Saturday, 8 October 2011

Co-incidences and prizes

Fathead microphone

Driving into Norwich yesterday to pick up train tickets to Liverpool and get visa photos for China, we are listening to the radio and there is a particularly detailed description of a castration on Radio 4. After ten minutes or so we think, that's enough castration for today, and turn over to Radio 5, where the conversation is all about sex-change. This is a gentle enough shift but after ten minutes or so we think, that's probably enough of sex-change, so we turn to Radio 3, where they are playing a familiar piece of music. 'What's that?' we ask. It is The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. There is a certain broad humour to this (man feels in pockets and exclaims 'I didn't know I had brought plums with me' and beyond) that I will not explore.

Meanwhile the sun is out again and I must get to Chelmsford to the Essex Poetry Festival where I am to award the prizes and make a brief speech on the occasion thereof. Here's part of it:

Judging poetry competitions is in some ways a cruel business. You can't stop to remark a decent piece of work here and there, or hesitate too long over poems of undoubted value. You constantly have to be asking yourself the question: Is this poem a likely winner?

That, at least, is what you say to yourself. In actual fact you find yourself reading and re-reading everything that seem to have some worth. And since you can't read through hundreds of poems in one go without growing dizzy the reading has to be done in spurts, and each time you have to wind your mind up to the task and to gauge the broad average standard if only so you can see what rises above it.

People often ask what is a prize winning poem, and I have in fact written briefly on that subject for The Poetry School. I am not going to go back over that, only to say that a prize winning poem is not necessarily the same thing as a good poem in a collection. There tends to be something unusually vivid in a successful competition poem, something clear cut, however subtle. Being vivid is not the same as being dramatic and certainly not the same as being flashy: it is more to do with a conspicuous lightness of touch, conspicuous economy - a conspicuous subtlety then, if that doesn't seem a contradiction. The prize winning poem goes out by itself in a crowd and is noticed, not because it is strange or sets out to dazzle, not just because of its dress, but the way it takes possession of the space around it. The poem makes you want to come back to it and reread it, because however good it read the first time you don't think you've got everything from it.

Great poems are those you can come back to an almost infinite number of times. They hold their ground and move in the space of language, among all the other poems, with a grace, assurance and self-possession that seems inexhaustible.

It is often the sense of what is not said that haunts a poem. The poem, in effect, makes a perfect space for the unsaid. It is salutary then for a poem to resist poetry just a little, just enough for the pressure to build up at that not entirely closed door.

One says these things and sounds like a portentous, self-important fathead, but it's what I think at the time I am writing.

Say it then, fathead. Go on, say it. You can always say something different tomorrow when you have got round to thinking something different.


looby said...

That does not come across as a fatheaded kind of description of a good poem, however much your shadow self might be telling you it is. I enjoyed it. The only way I can see of defending one's literary choices (which you have the task of solidifying into decision), is to give a persuavive rhetorical account of the rubric under which you chose them AND to make the exposition of this rubric interesting as a little piece of literature, oral literature in this instance. And I think you did both well here. I mean, I enjoyed it.

George S said...

Thank you for the reassurance, Looby. One of the spiritual / intellectual discomforts of being (rather often) asked for judgment or advice is the obligation to carry authority in a more convincing way than is possible, or at least sane, to actually feel. Dangers of sententiousness, self-deception, sheer phoniness - and all those things you can imagine for yourself - are there to be avoided, especially once in print.

Glad you enjoyed it anyway. I gave the speech yesterday with all the extra material about winners, runners-up and commendations. It was fine.