Sunday, 14 March 2010

Poetry stuff...

After a flood of requests – and on this occasion 1 constitutes a flood (I get to make the rules, people. It’s good to be the king) – I decided to post the notes I used to deliver my adjudication at the Scottish Association of Writers Annual Conference.

First off, let me say that being in the position of “expert” doesn’t sit well with me. Not false modesty, simply that my knowledge is slight, my experience limited and any work I do is intuitive. On the other hand, I have built up some experience of what it takes to get published in the poetry world over the years and my opinion is as valid as anyone else’s. So there.

Second off – see what I did there? – I only had ten minutes to speak so I was limited as to what I could say. Given the time I guess I could have trundled on for …oh, the whole weekend. But people had to talk about other (much less important) stuff, eat, drink, snort wine, sleep, so as I said the stage was mine for 10 minutes.

Not a lot of time to talk about such a vast area. So I picked a couple of trouble spots…..the adjudication follows on from here…

Judging a poem, as with any form of artistic endeavour is highly subjective - we all have our own history, and without choosing to, we bring this to bear when we read a poem. We filter the work through our own experiences, beliefs, prejudices.

As a judge I try never to lose sight of the courage it takes for a writer to put his/her work up for appraisal. Particularly if you are less experienced. So respect to all of you who entered the competition.

There were 62 poems in the competition.

What was I looking for?

- When I read a poem I look for insight. Is there a strong theme and does the poet’s treatment of it give me fresh insight into the situation? (I often read poems in competitions where the poem is about something in nature. This may constitute a lovely picture postcard of a poem but ultimately doesn’t involve me. However if something in nature is being used to highlight something in the human condition (gawd, I can sound like such a wanker) then the poem will have much more meaning for me.

- James Mitchener said that good writing is ordinary words used in an extraordinary way. Did the poet display a love of language? Years ago, while I was giving a workshop to a bunch of school kids and describing poetry, the penny dropped for one of them and he said – poetry is words that taste good. And this is what I look for in a poem...does the poet use ordinary words in an extraordinary way? Do the words taste good?

- I also look for emotional content. I need to be engaged in the poem and to engage me you need to involve me. Seamus Heaney said that the best poems are often about something else...what was the poet saying and what was I able to read between the lines? Did the poet spell it all out for me (not good) or did he/she leave me with some work to do (preferred)?

Time is limited here and before I go onto the winners there are some important points I’d like to make.

The first concerns feedback. The word count on my critiques totalled almost 10,000 words and I hope that you each take them in the spirit they were intended. In your journey is a writer the ability to take in feedback will be key in determining how far you go in your career.

You must remove your ego from the piece – view it as separate from yourself – and take the feedback as a genuine attempt to help you make your poem stronger. For me feedback is not personal – it’s all about the writing and getting the writing to as strong a place as it can possibly be.

The second is something that many of you will have heard time and time again from this stage over the years. And as I read over the 10,000 words of my feedback it was an issue that came up time and time again.

If you learn the art of how to show and not tell, it will seriously lift the quality of your writing. If that is the only lesson the less experienced of you take from this whole weekend that just that one thing will make the weekend a success.

Modern poetry is as much about what you don’t say as what you do say – it’s the art of suggestion.

Ezra Pound said – the artist selects and presents the luminous detail. He does not comment. Let me repeat that – present the detail – do not comment.


Presenting just the right amount of detail is vital – too many of the poems relied on generalisations – abstract terms that spoke directly to the brain, but made no connection to the emotions. What is joy? What is sadness? These are terms that I understand but nothing is happening on the stage of the poem. These abstractions will highlight different associations for different people – but give me the detail, the symptoms if you like, of these emotions as YOU see them and I’m there, I’m involved.

Someone once said that a writer should only be allowed to use the word “beautiful” once in their career. Why? It SHOWS me nothing. Illustrate the beauty and make me think, wow that sounds beautiful.

A brief word on rhyme – someone once said that rhyme is a good servant, but a poor master. The problem with the majority of the rhyming poems in the competition was that the rhyme took over and became the became be all and end all of the poem.

Modern poetry  is about the words tasting good, it’s about assonance, alliteration, imagery, simile, metaphor, metre and yes, rhyme.

However with most of the poems in the comp that used rhyme, every other poetic tool was ignored in that rush to meet the note at the end of the line.

