Living with Poems – the second and third read-throughs

whittle04 aWell, after two more read-throughs of every poem, I managed to whittle things down to a longlist of fifty by bedtime last night. It made for some slightly weird dreams, but hey, I do it so that no-one else has to. (Plus I have weird dreams anyhow.) I began by sorting things into three piles – I Think Yes (actually called that), Maybe, and That Would Be No.

I made myself go through the No pile once more, to see if I was being too harsh. As part of that, I tried to categorise what it was about them that let them down so badly. Rhyme Crimes and Poetry Clichés were the two biggest sub-categories (and saw a lot of crossover). I will read these No poems again, just to make absolutely sure that I’m not missing some hidden subtlety that actually redeems the errors and transforms it into a perfect poem … but I would be surprised to see any of these ones move.

Then I went back through the Maybes. This was by far the biggest pile. This time I took a pencil, and made notes on the poems where there were things that bugged me, or that I wanted to check. Some of them were probably really No poems, but that had some hint of something that I thought needed to be considered again. At this point I didn’t think too much about how many poems I was bumping up to the Yes pile – it was really just a case or reading them again and deciding if they were well written or not. There were a couple that made the leap across, but only two or three. This I found comforting.

So then it was the turn of the Yes pile to feel the Wrath of the Pencil, and be subjected to a more critical scrutiny. This time there were a handful that were demoted to the Maybe pile. (Including one on the ones that I’d just bumped – sigh! it ain’t easy being a competition poem.) Again, my main consideration was whether they were well written or not. Clichés got crosses. Spelling mistakes got crosses. Tangled grammar (and it has to be pretty darn tangled for me to notice) got crosses. Anything with no crosses, and that I was still feeling fond of, stayed in the Yes pile. Those with pencil marks got given another quick flick through – some stayed, and some were demoted. By the end of it all, I had fifty poems that still made me want to reread. The Longlist was born!

whittle04 b

Today I whittled it down to the shortlist of twenty. (The nice, neat numbers are a complete fluke.) I was being super picky this time, looking for the sorts of things I’d pick on if I was being paid to critique the poems. I spent quite a bit of time checking words, phrases, references etc on the internet (how did we ever manage without it?!).I wanted to make sure I wasn’t giving undue weight (in either direction) to something I only half-understood. All fifty poems were covered in notes. One thing that I made a point of doing (and which was quite illuminating) was read each poem out loud. It’s funny – the poem that looks so dense and tricksy on the page can actually turn out to be beautiful on the tongue. (And attracts bonus marks.) Equally, there were a couple that I had quite liked that really floundered in a couple of places. Sometimes it was things like clusters of sound that were very hard to enunciate, sometimes it was more to do with the line futzing the rhythm and becoming quite clunky. Rightly or wrongly, I think a poem should work aloud. Homophones are hard to pull off: true. But with the page in front of you and the poet’s own words on your lips, surely that’s the best possible outting? And if the poem doesn’t work there, then you have to go back and re-examine the text. See if you can come up with a plausible reason for it to be that way. Otherwise … you have to assume it’s an error.

Tonight I’ll transfer my on-poem notes to my journal, bust out the eraser, and return the poems to their unadorned state. I won’t read them over the weekend. Monday morning I’ll come back to them fresh. I’ll take five at random, and pit each of the other shortlisted poems against them. Poem X and Poem Y – which is better written? Which could I argue the case for better? X? Then try Y against poem Z. Y better? Then it replaces Z in the five. How does Z do against W? And so on, until every poem in the shortlist has been compared to each of the poems in my top five. Then I’ll do the same through the longlist discards. Then I’ll go through the other two piles for one last time, see if anything feels like it deserves a shot at the title.

Then – assuming I haven’t started wearing my knickers on my head, or attacked someone with a pencil, or something else that suggests my judgement may be a little less than perfectly reliable – I’ll just have to decide Which is the Poem to Rule Them All …

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