Saturday 29 June 2024


The standard Lady Justice sculpture is of a lady holding scales. She's usually blindfolded too. But when judging poetry, impartiality is not as easy as that.

When I'm commenting about poems I try to be aware of some of my prejudices -

  • I fall for poems about unwanted childlessness and dying children.
  • I like new metaphors (though I take marks off for ones I've heard before).
  • I admire technical mastery (e.g. a sestina that works!).
  • I like poems that seem to be about one thing until the last line makes me realise the poem's really about something else.
  • I'm suspicious of "simple but strong" poems.
  • I distrust poems that look too much like confessions or therapy.
  • Poems like "The Two-Headed Calf" by Laura Gilpin trouble me too. It's prose until the killer final line. Should a single line be sufficient to win a prize? If it's memorable enough, perhaps it should.

I try to compensate for these idiosyncrasies. But what about the ones I'm unaware of?

I wonder how competition judges feel about this? At least at workshops when commenting on pieces I can admit my prejudices and shortcomings, and withhold evaluation if I choose. Judges in their normal 9-5 Creative Writing jobs might be unable to say that they don't understand Jorie Graham at all. What if a good Grahamesque poem is entered by someone unaware of the inevitable outcome?

In the end of course, people entering a poetry competition just have to accept the judges' inevitable baises without knowing what they are. It's the only way - Simon Armitage isn't going to refund the entry fee if a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poem is submitted.

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