I once carried out a lengthy analysis of winning entries in order to pin down the secret.
The exercise failed. All I managed to do was come up with tenuous links between winning poems, and some clear ideas about what made poets lose.
Yesterday I was at the final stage of judging the William Soutar Writing Prize, a free-to-enter Perth-based poetry competition which attracted just under two hundred entries last month. That's a relatively small number compared to the biggies, which attract thousands and which you have to pay to enter. But at least it meant I could read all the poems.
It didn't mean it was easy to pick the winners. My short list of 13 already excluded a couple of poems I liked a lot. It went down to 12 when I realised one exceeded the required length. (In all competitions, a surprising number put themselves out of the running by breaking the rules.)
Tim Love says "Winning competitions can be like applying for a job. The first stage is more to do with avoiding errors in order to get in the short-list. The second stage is where depth is revealed."
I think he's right. There were poems in my short list that would have made it to the long list of one of the major competitions. They were sound, well-made, interesting pieces of writing. With depth.
In the pile I put to one side, the non-winners, there were some fabulous lines and fragments. But in the end it's the whole poem or nothing in a competition.
There were also the non-starters. These tend to be characterised by being presented in a centred format, often with an odd or over-large typeface, faulty punctuation -- that kind of thing. It is not true (contrary to popular belief) that metre and rhyme make a poem less likely to win. But it is easier to spot weakness in formal construction, I think, than in the looser array of free verse (I was about to write 'free dress' -- but in fact, this is partly it -- how the poem is dressed.)
Back to the winners. This is the point where I became a committee of myselves. First I typed them all out again, in the same font so I wasn't biassed by layout and typeface. Then I read them aloud. A poem is not just what it looks like and what it means: it's how it feels in the mouth and the ear too. At least, that's true in my book.
I had to do a bit of scouting about on the web, too, to check some background detail. When poems create a context for themselves, in terms of topical or historical reference, it's good to check it out. Actually, I like it when the poem operates in a larger frame, when it sends its reader on a treasure hunt.
And then I sat down again with my 12 poems, all carefully typed out in Calibri. At this point, I could make a strong case for all the final contenders, and especially for particular features of each one.
But one has to decide. And that's like the whole business of poetry publishing. In the final stages, subjective personal preference comes in. It is not enough to admire a poem. Which one do you want to learn by heart? Which do you desperately want to show your friends?
And so I did decide. But I'm not saying more about that here. It will be on the AK Bell Library website and the William Soutar website later this month . . . with the prizes awarded at Perth Writers' Day on March 26th.
Meanwhile, for me it's back to the three pamphlets in hand: Peter Daniels, Matthew Stewart and Michael Mackmin, winners one and all. Oh, and check out Graham Austin's opportunity on the HappenStance competitions page. T S Eliot afficionados might like to take a crack at this.