January 2015


I’m just considering whether to enter the Torriano competition this year, and surprised to discover I’ve one, or possibly two, poems listedin the “Nearly Made it – deserved to” category (i.e. the top 30 of 800), last year. “Gennel” definitely made it, and “Fin” might have – I can’t tell if the mistake is in my name, or in the placing of the titles. Hopefully the latter – though I quite like the double-barrelled “Noel Williams-Fin”.

Oh, and I recently received my copy of Orbis #169. I wasn’t involved in editing issue #168 so that Out of Breath could be reviewed, and Carole kindly published two poems of mine, which helped support the review. Issue #168 confirms that I won the Readers’ Vote, which is very gratifying, if a little embarassing, with a poem called ‘Night Scented Stock’, from a sequence I wrote in 2013, but have not yet tried to secure publication for. Maybe I should.

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I’ve been asked to judge the next Sentinel Poetry Competition. You can find details here.

I’ve done this once before. It’s quite hard work, but good fun, too. The hardest part is near then end, when there are around thirty or so poems jostling for top position, and all have virtues, and I’m trying hard to make the decision more than just a matter of taste. Although, ultimately, of course, this is probably what it comes down to.

What I look for in competition poems is similar to the job of editing Antiphon. High on the list is something that surprises or excites, something I’ve not seen before, or doing something new. I also admire poetry which manages the difficult balancing act of meaning, structure and music, because these tend to pull poets in different directions – to get them all working together is one of the most difficult tricks. I also believe that a poem should mve or develop. This doesn’t necessarily mean it has to tell a story or make an argument, but that it should end up in a different place from where it started. The best poems are an experience, taking the reader through some process or development or understanding or change – not just reporting or describing, but enabling the reader to experience what the poet has experienced (or at least, wants the reader to perceive as an experience).

Technical skill can be admired, but if it is not used to do anything, merely to bask in the glory of its own accomplishment, a poem can feel hollow. So poems which are formal (rather than free verse) need to use their form rather than merely plonk expressions within it. But free verse is often too free, giving the poet apparent liberty to wander verbosely, when what is needed is the tight, exact, best words for the job.

Yes, I’m difficult to please. Usually in competitions there are poems which are technically excellent, but emotionally detached. I like rhyme, but I only really like it when it’s used to some purpose. Rhythm should exist in all good poems, but it need not follow a regular pattern. However, it has to be contemporary language. I usually dismiss quite early on those poems which belong in the nineteenth century, especially those poems which seem to feel they need a “specially poetic” vocabulary of “o’er” and “hence”, or a pseudo-Keatsian “languid dreams”.

Above all, though, I value imagination in poetry. I want to read things I could not myself have imagined, poems which make me feel I’d’ve liked to write that myself, which take me deeper into the real world where I’ve never been, or out into some plausible world I’d like to be.

I’m looking forward to reading what you send in.