Saturday, 29 January 2011

The Imaginarium of the Doctors of Parnassus: on judging process

A last word on the NPS competition, for now at least. I think it is in order to describe the elements of the judging process, at least of this particular one, in broad terms.

Before the meeting all three judges had been asked to make a list of fifty to take forward to the final session. There were of course poems just outside the fifty (I had shrunk my thousands down to a little over eighty, then had to discard thirty, which was in itself a very hard decision) that might very well have been in the fifty but just missed it at the end.

Each judge's fifty is sent to the other two (each judge has seen two-thirds of the poems and not seen one-third: every poem submitted has been seen by two judges), so, with some overlap we are, by the time the meeting comes around, looking at something like a hundred-and-twenty poems, give or take overlaps.

This is the point, before the meeting takes place, when I start marking by percentages. I do it out of the desire to create some semblance of precedence and to set my mind in order. Even at this stage individual poems move up and down the ladder, but eventually I have marks ranging from the sixties to the eighties. I don't think other judges do that, but this is how I personally manage this time.

When it comes to the meeting we decide that each judge should propose a personal top twenty. This decision is taken in the meeting, which is just the judges and no-one else present. No one tells us what to do or how to do it. It's a reasonable way of proceeding. I look at my marking and take the top twenty, still with doubts about the precedence between those and the ones a mark or so under. I recall how the poems had slipped up and down the ladder before and wonder whether they might do so again. They do, because some of the others' top twenties did not make it into mine.

As it happens there is only one poem in our joint top twenties on which all three agree, but for none of us was it number one. There are several poems where two agree and one doesn't. It doesn't have to happen like this but we can't discuss over a hundred poems in equal detail, and this method works.


This is where the discussion really begins. In what terms does the discussion proceed? I'll list some of the terms, none of them official criteria (we don't have official criteria and other judges might have different ones), nor are they in order of precedence. The 'criteria' themselves slide up and down the ladder of importance as discussion proceeds.

  • artistry in terms of construction - something beautifully made out of whatever material
  • consistency and coherence throughout the poem in terms of material
  • freshness and originality of perception
  • a certain passionate depth at the core of the experience articulated by the poem
  • the establishing, variety, flexibility and sustaining of voice
  • controlled excitement in language and vision arising out of the development of the poem
  • pure personal delight

To repeat, these are not criteria as such, but do seem to have been some of the main qualities discussed. Not in these words. Every judge employs whatever terms seem right and natural to them. I have my way of talking, so do others. Furthermore, each individual judge will set those 'criteria' into a slightly different personal order in general, an order that might change again in the case of individual poems. So, when considered in the light of one of these criteria, those that seem to have become particularly appropriate in the case of this or that poem, this or that poem might 'move into the light'.

As soon as it does so it is subjected to a strict examination. Those who first advocated the poem in any of the available terms now listen while those who are less convinced address the poem again and point out its weakness in this or that respect.

And so it goes on. So poems move up and down the order until it seems we have agreed on the top three or four and even on their order of precedence. That can take more hours of course.

Nothing we decide is of eternal or objective validity. It has no objective validity outside of the process itself. The result is what the process has produced. Given more hours the process might have produced a different result. We are not gods. We are civilised people, poets entrusted with a task, who have behaved well to each other, putting our cases for and against. We have not tried to intimidate each other. We have listened as hard as we could. Sometimes we changed our minds - but there was nothing set in stone about our minds before we started - and we hope that when we did so it was for the better.

Others before us might have conducted the process and themselves differently, as might others to come. We are tired. We feel it's been an honest day's work. We are as sure as anyone can be that not only are we not gods, we are not even deities of a minor kind. We are perfectly fallible human beings and we might be wrong. Juries often are. There are, in any case, important things beyond all this fiddle, and that is true for every poet that has entered the competition. But this was the given competition and we have done our best.


angelatopping said...

I referred to that quotation about 'all this fiddle' in my epigraph to my collection The Fiddle. If you are interested and don't have a copy, allow me to give you one when I see you. I really enjoyed reading this measured account of the process and I love the criteria you list for a fine poem.

Anonymous said...

Thank you again for the dedication you have shown, and for taking the time to write about all this, even after that marathon meeting. I love the way you describe it all, and I agree with angelatopping - that list is wonderful. I think I might even hang it somewhere.:-) Somehow I wish there could be a "pat on the back" for those who made it to the top 120, say, but I realise that would be too complicated. The number of poems you have had to read is mind-boggling. Thank you again, to all three of you.

Angela France said...

Thank you for posting this, George.

Gwilym Williams said...

George, it hasn't escaped me that we are privileged flies to be allowed on your blog wall. As you know I'm always impressed by your insider outpourings and other educational offerings. So thanks from me too.