The first words of Tolstoy’s novel, Anna Karenina, are much quoted:
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
The thing that has struck me most forcibly about the poems in the 2013 Takahe poetry competition is that this phrase (with an inversion and a few substitutions) could also serve to describe the entries to a poetry competition:
Bad poems are all alike; every good poem is good in its own way.
It’s probably a bit … premature? arrogant? me? to offer any sort of overall verdict based on one read-through, but that particular aspect of it – that so many of the entries fail in the same way/s – is overwhelming. And somewhat depressing. Here are three.
A large number of entries aren’t poems. I’m not talking about prose poems, or even making any assessment of subject matter. These are pieces that are the classic ‘chopped up bits of prose’. There’s no charge in the syntax, no music, no sense of underlying rhythm. Just … words, bunged down on the page. (Partly in preparation for this judging, I’ve been rereading my Stephen Dobyns. Particularly his essays on the history of free verse, and metrical verse vs free verse vs vers libre vs vers libere vs prose. If you haven’t read Best Words, Best Order yet, you really should.)
No awareness of what a linebreak does. Or could do. Or should do. Or really doesn’t do. You can break a line wherever you want, and for whatever reason you want. But there should be a reason. At least some of the time. It genuinely does have an impact on how the poem comes across, and what the lines say. Ok, I’m a bit obsessive about such things. But it’s such a fundamental part of writing poetry!
Most of the poems that use rhyme use it really badly. Moon/spoon/June badly. The line isn’t just bent, it’s fractured, minced, freeze-dried, vacuum-sealed, shipped around the world on an oil-barge, and used as a binding agent in the manufacture of cheap toilet paper. All so the person can bang in the first word they’ve thought of that rhymes with the one at the end of the line before. Forget the need for each line to still make sense with the lines around it. There are some poems where the whole line fails to make any sense with the rhyme word. I keep hoping that one of these poems will turn out to be an ironic send-up of the bad rhyming poem. Alas, no.
There are lots of other things – heaps of typos and spelling mistakes, way too many poems using a reference to the moon as some kind of Magic Poem Seasoning (“just a dash transforms the ordinary into the poetic!”), and quite a few poems written by people who I would be willing to bet haven’t read and enjoyed any book of poetry published for adults since the 1800s.
Perhaps this all sounds horribly negative and judgmental. But I have visions of all these people sending their entries in, buying a copy of the magazine to read the results, and then sitting there feeling resentful and baffled when they read the poems that won. And here’s the secret – I know how that feels, because I’ve been that person. I have entered competitions with poems that were guilty of all the sins I’ve listed, plus several more that were all my own invention. But I learned. And worked. And now I can usually tell the difference between a poem that I just don’t like, and a poem that isn’t well written. (Yes, I know, there are plenty of you who would dispute that last point. But at least I have enough self-awareness and knowledge of the genre to be able to argue my case, even if it isn’t always a winning one.)
Maybe I’m getting this wrong. Maybe the people who wrote a lot of these bad poems are just happy banging them out and sending them off, and really don’t expect to get anywhere. And don’t mind thinking of entry fees as the price they pay to keep enjoying their hobby. In which case ok, but you could probably do more with your money by subscribing to magazines and buying books. Or going to poetry courses, or readings. But hey, I am actually happy that you enjoy yourself, and that poetry is your recreational choice. More power to your elbow. But, in the interests of not making people who judge competitions feel quite so overwhelmed, maybe only enter the ones that you think are as good as you can possible do? (It is a competition, after all. Eddy the Eagle and Eric the Eel were great one-offs. But if we had a dozen of them in every event, it would soon lose its appeal.)
But for those who are in the other category – the ones who don’t get why their poems aren’t being picked, or who feel baffled by the whole thing of modern poetry – ok, there are things you can do. In the privacy of your own home, with no special equipment needed. When you get the magazine, read the poems. Your first reaction may well be “this is bullshit, this is rubbish, my poems are better than that!” Ok, have a stomp around the house, swearing at the appliances. Whatever you need to do to process that feeling. When you’ve got it out of your system, come back to the poems. And read them again. See if you can find something in there that might be the reason why this poem got the nod ahead of yours. Read it out loud. Try and forget ownership, and just look at the poem as a piece of verbal machinery. Does it rhyme? How? Is it subtle, obvious, funny, non-existent, what? Do the linebreaks do anything? Tease double meanings out of words, make you more (or less) aware of a certain word or phrase or sound? Are there strikingly appropriate (or weirdly wacky or funny) images? Do phrases stick in your head? Does it make you want to reread? Turn it into a game. See how many things you can find that I might be giving a tick to. Then look at your own poem. How many of those things have you done? Lots of poems had a great title, or a really interesting first line, but then wasted that spark by being boring or poorly written from then on. How did the winning poem do? And yours? How about language? I admit that the modern preference for language to be unobtrusive and non-fancy is a matter of fashion, but it’s a fashion that’s been in vogue since at least 1798, so it’s probably one that’s worth taking on board. If the people in CSI started phrasing things the way they do in Shakespeare’s plays, you’d think they were extracting the urine. Same applies in poetry – if it’s not the way you would naturally say something – albeit a polished, rehearsed, well-thought-out way – then why make your poem talk that way?
All of this is quite a long way of doing what was meant to be a brief comment about my first impressions of common issues with some poems. And of course, there are lots of good poems. But weeding out the bad ones tends to be the first step in judging (for me at least), so that’s what I’ve been thinking of most.
I’d be interested to hear from others who have judged literary competitions. What did you find about the overall standard? Did the failures all tromple down the same paths, or did they fail in a different set of ways?