my interest throughout.
  • This poem is well crafted.

The Cafe Poets’ instructions went on to say : Poems which meet those requirements will then be revisited to select the ones which most impressively “say something which is not trivial, not obvious, don’t use outworn images or diction, and which work at many levels simultaneously.”  (Patricia Oxley)

 I think rather a high percentage of my nine hundred poems are going to clear all these hurdles.  The adventure ( as always, in life as in literature) will be discovering what happens next.