Kathleen Jamie: Judge’s Report
You agree to judge a competition not because you want to sit in judgment, or ‘discover’ an unknown talent, but to find out what’s going, what the prevailing fashions are. What you receive is a sort of windfall tax on contemporary poetry.
But you have to choose winners. Soon enough a snow of rejects covers the floor. Then you ask – what is it I’m looking for? If I don’t know, how will I know when I find it? But you do know. What you look for, feel for – what you end up longing for – is a piece of work with an inner urgency. I don’t mean loud or fast. I mean any sense that the poem required to be written, and may have surprised its author. Perhaps ‘urgency’ is not the word. Maybe ‘necessity’ is a better. Or ‘self-willed’. A poem which arose out of necessity. What I sensed was many entries had been built from ‘ideas for poems’ and very probably in the context of a workshop or writers’ group. This gave them a stilted feel. Also, I sensed many had been written for the competition – which never works. Write the poem that wants to be written, then wait for a competition to happen along.
Where do poems come from, if not from ideas? – yes, that’s the question. From scraps of wild energy, from images that snag in the mind, from odd phrases that cohere with those images, from – as I say – some agenda of their own. I suspect an ‘idea’ is already too set in its ways. You want a pre-idea.
Having got the nagging feeling, the energy, the image, the scraps of words, what then? Then, of course, comes the craft; the growing, shaping and forming. The most common fault among the entries was the writer’s failure to hear a line. When I’m asked what is the difference between poetry and prose, I reply the status of the line. Lines that were both controlled and breathed, that listened to language, that revealed and slowed... or raced and paced – these were hard to find.
The three prize winning poems were those that stuck most in my mind, and brought me a species of joy. Perhaps I mean relief. All are richly imagined, unexpected, and as it happens, constructed in three different ways, which just proves that ANY structure is better than none. ‘Sisters in a Wood’ is a quiet, melancholy and tender sonnet, nicely judged, quite without pyrotechnics. ‘Hello, I’m visiting the area…’ dreams a believable, complete, if slightly tilted world with long loping rhythmic lines, which by rights ought to fall apart, but don’t.
‘The Canal Road’ is a poem where, in rhyme, and with gloriously old-fashioned poetic inversions, we are addressed by a worn-out sandal. I loved it the moment I read it. I don’t know what ‘murram’ is and don’t know if the poet is from the Subcontinent, but I kept returning to the poem, grateful to be taken far beyond myself.