On Choosing a Poetry Competition Winner

19 February 2013

'The poem wriggled and wouldn’t stop wriggling. It was unignorable.' George Szirtes on Eel Ghazal, by Jane Aldous - the winner of the Wigtown Poetry Competition 2012, Main Prize.


In 2012, George Szirtes judged the main category in our Poetry Competition.  Here he describes the judging process and how he chose his commended entries, runner up and winner. 

I was given about 300 sifted poems out of a total of 510 entered to read, a number that is manageable as a first read over a few days. It is, of course, impossible to read even 300 poems at a sitting because if they are any good they establish a space for themselves in the reader’s mind and, after a while, crowd each other out. One’s sense of comparative quality begins to erode, so it takes a number of sessions with breaks in between.

It might be easier if a lot of poems were simply bad and hopeless. Then one might flick an eye over it and say: That is obviously not going to win. If asked what might make a poem bad and hopeless I might say something about insufficient attention to language and unquestioned clichés of feeling. That is not a criticism about the people writing such poems - people are far more complex and valuable than the language they happen to use - it is a criticism of the poems. But others had, presumably, sifted the poorer poems - some 200 of them, so there was nothing easy about this.

That concentrates the mind on the opposite end of the scale: the question of winning. It is encouraging that over the years that I have judged competitions, I have seen better, more competent poems as time has gone on: poems that are more attuned to the subtleties of language. They have a firmer control of shape, register and process;  a better understanding of what a poem is and what it can do. They tend to be pretty good. Why this should be so is another matter for another day, but so I have found.  The trouble is that, as judge, I have to pick, for Wigtown,  two outstanding poems plus only four to commend.

How do I do that? I have three piles that correspond to pretty good, very good, and potential winner. The difficulty comes in distinguishing the last two categories and then making the prize choices.

As for the rest I register the fact that here is a civilised and capable batch of poems and feel grateful for that. I also admit that no choice is ever going to be perfect. Once you get down to the last twenty or so poems impressions change all the time. Poems swim to the front then fall back, others start slow then move ahead. The convention whereby the winner takes a much larger prize than the second or third, or even some of the commended poems, is a function of public attention rather than of intrinsic value. Values are much closer than that. Given another day, another hour, another ten minutes the result might have been different. If I were editing an anthology of poems all the poems in the winner-commended list would be included.

Can I say anything useful about the difference between pretty good and very good? The difference involves a certain transcending of subject matter. There are elegant, sensitive poems about a variety of subjects and there are feelings about those subjects to which those poems appeal, subjects such as death, sickness, loss, love, the past. The poem, however, is not simply the civilised response to those subjects but something beyond, something that involves a certain playful spirit in the language arriving at a point where what Auden called the auditory imagination comes into its own - and it can do so even in the most sombre room. That is the step into the unknown, the unmastered, the surprising, the oddly exhilarating, that truly makes a poem.

My four commended poems and the two prize winners all have that quality. The Madonna of Oxfam refers to the common feeling of time passing, but it enters at an unusual angle. The first line has a freshness and delight in the surreal idea of a dress that ‘comes with its own breasts’ It immediately arrests the reader. The poem proceeds logically and delicately from there. The brand names, Le Creuset, Lycra keep us in touch with the common ground and we end with a nicely funny piece of judgment where the judgment itself is part of the amusement. The poem is touching, clear, funny and more.

Losing it is quite different but it too enters in a startling fashion. The poem enacts experience through the physicality of its language, It is delicious to say. It is songlike and embodied. I love, for example,  how a wave’s ‘pearling hiss / predicts in aural hieroglyphs’ and the sound of the last line and a half with ‘the dumped / lung drowned in it’. The whole is exhilarating and buoyant. It was only that the poem was so focused in on a single experience that limited it in the end - but it was a poem worth writing and a delight.

Záhrada - The Garden is a prose poem, dreamlike, beginning with and persisting with references to a film but juxtaposing those references with observations from a real life elsewhere that offers  suggested parallels. The poem is very precise in its dream-likeness. The fascination of prose poetry is that it presents us with a form - prose - of which we expect sequential development. The prose poem then offers a less sequential set of events of an essentially poetic nature, that - were it poetry - might look a little inflated. The prose deflates it and makes it stranger. I was utterly held by this. It’s not a story. Not an excerpt from a story, not a diary jotting It is a poem I want to enter and live in.

Ghosts is the most straightforward of the Commended poems in narrative terms. The accent is not so much on the enactment of an event as a witness account of a drama. In that sense it does seem to be all subject matter, but it is carefully constructed, and moves surely and, in the end surprisingly, to a key event whose significance is not fully developed. That dramatic ending with its withheld development is the source of power in the poem. The end sends you back to the beginning. It has a Robert Frost feel to it but I am persuaded of the originality of its perception. The eye in the poem is a camera that moves across time and space: the end opens out rather than closes.

The poem I have made my runner-up, Hands, is as cinematic as are, in their different ways, Záhrada and Ghosts. We are in Eliot’s ‘violet hour’. People are leaving offices. It is raining. The poem begins, as do all the best poems, with a sense of event. There is a suggestion I have made to my students for years, it is: enter firmly, step off lightly. This poem immediately takes me not only to a place but to a condition that is on the edge of being realised. That condition is sleep, a point of tension. Everything in the poem is active: rain sways, hands switch, glass and stone step back.  The poem is sonnet length and the change comes at the end of line 9. It’s a return to the first position and picks up from there. The opening out (the best poems often open out at the end) is like a discovery. Suddenly the hands are there! It is like a release, a vision that appears all by itself.

The winner wins because the language in it is so alive and eel-like.  Eel Ghazal wriggles in the mind and in the mouth. The second line is gorgeous, a rhetorical question we know to be rhetorical, looking to identify with the eel, to be the eel, to locate that which is eel-like in a self. It is almost shamanistic in that respect. But it doesn’t get too hot and bothered or high-spiritual - its talk of the ‘slithery boy’ and of spivs, keeps it grounded and sensory. The fourth verse takes a chance in actually naming the ancient and the mysterious. It could get a little ceremonial at the point and lose contact with the live eel that is its soul, but it re-enters ‘eel’ness at the end, chiefly aurally, through its succession of four ‘ee’ sounds. As a ghazal it is loose but I wasn’t looking for rules. The poem wriggled and wouldn’t stop wriggling. It was unignorable.


George Szirtes


The 2013 Wigtown Poetry Competition is now open for entries