Every time I judge a poetry competition I am reminded of how much talent is so little rewarded. I received poems of every kind, ballads, sonnets, acrostics, free verse, intensely private, fiercely indignant, humorous, melancholy – and not one that did not give me pleasure of some kind, whether from a well-turned phrase, a striking observation, or a wry recognition of the limitations of age. The latter was a theme of the poems to an almost dismaying extent, even if many of them shook a fist at oncoming weakness and mortality. All of them, regardless of subject, exhibited a maturity of tone which reflected years of experience, as one might expect. I was not consciously looking for this but it was palpably present.
The task of the judge though is to judge, which means weighing one poem against another. It’s never easy – the judge has to say goodbye to many poems that have struck a chord – and no choice can ever be ‘right’. I have been guided always not by the question ‘do I like what this poem is about?’ but the question ‘in my judgement does this work as a poem?’ Do its language, form, cadence, imagery all work together to produce that sense of completeness which is always recognisable when it’s met, though not so easy to define?
Any poetry competition judge will tell you that the final choices from a shortlist are the hardest bit and so it proved. Those at the top of the list moved in and out of contention. However, the top three remained steadily in the top three after three or four readings of the entire entry, though the order kept changing, showing how hard it was to choose between them. I could have awarded joint prizes but decided against it.
Finally if you were disappointed this time, don’t take it to heart too much (says one who always takes it to heart more than she should). Look at the poem again, send it elsewhere (tweaked a bit if you feel it needs it) and see what happens. There are other competitions, other judges. Or try a magazine: editors are not concerned with assigning ranks to poems, only with whether they are good poems and fit the current issue of the mag. Thank you to all who submitted and good luck with your future writing.
See A.C.Clarke’s comments with each of the winning poems.