I’d like to say a few words about a subject I don’t often see explored in writing on contemporary poetry, in the hope that perhaps some of the sentiments expressed will chime with others. This year I was lucky enough to win a Society of Authors Eric Gregory Award. I was drinking with the other winners in a pub after a reading at the Ledbury Poetry Festival, and the topic of the selection process came up. There was an almost unanimous agreement that each owed their success to the anonymous judging process. Although I didn’t instigate it (if anything, I was playing devil’s advocate), I find myself in line with the general sentiment. I might occasionally entertain the idea that now, after scoring a PBS recommendation and appearing in several anthologies, there’s a chance my name could somehow worm its way quietly into the hindbrain of a key decision maker or two, but the fact is that apart from the Gregory, the only other major prizes in which I’ve placed have been the two National Poetry Competitions – also judged anonymously.
It’s not that there’s flagrant nepotism in poetry (although some may disagree with that). It’s that our sense of poetic taste – just like our literal sense of taste – is informed by a variety of factors and contexts. You’ve heard the expression ‘my ears pricked up’. In the case of poetry, this seems particularly apposite – the idea that on noticing a particular name, one that carries connotations of prestige or prodigiousness, the ear – that organ especially employed in the judgement of a piece – becomes suddenly extra-sensitive. The anticipation of excellence then plays a part in the fulfilment of the promise.
Of course, anonymity doesn’t necessarily mean that the playing field is level. In the reviews I’ve received so far in my exceedingly short career, I’m said to have access to a wide frame of reference, to investigate pop culture and esoterica as vigorously as anything else. But the poems that did well in the Nationals were about ginger and frogs respectively. I knew what I was doing (or so I like to think) when I entered those poems. It’s difficult to describe the thought process exactly, but I had a feeling that although they weren’t necessarily, at the time, my strongest poems, they were the ones that had the best chance. I certainly have never entered my paean to Japanese doujinshi in any competitions.
Does my thinking in this regard amount to cynicism? One of the chief struggles in my development as a poet has been reconciling my desire to be true to my particular ambitions with my sense of what plays well with other people. If other poets say that the latter never figures in their thoughts, well, (a) I’m skeptical, and (b) perhaps their personal aims and ambitions are already so in tune with others’ expectations (or their perception of them) that there’s no discernible tension between the two. But I’ve long carried the sense that I hope for and expect something different from my own poetry than others might. I’ve become keenly aware (again, I like to think) of what choices limit and expand a potential audience, or play to certain types of audiences. Don’t ask me to go into details – any attempt to categorise and formulate is necessarily reductive.
Now, while there is a particular kind of delight to be had in frustrating expectations, being able to do so and not then be dismissed at once from the reader’s consideration is a luxury afforded to those with other advantages – an existing reputation, perhaps, an extended network of similarly-inclined artists, or a peculiarly magnetic personality. I presume myself not to have any such advantage. If I want at all, therefore, to earn a hearing for my own concerns, to be granted open-mindedness towards my stylistic inclinations, it requires (and here’s a dirty word) compromise. It requires negotiation. This negotiation takes place inwardly, between many, let’s say, ventriloquised voices representing those different audiences I’m aware of. They do not speak all at once, of course. If they did, every poem would end up bowdlerised. Most of the time, I have to acknowledge that many of these voices – and that wedge of readership they represent – must simply be disappointed with the result. Also rather importantly, I reserve the ‘competition judge’ voice for when I’m actually choosing and editing poems for competitions. It’s too stifling otherwise.
The romantic ideal, of course, is for an artist to be fierce and uncompromising. But I simply don’t see a future for myself in the arts without the aid of this process. I will never strongarm you all into immediate acknowledgement of a poem’s worth, and I’m not sure I want to. My reputation is unlikely to ever flatten all before me. So I will try to keep in mind what it is people want from a poem, and use that as my grapple iron. Some people might call it cynicism; others might call it being alive to what readerships realistically exist for poetry and how they can be won over. Personally, I think of it as a kind of double-agenting. That gives me my own romanticised role to counter the prevailing one. I’m on your side, reader … or am I?