October 11, 2010

George Crabbe Poetry Competition 2010

Wentworth Hotel, Aldeburgh, Sunday 10/10/10

An auspicious date, beautiful warm weather and a very happy day. We drove from sea to shining North sea (the North Norfolk and East Suffolk coasts of what used to be called ‘The German Ocean’) without once leaving the ancient Celtic queendom of Icenia. I was there to deliver my adjudication of the George Crabbe Poetry Competition 2010 hosted by the Suffolk poetry Society. For the record, I also read half a dozen poems from ‘Exile In His Own Country’: namely, Glad To Be A Guy, Boudicca Britain’s Dreaming (done in homage to our ancient Celtic queen without book, by and from the heart and – in that Icenic sea side setting and to that audience, one of the most satisfying experiences of my performing life), Mocks, Healthy Norfolk, Coming Down and Cooking Up A Revolution. Sold a few books too. I append below some general comments about the adjudication and where to find the individual comments on poems. But first, a handful of telling incidents. The organiser and several of the poets took the trouble to thank me for the detailed comments I made and for the way these framed and introduced their readings. Poems take a lot of writing and I do think it’s important to give due credit for the blood, sweat, tears, craft and inspiration they require. There were some harrowing experiences grappled with, mastered and made into a Muse: for the poets to write about pain so brilliantly and then get up in front of so many people and share this triumph deserves more praise than I can give here. Suffice to say, the conversations I had with several of the poets about these struggles were a privilege and a reminder of what greatness inheres in the art of poetry and the human soul. There were some funny-painful moments too… but I think I’ll keep these for the novel after next! It was a glorious day.

George Crabbe Poetry Competition 2010. Judge’s report.
Despite my title, no-one should feel Judged by my choices. The large entry of 300 – a fat bundle the size of an old style Telephone directory or family Bible – contained few if any bad poems. Or even ones that broke the rules. No-one exceeded the 50 lines and only two people left their names on the entry. Most poets had something to say and/or said it rather well (usually both) and even as I reduced that original 400 to 65, I was often still admiring lines and parts of these ‘first exit’ poems as I placed them in the reject pile. But when the competition is as strong as this, the whole poem, needs to work as a whole and poems that, say, depended too much on a portentous last line that didn’t quite deliver, or that began to preach or assert rather than entrance or move – even if only in parts – or that contained even one or two weak lines or bad conceits or groaners among much good writing had to go. And even then, poetry being an art rather than an exact science, I know that some other adjudicator might have made a different selection. This last point is even more pertinent when it came to reducing the 65 to the winning 10.
Prior to the judging, I had just marked several hundred A level English Literature papers for the Welsh Exam Board and it was a delight to be dealing instead with creative writing - poems - that were almost all in the ‘A’ grade band and for which I could bring my own criteria. There IS an objective Standard in terms of craft and inspiration that will mark out good poems anywhere, and certainly here. But, once you've done that, you can only be yourself and I chose poems that appealed to me. I am not much interested in poems that draw attention to their own cleverness as an end in itself, or that have remained an ‘exercise’ rather than – as evidently happened many times in what I assume are excellent writing circles – a means by which a poet can achieve something unique and urgent and emotionally charged. I also think it is important to know that poetry has moved on a bit since Browning – not necessarily to embrace vers libre and to reject all quaint diction because every poem will have its own language and tune and a poem about or in the voice of a granddad (for example) may very suitably have a Georgian or Edwardian music. But this should be a choice made from the full range of poetic languages available in 2010 , not the result of the mind having stopped short like that old Grandfather clock in the middle of another age. I like complexity – the fascination of things difficult – but there has got to be a pay off: I like scholarship but not reference-loaded intellectualism for intellectualism’s sake, if only because it’s such a waste of learning, literacy and effort. The language of the heart should beat through the exciting firework display and necessary gymnastics of the intellect. Occasionally, the sheer eloquence and skill of a poem will impress me by itself – will itself be moving (just as occasionally the subject is so touching that it partly transcends considerations of craft) but on the whole I have gone for poems where first and foremost the subject is (to me) worth the candle of its writing and reading – and, a close second, where the technique does it justice.

The general standard was high and the best hundred very high: a lot of poems achieved a sort of plateau of quality that made the sifting process satisfyingly difficult. George Crabbe’s name has not been taken in vain. The top 20 entries would, in my opinion, have graced any poetry competition anywhere and I would like to mention briefly together the half dozen or so who just missed out on my winners/runners up and commendations. These found ingenious and attractive ways of writing about Boudica, personal mortality (the line ‘between my boots their compressed voices creak/like snow’ was as good as anything else in the competition), cancer and clichĂ©, the lost child within (‘wild echo of the girl I used to be’) and exotic lands. In a smaller or more average quality competition entry, these poems would have at least won commendations. If I missed anything with these poems as a whole, it was that very few poets wrote both with humour and the highest poetic quality, or generally wrote about the joys of life with the same sharpness and literary excitement as they did about its miseries. The old debate about whether it is possible to write as well about happiness as about mortal longing, agony and grief (and there was plenty of it here) is raised by this – I think it is, but certainly the best poetry entered (and there was lots of it) tended to line up nearer Sylvia Plath than PG Wodehouse in evoking the tragic-comedy of our existence.

The winners/runners up and commended poems...

These and my comments on them are available in the published anthology and on the suffolk poetry society website.
Gareth Calway
Sedgeford, Norfolk, July 2010

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