Kona’s column 13: Racing bikes and rainbows: The poetry judge’s plight

December 16, 2010

Here’s a puzzle for you.  Which of these four items is the odd one out?

  • A ham sandwich
  • A rainbow
  • A goldfish
  • A racing bike

Take a minute or two to think carefully…

Now, examine your own thought processes.  Did you flail around, trying to find some axis of comparison on which one item was obviously different from the others?  Was it easy to compare these four heterogeneous entities?

The truth is that if there is an odd one out, I have no idea which it is. Arguments can be contrived for each item (for example: unlike the others, a rainbow can’t be held in your hands;  or, unlike the others, a goldfish is alive).  However, none of these are obviously the “right” answer to the problem, and it’s only our preconceptions – the way the question was posed – that lead us to expect that there is a correct answer.

This sneaky brain-teaser is a tangential introduction to the fact that in November, I was honoured to be invited to judge two poetry competitions. In one of them, for a writers’ group, I was the only judge, and in the other (the Genomics Forum competition), I was one of a panel of four judges.  This was a new experience for me, and I must admit that the process involved a certain amount of confusion – confusion not unlike that induced by our little puzzle above.

In many ways, the notion of artistic competitions is absurd;  how can you award prizes in a sphere that lacks an objective and deterministic notion of “the best” performance?  In a running race, the winner is obvious – the first over the line – but there’s no finishing tape in a contest between poems, paintings or musical performances.

Of course, just because an art award or a poetry competition can’t recognise  the best work doesn’t mean that it can’t recognise work that is good.  The judges’ dilemma lies in the framing of the problem:  the whole notion of First, Second and Third prizes and Honourable Mentions presupposes an objective and precise ranking scheme, and tends to make you flounder around looking for one.  In my case, this struggle involved confronting a couple of significant myths about poetry competition judging.

The First Myth – The best poems win the prizes

Judging is simple – just choose the best poems.  How do you do that?  Well, begin by defining what you mean by best.  How do you do that?  Ah, conundrum.  Comparing two poems can be like comparing a racing bike with a rainbow; how do you weigh two things against each other when everything from their intended purpose to their aesthetic style is radically different?

It’s hard to sustain any notion of “best poem” for very long, particularly if you’re aware of your own subjective tastes and biases, and are thus confusing yourself even more by trying to overrule your innate gut reactions and give everything a “fair chance”.

This myth rapidly gives way in favour of the next one:

The Second Myth – The poems the judge(s) liked the best win the prizes

Judging is simple – just choose the poems you like the best.  This might seem like a complete no-brainer when you’re the only judge, but even then there are some confounding factors (which are even worse in panel-judged competitions):

  • Liking is variable:  Our responses to a poem can be affected by all kinds of serendipitous things, including our mood, the context in which we’re reading it, and what we’ve read just beforehand.  I spread my judging out over several days, with multiple passes through the submitted poems, and I certainly found that my responses to particular poems could be different on different days.
  • The judges’ report: Ideally, judges can filter out the pressure of needing to justify their decisions in a judges’ report until well after those decisions have been made.  Realistically, a low-level background anxiety about the forthcoming report can subtly bias you towards poems that you feel clear-cut and articulate about, even though you might like some others just as much in a more fuzzy, gut-instinct, hard-to-justify way.
  • Finding a balance of poems: The wish to be fair and even-handed can easily become a perceived requirement for a “balanced” selection of prizewinners (representing, for example, both free and formal verse, the lyrical and the narrative, the experimental and the mainstream, the serious and the lighthearted, etc.)  If your four favourite poems are all sonnets – and especially if you yourself are a known sonnet aficionado – then the need to be “fair and objective” may lead you to discard some of these favourites in favour of other poems in a different style.

The Reality

Once the actual experience of judging knocked down these two myths, a pragmatic truth seemed to emerge: the winning poems are the ones the judges could agree on.  (In the case of a sole judge, in my experience there’s still some kind of negotiated coming-to-a-consensus process – it’s just that it happens internally.)

I don’t imagine that many judging panels find complete consistency between individual judges when they come together for their final deliberations.  In the process of reaching consensus, it’s therefore quite possible that the favourite poem(s) of most of the judges don’t win, and equally possible that the winning poem was not the absolute first choice of anybody.  Judges with natural persuasive talent may have a bigger impact on the final consensus than those who are more reticent – and it’s not clear how this could reasonably be avoided.

In summary, then, the judging of poetry competitions is both subjective and subject to a range of external pressures, and is further complicated by the social dynamics of a judging panel.  What does this mean for poets entering competitions rather than judging them?  Just this – always remember that poetry competitions aren’t scientific instruments for measuring poetic merit.  Whether you win, place or go wholly un-awarded, don’t take the outcome too personally, and keep on striving to enjoy and improve your writing – because the ability to write a good poem is a more enduring satisfaction than any fleeting contest success.

Kona Macphee is a UK-born, Australian-bred poet now living and working in Scotland.This column is a monthly feature. Kona also facilitates the Poetry Society Poetry Surgeries – keep an eye on our events page for further information on the next surgeries. She’s also facilitating a day long workshop here at the library on Monday 21 February: Stand Up and Relax: How to give a great poetry reading, and enjoy it too. You can also hear Kona on the SPL podcast ‘Witching Hour’and  follow her on Twitter.

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