Mario Petrucci: Adjudication Report for the 2015 Open Competition

Kent and Sussex, Judge’s Report: Mario Petrucci

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What sets a poem apart from the crowd is an interest in language.  An in-built interest in language.  After all, shouldn’t a painter be fascinated by paint, or a potter infinitely curious about clay?  I’m not saying, here, that poets should concern themselves only with experimental or ‘sound poetry’: even the most conventional form or style can still besot itself with, and be acutely alert to, indeed immensely immersed in, the way it sounds.  That will entail a whole lot more than whether or not something rhymes.  Then, of course, we must note the images/metaphors.  These should sing a fresh perspective, surprisingly, as when we break over the brow of a hill onto a stunning and unexpected vista.  I’m generally put off by imagery that shouts: Hey! I’m quite good at this, don’t we think?  I’ve more time (especially as I get older) for the murmurs that play behind language – that subtler metaphor, for instance, whose quiet conviction speaks again, with each re-reading, of a natural parallel in the cosmos that we’re being directed to, jolting us gently into recognising something fundamentally collateral between things, however unlikely or audacious the metaphorical connection may at first seem.

Let me list some further thoughts and provocations that arose whilst judging this excellent competition…

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The crucial contrast between prose and poetry can be deft, almost invisible… but it must be decisive.  *  At last, at last – ecology and climate change as common subjects for rank-and-file poetry!  *  It’s absolutely fine in a poem to be lucid, musical, straightforward, capturing a pristine moment – but there probably have to also be nuances, suggestivenesses and complications, half-hidden densities lurking beneath the clear surface and the sense, somehow, of a much larger picture.  It’s fine, too, to be nuanced, suggestive, complexly dense – but there probably have to also be half-aroused lucidities, straightforwardnesses, musicalities – and the idea of a captured instant or stillness somewhere at the work’s core.  *  Every style in a poem, ideally, contains (or at least suggests) its opposites.  This offers not only contrast, but compensation.  *  Sometimes, a stellar image, in its individual brilliance, can illuminate, entire, a poem that’s otherwise dimly uneventful.  *  Straight reminiscence, in poetry, however well done, usually isn’t quite enough.  Straight narrative in poetry – however interesting, thoroughly researched, or well executed – usually isn’t quite enough.  A poetic story, told in prose, is still prose.  *  Line breaks, alone, can’t raise – from a corpse of prose – poetry.  *  Metre, particularly when it’s potent and obvious, demands to be handled with consummate skill: to inhabit a very strong form, you usually need extremely strong content…  either that, or such wisping, warming elegance and intricacy as to surpass the form’s melting point.  *  Form and content are lovers, not acquaintances.  *  Mere randomness isn’t Modernity.  *  Pluralising every noun doesn’t make a poem universal.  *  Fonts that look like they were invented by Disney really don’t help.  *  Beware of unnecessary adjectives: I mean, beware of adjectives.  *  Roadkill seems to be an irresistible draw for Kent and Sussex entrants, along with senility, owls, and Dungeness.  *  The toughest, grittiest, baldest poem can still convey, however indistinctly, Beauty.  *  I fully sympathise with those – and I’ve lost count of the times this has happened to me in my own writing – who discover an obscure fact, a tantalising shred of historical narrative, a glowing fragment of insight, that’s screaming to be made into a poem… but, in spite of having the vibrant seed seemingly intact, they simply don’t possess, in that moment, the soil.  *  In poetry, constructing a familiar strangeness – or a strange familiarity – can be your greatest asset.  *  The poetic spirit at grassroots remains unbroken: the Great themes are coming through with courage and honesty; the Subtler themes are being addressed with care and sensitivity.  *  Poetry is still the finest instrument for detecting what living hearts/minds genuinely think/feel.  *  There is no taboo in contemporary poetry, not even (in these material times) that final, most shuddering of horrors: spirituality.  *  No poem need ever explain itself.  *  Every ‘rule’ one might suggest for poetry is eviscerated by the exception.

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Trying to whittle down the entries in a good competition sometimes feels like being the ancient Mariner, who “stoppeth one of three”.  You probably won’t agree with my final decisions – in fact, I almost hope you don’t – because, unless a given entry wins, unreservedly, on all fronts, a judge is always ensnared in the weighing up of a number of diverse features: metrical/linguistic skill, musicality, potency of subject, metaphorical inventiveness, and so on.  The judge’s job is to fabricate a convincingly stable hierarchy from this subjective-objective flux.  It may teach us much when we humbly attempt to do such things, as long as the results aren’t taken as somehow categorical.  So, from caveats to winners.  The four ‘near misses’ (and there were quite a few contenders) were really that: very near.  If it’s any consolation, all our words are, in some essential way, always a near miss to ultimate meaning.  As I’ve said elsewhere: all poetic language is a falling-short – but miraculously so.  The three major winners [First to Blink; Fishing the Khabur River, Syria; A Calculus] do, between them, what I’d wish poetry in every age to achieve at its most ambitious levels.  Firstly, to allow language to enact an experience, through the language, rather than merely tell us about it (that famous workshop adage “Show, don’t tell” doesn’t really reach, in this regard, far enough).  This can be especially resonant in poems that profoundly challenge our point of view, as in the first-prize poem, where the speaker powerfully, surreally morphs between narrator and the poem’s/subject’s roadkill-prey.  Secondly, to be the plain-speaking witness to our troubled world, expressing life – right down to its darkest recesses – on behalf of the (largely) voiceless, and creating connection in the most difficult circumstances without generating victims.  Finally, to reify in words – to make, indeed, sonically palpable – those many under-represented subjects and metaphysical intimations that shimmer at the far edge of perception, that reside, in themselves, almost beyond speech: to lift into scrutiny, in a net of words, through skilful instinct and linguistic daring, an elusive or intangible matter like ‘desire’, so that meaning itself can, by means of mere language, flash through the ineffable and re-emerge, shining.

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