I Judged a Poetry Contest by emmaysavage
A few years ago I volunteered with my state poetry society to sponsor and judge a poetry contest. I felt competent enough -- I had been published in my own right and studied poetry with a group for a long time. In truth, it turned out to be one of the more difficult projects I ever undertook.
My contest was generic -- any form, any subject. Fit it on one page. I felt no qualms but then I ended up with eighty entries. They were diverse: rhymed, unrhymed, formal -- sonnets, haiku, even a limerick. I began to realize that I had taken on a daunting task.
I started out by reading them all; it took more than one sitting I wanted to do each entry justice. When I was done I set them aside for two days hoping they would "perk" in my head.
I knew then as I know now, judgments about poetry are of necessity subjective. A good poem goes beyond objective standards--structure, rhythm, form, et cetera. I wanted to put aside my prejudices for or against particular words, phrases, forms, subject matter. My contest had no binding theme, so I had to compare and contrast love poems, religious poems, ballads, sestinas. What standards apply? This was difficult.
After the initial reading, I looked at all the entries again, with a mindset to evaluate each poem in its own right. I especially noted which ones I remembered. If I remembered a poem for something other than how awful it was (and some were) I made that a consideration.
Then I started to find a way to order them. I was going to pick a first, second, and third prize, and also an honorable mention. I found it impossible to find a way to judge that worked for all the poems. It wasn't hard to decide if a poem met the standards for whatever form was used. Beyond that, what were my standards? Imagery, cohesiveness, evocativeness (was that even a word?), some elusive quality of "poem"?
Here's where I had to be especially aware of my biases and not let them lead the process. I knew it would not be fair to simply pick my four favorites.
Winnowing eighty poems down to forty was not too hard. Some poems were trite, overly conventional ("bright sunny day, perfect for play"). Some seemed to stretch artificially for rhyme or rhythm. I tried to think about myself as a poet and keep in mind what I would want in a judge if I were the contestant.
In the end, I found I was making choices based on:
Memory: if It lasted for me, and I looked forward to reading it again.
Form: Did the form fit its definition? the subject matter? Line length? If I had written this, could I accept it as a finished poem?
Communication: Some poets think obscurity can make a poem better. However, I wanted the winning poems to be accessible. I think a poem should be written to readers, to a wider audience than one, and it should be understandable.
Expression: This is important. A winning poem needed imagery that made me think or feel or see; I hoped for all three.
Cohesiveness: A poem should fit together, be about what it starts to be about, or have a destination.
It took a long time to bring my list down to eighteen poems. At that point, I liked them all. I found myself wanting to talk to the poets, to dialogue about their work, but of course that was not within the parameters of the contest.
I slept on it, then tackled the finalists the following evening. It was hard, quite hard, to let some bright potentials go. Finally, I picked the winners, but I couldn't call all the other poems losers. Some of the nonwinners still haunt me.
Nevertheless, it was valuable time spent. Judging a poetry contest forced me to think differently about poetry, to look with the mind's eye, as well as with the heart. I think I am a better poet now.
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