My advice to all the rhymers out there...if you are serious about writing poetry...serious about being published...set aside the rhyme schemes for now. Free up your use of the other poetic skills...and once you’re comfortable with them pick up the rhyming notes again.

And now for the winning poems...

(BTW, for those of you who don’t know, the poems are entered under a pseudonym and I didn’t know the name of the poet until the moment I announced the placings and the Competition Secretary translated the pen name into the poet’s actual name.)

Third place - An intriguing first line sets up a fine piece of poetry on the subject of unrequited love. (Or was it lust, he asks with a cheeky grin?)

There is a lot to admire about this poem. Highlights for me include “I kneel, gloved, buttoned tight” The inclusion of the word “gloved” for me suggests an individual afraid of physical contact because one touch might make them lose control – which is of course a large part of their problem. They are trying to keep everything under control. And this is an excellent example of the art of poetry – the art of suggestion.

Also loved lines like

“fat, white candles guttering

In holy breezes”.

Again you display your skill with well chosen words. Just the inclusion of “fat” adds so much in terms of layers of meaning. “Guttering” is also of course laden with meaning.

A couple of suggestions, if I may? And this could just be me – I can understand why you want to include “ashes to ashes...” but I have come across this so much in the hands of poets with less skill than you that it has an immediate negative reaction and carries with it the dust of cliché. Also the “Oh” after “I see you.”...I don’t think it adds anything to the piece but a slice of melodrama. I would lose it.

These mini-grumbles aside this is a well-worked and strong poem which shows that I am in the hands of a skilled individual.

And 3rd place goes to... - Priest by Claire Scott

Second place...

This was a delightful piece of poetry with a strong atmosphere of the exotic. I loved the way the poet illustrated the cultural side of her narrator’s past with its people and the way in which they talk.

“I was born the years the snow came early”

A wonderful insight into a people. And the poet resists the temptation to spell out the importance of this statement in highlighting a cultural difference – something that a poet with less skill might have done. Instead leaving the words as they are in the page, the reader is given the opportunity to reach this insight on their own, making the lesson (if I can call it that) all the more effective.

Second place goes to ...Word Connections by SHARIFA (Mary Smith)

First Place...
... sent me on an interesting journey. At the start of the poem I really didn’t like the narrator of the piece but by the end of it I was completely seduced by her. She was a harridan at first but allowed herself to mellow as the poem progressed and I was given an insight into the sensual loving woman she could be if treated right.

The language was wonderful throughout with lots of moments that had me green with jealousy.

A highlight:

“when words beg for air, speak them

and listen as a bird listens for dawn”

You distil into just a few words the problem that besets most relationships, that of poor communication. You don’t lecture, you don’t spell it out but you illustrate your point with such skill that your reader can’t help but take in your message


“Do not hope that the syntax of a kiss

makes love the way pennies make a pound”

... many people will recognise the truth in these lines. And again your meaning is skilfully distilled into just a few words that would take a novelist a whole chapter to illustrate.

Also the soft sibilant sounds along with the vowel sounds in the line create a beautiful effect.

If I’m to be picky, I would work at the first stanza a little more. I completely understand why this is so terse, but there is a danger you will alienate your reader. I had the luxury of several readings to help me get the sense of the poem, but if this were published in a magazine your reader might just move on to the next poem. For me it was just too brief and gave no hint of the excellence that was to come. The line “do not deface me with crumbs” – the word “deface” was almost melodramatic and did nothing to suggest I was in the hands of a highly skilled poet.

That aside, this poem had me cheering the joy of poetry. Well done and congratulations to a worthy winner.

House Rules by Alison Craig

And there you have it people...anything you don't understand or you'd like more detail on let me know and perhaps I'll make that the subject of a future blog. Or I'll just ignore you and continue to do just as I please. As I said's good to be the king.


  1. Just what the flood was craving, your majesty. Very interesting, thought-provoking blog. That judging process must be pretty draining.

  2. Draining? Yes. At regular intervals I had my minions bring me damp cloths with which I could mop my fevered brow.

  3. i'm going back to read this blog again, for more insight. very interesting. t

  4. You are excellent, your excellency, at critiquing with respect. And that line - "When words beg for air, speak them." Wow...

    Thanks so much for putting this up, Michael.