Thursday, 30 January 2014

Poetry Judges

Last year Wendy Cope was the Bridport poetry judge. This year it's Liz Lochhead. I detect a trend.

The Leeds Piano competition isn't judged by Jazz pianists. There's a wide enough range as it is, without introducing further complications. Indeed, I'd be surprized if there were a worthwhile competition anywhere that Classical and Jazz pianists could both enter. But also I doubt that a judge would be chosen who only plays Mozart. Poetry judges have to cope with a range of poetry styles far exceeding that of the Leeds Piano competition. They won't be equally appreciative of all types, and practitioners might be expected to have more biases than outsiders have. Indeed (as in Art with some Turner prize entrants, and in Music with Schoenberg, Glass, etc) they may have trouble accepting that an entry qualifies as a creative work at all, let alone a good one.

So what features should a judge have?

  • Able to evaluate a poem, whatever its type - This is so infeasible an objective that competition organisers probably don't bother too much about fulfilling it. It's clearly not the highest priority.
  • Able to attract entries for the current competition - Crucial. A practising poet (or famous non-poet) is much more useful than an experienced anthologist or teacher. The judge may even be in a position to promote the event
  • Able to attract entries for future competitions - Important. The person's judgement shouldn't attract adverse criticism. Competitions want to attract regular clientele, and organisers certainly don't want people demanding their money back because the winning entry "wasn't a poem".
  • Availability - Judging the Bridport consumes much time at a point in the year when some of the best candidates won't have time to spare

Editors of major magazines might be considered well placed to be judges, you'd have thought. Their well-calibrated sensibilities should be immune to the tricks of the trade. Essay and text-book writers might be good candidates too. But unless they're also poets, they don't usually have a chance. Judgement by committee might broaden the aesthetics, so why not pair up Liz Lochhead with (say) Keston Sutherland? Well, for a start it's more expensive to have multiple judges, and it's not a risk-free option -

  • In Bad Poem, Fergus McFadden queries the success of the Andrew Motion and Gillian Clarke pairing in judging the 2013 Cardiff International Poetry competition (first prize 5000 pounds). His views were shared by several poets I know. In any case, why have 2 poets who are so similar?
  • In a 1990s Stand Poetry competition, judges Denise Riley and Ken Smith couldn't agree on a list of winners so each chose their own list
  • "When we were judging [The Booker] we tried three different voting systems and each time a different winner emerged", Rowan Pelling, the Observer, March 9, 2008

So why has the Bridport committee chosen Liz Lochhead? I presume because last year was a financial success. I don't doubt her ability to select a winning poem that's good of its type. However, I think there are aspects of my poetry that she might not take into account, and at 8 quid a shot it's not worth the gamble.


  1. I do sigh when I read articles like the one you link to. This sort of backbiting and meanness seems to be the province of the poetry world, in the main. Perhaps a more useful article would have looked at those poems that nearly made it but didn't. And look at why that might be. If its anything like the prose world, it will be competence that stands in the way of truth. Speaking as a 'poetry-nobody' who also won something elsewhere, but who was received with far more generosity as far as I'm aware - my heart goes out to that winner. If the aim of that article was to stop him writing I hope it has not succeeded.

  2. The McFadden article seemed targeted at the judges, the poet being an innocent victim. Perhaps the author of that article wondered "if we are being taken for a ginormous ride". Were I the poet I'd feel as hurt as any other author whose works get "bad" reviews - except I'd be laughing all the way to the bank, endorsed by a Knight and an ex National Poet of Wales.

  3. I'm sure he isn't laughing. The article is not a review, its a forensic disembowelling sans anaesthetic.

  4. By the way, idle question after idle searching... Does F McFadden and/or any poetry by anyone of that name exist anywhere other than this website?

  5. I don't know. The article was published in bowwowshop, which is a decent online publication. It might just be sour grapes, but at least Fergus tries to justify his opinions. His credentials need to be weighed against those of Andrew and Gillian. He may not write fine poetry. But then, Manuel Pellegrini wasn't that good a footballer.

  6. I wondered whether you knew who he is. It seems rather hard to find any other mention of that name, with poetry as opposed to rugby, anywhere else. Was just interested to see what his credentials were. I'm no wiser!