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Then Again, Who Am I To Judge…?

Well, in fact, Philip Gross, himself a winner of the National Poetry Competition, the T.S. Eliot Prize and Wales Book of the Year. Here he gives a view from the Magma Poetry Competition 2013 judge’s bench:

I’m starting this with caution. Even a one-off blog post, the kind of letter-to-anyone the internet facilitates, implies a conversation; there’s a particular kind of listening at the other end. Maybe you’re reading because you know that I’ll be judging in the Magma competition. Maybe you’re thinking of entering, and fishing for clues. Because after all, by the same principle, entering a competition isn’t one-way either; you’re sending your poem into a space prepared by someone’s tastes, the quality of attention they might give.

I wish I could help you. Or rather, I don’t, because the last thing I want is for you to try to please me, and I’ll probably spot it if you try. In the part of my life where I’m a writing teacher, I hope that what I mainly teach is questions; with them, with luck, other people’s poems or stories might discover what they need to be.

Still, it’s dishonest to behave as if I’m not here, or to think I should be like the non-directive therapist whose carefully affectless uh-huh grunts deliver a powerful message of withholding who they are. No, the space between us always has a shape.

… which is a fair clue to one kind of question that nags at me. When Anne Carson titles her Poetry Society lecture Stammering, Stops, Silence, or Jane Hirshfield talks on Hiddenness, Surprise, Uncertainty, or Ruth Padel on Silent Letters of the Alphabet, something in me responds. The spaces in a poem interest me, as much as the words. That and the space around it, of course. I’m not talking necessarily about shapes on the page. More, it’s the sense that any space, especially one involving humans, will have its own dynamics – sometimes so powerful that the space seems to have a personality of its own.

In a day I spent recently with a lively thoughtful writing group, we found ourselves looking at some of the hints we writers can leave in the space between words. We did punctuation. We did not do pedantry. These jots and tittles are pointers both to the shape of the spaces they are in and the dynamics of the words around them. And don’t we take them personally, these dryasdust dots and dashes? Everyone had a favourite, or one that they felt, sometimes with embarrassment, to be their own. Most of us have mannerisms in this department… but those too are worth spotting – not simply to edit them (out of the poem you’re about to pop into the competition, for a start) but for a more positive reason: a habit or tic is going to be an avoidance of something. Some question worth asking is nearby, if only you could see.

So, there… By the paradox of  ‘don’t try to please me’ I’ve made it impossible for you to use punctuation… or not to. In other words, ignore me. Write your poem. The space between us is wide open, and ready to resonate to what you write.


This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. I loved those comments by Philip. The piece made me smile.

    And the idea of avoidance with our literary ‘tics’ was illuminating. (I see how often, for instance, I use ellipses for what I think I can’t/am too lazy to to try to express…)

    As a writing tutor myself, over the last few years I’ve come more and more to the conclusion that the way space is used is at least as important in a poem as the words.



  2. Yes, I’m sure that spaces in a poem, a picture, between objects, resonate within us at a deeper level than the ostensible important/material bits. Long live space[s] !

  3. As a songwriter as well as poet, I am acutely aware of the power of silence, spaces, and breaths. Even the spacing between songs on a favorite CD becomes part of my memory and listening experience. Thank you Philip.

  4. To punctuate or not to punctuate? If a poem is to be read aloud by anyone other than the poet, I maintain that punctuation is essential in order to reproduce the poet’s intensions. But I can still have fun in writing poetry that can be effective, ambiguous or humorous simply by omitting the expected punctuation.

  5. I agree with you,Viv. Punctuation is absolutely essential in poetry, otherwise the real meaning and emphasis intended by the poet may be lost or misinterpreted.

  6. Punctuation is usually important, but some great poets have done without for many poems e.g. Zbigniew Herbert. I like what Philip is saying about examining our own use of punctuation and allowing that to ask questions about mannerisms, avoidance. Very interesting.

  7. I love how W S Merwin writes – almost never any punctuation. You do have to concentrate more as a reader, and there is inevitably and I think deliberately an ambiguity. I really like that – the poem isn’t closed down or boxed in.

    This lack of punctuation has the effect not only of allowing the ideas and images to merge and flow, but perhaps also to raise other more philosophical questions, eg: what, exactly, do we mean by our ideas of separateness – IS there really a difference between ‘this’ and ‘that’, ‘viewer’ and ‘viewed’?

    I take this to be partly due to Merwin’s interest in Buddhism; and because everything I perceive in his writing is implicit rather than stated it adds a great subtlety to his poetry, and opens the work up for our participation.

    I think Philip raised some really interesting points; and I believe that punctuation – or the choice to omit it – is something that needs more attention than many poets seem to give it. It’s about more than merely ‘making sense’ to our rational minds in the way that prose might be required to. And there is, too, a visual aspect to it that acts subliminally.

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