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Language and Shape: A Judge’s Report

Today the National Poetry Competition blog tour arrives at the Sidekick site for its seventh and final stop. We’re delighted to host the following short article by renowned poet and critic George Szirtes. Remember: the deadline for the competition is in one day. Entry details are here.

Language and Shape: A Judge’s Report

Reading individual poems among a mass of others is not like reading a book. Reading a book is reading a poet: judging competitions is reading poems. The poems have to stand out. The best poems – usually forty or fifty – do so for two main reasons: language and shape.

The poem will be fascinated by language, not in an overt or flashy way, but so you feel the words have come to the poet clear and fresh. Something will have struck the poets in a new way, tipped them slightly off balance, tipped them into language that is at some level a surprise.

A  poem is also a shape. It is a thought or feeling that has moved through language to attain an all but ideal form that takes your breath away. All but ideal is important. A shape isn’t a box that clicks shut. The shape is something that is capable of flight. It is a potential.

There are competent poems that have grace or originality of thought or feeling but don’t fully excite. They seem to be satisfied with elegant turns of phrase and some neat observations. They tend to concentrate on experiences that are in themselves touching or humane but insist on a certain propriety. They are substantial and decent but are never really off-balance.

Subject matter is secondary.  Being a good human being is secondary. Being full of passion is secondary. Being right is secondary. Being clever is secondary.

Language and shape are primary, or so it seems in the heat of judging when graces and virtues look to cancel each other out.

You choose the forty or fifty, you lose confidence, you grow whims, you lose concentration, you experience sudden blinding clarities of judgment that turn out to be wrong. Eventually you emerge with five or six and try to put them into order. You could still be wrong. You could still have missed the great poem among the good ones.  But here are some that seem gorgeously off balance, almost flying, whose language happens to have flown in, fresh as light. Or so you think. You are only human.

Then you face your fellow judges and hope.

George Szirtes has probably written thirteen books of poetry but by some counts it’s fourteen. Reel (2004) was awarded the T S Eliot Prize, for which his next single volume, The Burning of the Books (2009) was also shortlisted. His new book, Bad Machine will be published by Bloodaxe in January 2013. Bloodaxe also published his New and Collected Poems (2008) which weighed in at 1 kilo. It is now available as an e-book that weighs 1 kilo less. He is also a translator of poetry and fiction from the Hungarian and has edited a number of anthologies, as well as the Summer 2012 issue of Poetry Review.

He has judged the National Poetry Competition twice, the first time with Jonathan Barker and Edwin Morgan in 1988, the second time with Deryn Rees-Jones and Sinead Miorrissey in 2010. He has also judged the Faber Prize, the Eliot Prize, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and many other prizes. His full-bottomed judge’s wig is currently at the cleaners.

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