And so I judged a poetry competition, and since I always like seeing how things work from the inside, here’s my judge’s report (though unfortunately none of the poems themselves are available to be read, except one of the commendeds, which had unknown to me at the time already been published). The report has been sent to all the finalists, if not all the entrants, and apparently was deemed helpful.
Judge’s Report: Thynks Open Poetry Competition 2013
Winner: Picture the Moment
Runner-up: A Walk in the Wood
Commended: A Closing, Masters of the Air, So Many Obstacles to Overcome
This was my first time judging a poetry competition, and I was quite excited! I received nineteen poems which had been selected from over a hundred (judging from the numbering system) by Pam Brindle and Christine Michael. I’m grateful to them for making this selection, and to Christine for keeping in touch and sending the final poems to me in a timely manner. Of course, I’d also like to congratulate all the poets who entered; writing is difficult enough, and to send your work out to complete strangers can be terrifying, so submitting work to a competition is in and of itself an act of bravery.
First, I read all the poems carefully without making notes or doing any mental sifting. Then I let them sit for a day, read them again, and began separating out potential winners. I ended up with seven, and considered those as a group. I eliminated a further two, leaving me with a shortlist of five. I made notes, I circled phrases and words of interest, and I made my selections.
A few things I noticed:
- Birds! Lots and lots of birds. As someone whose main connection to birds is watching the local seagull population tear open rubbish bags in the street when the council doesn’t collect them swiftly enough, I was intrigued by this avian overload. My own lack of bird experience didn’t prevent me from appreciating the poems, as two poems with birds as their central images made my top five. In addition to those, we had quite a few New Zealand birds (some of which I had never heard of before), three different poems invoking skylarks, and a chaffinch.
- A range of geographical settings. In addition to New Zealand, there were poems set in Ireland and Japan, and one which began and ended in Ireland with a wide-ranging journey to Morocco, Babylon, and Malta in between. As a expatriate and traveller myself, I appreciate glimpses into other countries, though the mere fact of a foreign setting wasn’t enough to propel a poem into the final round.
- Punctuation at the ends of lines. Many poems – even those who made it to the final five – failed to use punctuation for end-stopped lines (lines in which the natural pause comes at the end of the line). This sounds nitpicky, but as I was reminded in poem after poem, it is crucial not to be lazy. Don’t assume that simply because you have reached the end of the line, you don’t need any punctuation there. Enjambment is a powerful tool, but if the second line doesn’t continue the idea in the first line, consider carefully whether you need to indicate that mental pause. If you don’t include punctuation where it’s needed, the reader keeps mentally stopping and restarting, because they are expecting the thought/image to continue on, whereas they actually find themselves moving to a new thought or image.
In the spirit of the competition I will use an example from a poem about birds: John Greenleaf Whittier’s “What the Birds Said” (the full poem can be found at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174760). Here’s the penultimate stanza:
So to me, in a doubtful day
Of chill and slowly greening spring,
Low stooping from the cloudy gray,
The wild-birds sang or seemed to sing.
There’s no punctuation mark at the end of the first line because the first two lines are a complete thought. If you were reading this aloud, you would not stop after “day”. The second and third lines do end with punctuation marks, though, because we pause, maybe take a breath, let the image sink in before continuing on. Remember that even if we read a poem silently, it still speaks in our mind!
After I chose my top five poems, it took me a little while longer to settle on a winner. I narrowed it down to three, and examined each poem closely to consider its strengths as well as the places it didn’t work as well as it could have. My three commended poems all displayed good images and interesting language. “Masters of the Air” offers some lovely pictures of the ways in which birds possess the sky, though in the end I felt there was little more to the poem than description. “So Many Obstacles to Overcome” (which, from its epigram, is modelled on work by the Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz) is a sonnet which doesn’t stick to strict meter, and as a result the structure echoes the uncertainties of the speaker, who is trying to gain stability in a relationship which has caused upheaval. However, although the sky, the road, and the glass of wine all demonstrate the stability which has been lost and is sought for again, in the second stanza the imagery becomes vague, and I would have liked a closer look at the implied destruction. Finally, “A Closing” settles into a quiet repetition, simple without being simplistic, but the beginning and end could be stronger; in fact, I wondered if removing the first four lines wouldn’t improve the poem considerably.
My runner-up, “A Walk in the Wood”, made me laugh out loud. It’s cheerful nonsense with many funny images and rhymes. (It also reminded me that, as someone whose native language is American English, the voice in my head doesn’t rhyme “prawns” with “thorns”.) This poem, like “A Closing”, could have been shortened a bit – the spaceman stanza suddenly removes the poem from its woodland setting, and the characters aren’t nearly as nonsensical as the animals which have already been introduced, so there’s a weak point in an otherwise charming poem.
My winner, “Picture the Moment”, brings birds to life with carefully-considered and exact similes. I felt as though I were present alongside the speaker, watching the school field and the birds who take the place of the absent children. Although the final lines lack the immediacy and striking alliteration of the earlier stanzas, the poem overall uses the metaphor of birds to develop a narrative of a speaker moving from isolation in a late cold winter afternoon towards a place of brightness.
Again, my congratulations to all the entrants, and especially to the winner.