Monday, 3 January 2011

The reading of the five thousand

Self as Gladstone

My chief reading for a large number of days has been for the National Poetry Competition. Morning, afternoon, evening in the armchair, shifting through six boxes, roughly 4,000 poems while my two fellow judges do something similar.

How can one manage this? Over at FB I was told by a sceptic it would take several lifetimes to read that many poems.

The fact that a poem is bad is obvious at a glance, in the same way as I could tell, on this afternoon's walk round town, that the local football team is not up to Premier League level. It isn't hard. A bad poem has no feel for language: it thinks it has something to say, but what it says is commonplace, and the way it says even that is incompetent. A poor footballer has not much feel for the ball: he wants to make an obvious pass, but can't even do that.

This doesn't mean that the writer of a bad poem or an incompetent footballer is a lesser person. There is no such thing as a lesser person. The writer of the bad poem hasn't read or listened enough. Maybe, even given that, they might not have the talent. A lot of watching and training doesn't in itself make a good footballer either. Being able to write decent verse and to understand how a ball behaves are both proper human accomplishments and I am all in favour of people doing themselves a favour and learning to execute well that which they execute badly.

Enough analogy. Reading the bad poems takes the least time and, since we are looking for potential winners, the question to ask is not whether this or that poem is decent, or even publishable but whether it stands a chance of winning.

The real time then is taken in reading and rereading those that seem to have some chance. Several times. Once the competition is judged and over I'll say something, in general terms, about what I have found here. For now, two observations regarding subject matter:

First, there are very many poems about the physical and mental decay of the old - clearly something experienced at first hand by the writers. I have never come across so many. It says something about the age of the entrants of course, but it also shows how widespread the problem has become. Poems on observed old age formed the largest group. Some fine poems here.

Second, to my greater surprise - especially in view of my earlier post about negative images of fatherhood - the number of poems about fathers, the overwhelming majority in praise, especially in old age or after death, but mostly remembered from youth. A good number of the fathers were presented as manual workers of some kind, which is also interesting. It probably says something about the class level of gender polemics. Some very good poems here too.

I finished the reading today and selected about fifty to go forward to the meeting with the other judges. There were at least another fifty I could have chosen but fifty was the limit.

Have I chosen the best? I hope so. Will I have made mistakes? I am sure I will have. My consolation must be that many of the poems among the second fifty look good enough to be published and so live the normal life of poems.

Competitions are not the normal life of poems. The normal life of poems leads to the development of a poet not to the winning of a cash prize. For that reason it is a pleasure to me to find several good poems by clearly the same hand (the poems are anonymous but numbered and generally a batch of poems by a single poet gets sequential numbers).


It is pretty well impossible, in these circumstances, to write anything more than the daily blog entry and a few vital letters or references in between, though I do have tother projects to attend to and finish. It also reduces other kinds of reading but I have enjoyed the opportunity to steam through Victor Sebestyén's excellent Revolution 1989 (reviewed ,in typical lively fashion by Tibor Fischer in The Telegraph.

Like Fischer I too was in Hungary for much of 1989 (as was the whole family), and I attended a good deal. Sebestyen writes brisk journalistic prose, but he has done his research and marshalled his material superbly. It's history as page turner, with the writer generally doing his best to get out of the way so that events may roll on. And so they do.

I'll write something about it once I have finished.

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