With poetry, success is measured in fractions
Over six years of helping judge the Independent's annual poetry contest, I've had time to reflect upon what distinguishes a prizewinning poem. Polished craft or experimental brio? Metrical finesse or imagistic force? The specific or the universal, mystery or clarity, passion or discipline? Of course, one wants them all. But poetry is an impossible art where success is always measured in fractions. How to decide which fraction comes closest to the whole?
Many things about poetry simply aren't measurable. You can't rank the value of a person's perspective, the authenticity of the poet's emotions or the needs his or her poetry meets—in themselves and in certain ideal readers, for whom most poems are made. Absorbing the submissions, I am always amazed and humbled by the courage and conviction of our local writers. But there are also more measurable qualities of poetry, and paying special attention to them nudges an irrevocably subjective contest a little closer to an objective standard.
One is craft: the control of rhythm, form and tone that singles out poetry from other forms of speech, which can be honed through personal investment as well as academic training. Another is originality of intent, which shines out unmistakably when you read a lot of submissions in a row. Though they wildly diverged in perspective and form, the poems that emerged as contenders all had unique voices, internal organizing principles, deliberate angles and targets.
Of the hundreds of submissions, none met the criteria of visionary freshness and formal expertise quite as thrillingly as Joe Fletcher's "Thousand Hills Radio." It's a very bad dream of eternal war and pestilence and wonder, where darkly ecstatic pronouncements reel around with exquisitely muted intensity. Fletcher's visually complex yet vividly clear images need no amplification: "A wingless bird pried a nut/ from the shadow of a smokestack." But his poem really stood out for its rich and varied versification, which tends to be the least developed quality among submissions to the contest.
Fletcher knows how to spin us around with a grave yet graceful choreography of varied stress patterns, and then suddenly send us skating along a perfectly metered line. He knows how to lift us up with a rising rhythm and then slam us down with a falling one, as in the quotation above. He knows how to speed us up or slow us down by controlling the number of stressed syllables per line, conveying deranged breadth or clipped urgency at will. This stuff doesn't happen by accident. It's evidence of the kind of sustained attention, effort and engagement with poetry this contest seeks out and rewards. —Brian Howe
About the methodology: This year, for the first time, we accepted online submissions in addition to the traditional mailed-in entries. With the help of an intern, we sorted the submissions and sent the poems, nearly 250 of them, to three preliminary judges who reviewed them without knowing the names of the contestants. This panel settled on a short list of 16 poems and forwarded them to Brian Howe, who served as this year's final judge.
Join the winners and judges for our annual winners' reading. This year, we'll be at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham on Wednesday, March 14. The event runs from 7–9 p.m. Snacks and beverages will be served. We hope to see you! —David Fellerath