A judge's viewpoint

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David Campbell
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A judge's viewpoint

Post by David Campbell » Wed Dec 08, 2010 11:20 am

This is a fairly long post, but it’s prompted by recent comments on the website (for example, in the grammar thread of this section) and in the ABPA magazine about the decisions that judges make in written competitions, and why we make them. In the hope of shedding some further light on the situation, here’s a summary of how I approach the judging process, including particular reference to those basic elements of bush poetry that really need to be emphasised.

It’s important to stress at this point that I’m referring to written competitions. Those who write purely for fun, or as a rewarding means of self-expression, can obviously approach their poetry in any way they please. And verse written for performance purposes is also an entirely different matter, as there is scope for far more flexibility with the spoken word. A skilful performer can easily cover up a multitude of technical faults in a poem, but in a written competition there is nowhere to hide. There are basic rules that need to be followed, and I’m very careful when it comes to applying those rules. To ignore them, or gloss over them, in making final decisions about prize-winners, is to risk devaluing the craft of writing bush poetry.

That may seem a strong statement, but it concerns me to read occasional arguments for relaxing the rules of written competitions. If that happens, then where does a judge draw the line? How approximate can rhymes be? For example, I have seen “joke” rhymed with “dope” and “advice” rhymed with “strife”. If these are allowed, the whole concept of rhyme becomes fairly meaningless. And with metre, how irregular can it be before it becomes closer to free verse than bush poetry? One of the joys of judging bush verse is that there are objective criteria from which to begin the process.

We need to remember that we are following a great poetic tradition in Australia, and those who read the published work of prize-winners will make judgements about the whole bush poetry scene based on what they see before them. They will also, significantly, make an assessment regarding the integrity of individual competitions based on the quality of successful poems. We have seen examples in the past where competitions have suffered a loss of reputation because a non-accredited judge has made a poor decision. Such situations must be avoided as much as possible.

I make that observation as a judge of both bush verse and free verse, in recognition of the fact that, in an open competition (i.e. one that allows any style of poetry), free verse entries will predominate. In annual poetry anthologies that accept any style there is unlikely to be even one poem that could be classified as bush verse. The only major yearly production that I’m aware of which includes bush poetry interspersed with other writing is 'Award Winning Australian Writing' (Melbourne Books)…the 2010 edition includes poems by Max Merckenschlager, Carolyn Eldridge-Alfonzetti, Arthur Green, Ellis Campbell, Zondrae King, and Don Adams. The rest of the book consists of short stories.

So although bush verse enjoys tremendous popularity at festivals around the country, and has a dedicated following of enthusiasts, it is not currently the default form of poetry in Australia, either in the general community or in schools. I have found that entering bush verse in an open competition is generally not going to result in an award. There are some exceptions, but they are few and far between. If this situation is to improve, I’d argue that judges must do everything possible to promote the highest standards of written work…and that means enforcing the basic fundamentals.

In this context, I’d like to refer to the issue raised by Stephen in his Forests of Poetry thread. He reported that another writer had challenged bush poetry on the grounds that it was a superseded art form perfected 100 years ago, so what was the point of pursuing it today, other than to parody it? Stephen, Zondrae, Will (and others) make some excellent points in reply, and I’d like to re-emphasise the observation that the public face of bush poetry is thus very important in demonstrating that, as an art form, it most definitely does have relevance today. Not only does it deal with modern-day issues, it is a very valuable instrument in developing the language skills of young children.

Kids love rhythm and rhyme, and traditional verse is a powerful medium that can be used very effectively by educators in the pre-school years, as well as in primary and secondary schools. That is why the work done by those bush poets who go out into schools is so important. An early appreciation of rhyming verse can lead to enhanced skills in all forms of writing. It is all too easy to criticise bush verse on the grounds that it is outdated, and to see free verse as the ‘modern’ form. I prefer to see them as different points on a spectrum, each with advantages and disadvantages, and each capable of providing valuable insights into the human condition. They are not so much competing with each other as providing a variety of avenues to understanding. I enjoy both and use them for different purposes. And one of the strengths of bush verse is as a vehicle for the appreciation of consistent metre and accurate rhyme.

Thus, with regard to metre, I will count syllables and check that stresses fall where they should. I will search for the metric pattern established in the first verse and see if it is followed through the rest of the poem. I will penalise poor spelling, grammar, punctuation, and rhymes that are not perfect. I’m not going to delve into the technical aspects of these issues here, for Ellis’s notes (when they reappear on the website), and detailed explanations given by Glenny (and others) provide excellent coverage of the basic skills required.

Some may say that this approach is too pedantic and limits what bush poetry might be…I disagree. There is still plenty of scope within the rules to produce original, imaginative, high-quality work, and there are many poems that illustrate that fact, both from the past and the present. The work of C. J. Dennis, for example, encompasses a wonderful range of metric patterns, language styles (particularly his use of the vernacular), and rhyme schemes. In the present day, the poetry of Ron Stevens shows how enjambment can be used to brilliant effect. And the above-mentioned book provides some other fine examples of contemporary bush verse.

It’s important to emphasise at this point that good poetry goes well beyond technical skill. Technical failure is usually the first step that separates out the weaker poems. When it comes to choosing the actual prize-winners from those that make it through to the short-list, that’s when the going gets tough for a judge. A top-quality poem transcends metre, rhyme, punctuation, spelling and grammar to move into that realm where a judge sits back and thinks: “Wow!” This is where an interesting idea combines with striking imagery to produce a memorable poem that one is happy to read again and again. Or perhaps clever wordplay and a madcap story create a laugh-out-loud humorous piece.

It is at that final stage when small differences and an individual judge’s particular interests and sensibilities come into play. In my case, for example, I don’t like the still reasonably common practice of putting a capital letter at the beginning of each line. Punctuation should assist the reader. Unnecessary capital letters interrupt the flow of lines…and are used by some writers to completely avoid responsibility for any other form of punctuation!

Neither do I approve of the practice of omitting syllables in order to fit the rhythm…for example “ev’ry”, “ev’ning”, “fam’ly”, and “mem’ry”. The language should be as natural as possible, so that there is no sense that metre or rhyme are being forced in any way. A reader should be able to enjoy the poem without wincing at awkward phraseology, erratic metre, or clumsy rhymes.

Heather asked in one thread whether preambles are acceptable in written competitions. I agree with Glenny’s comment that a poem should stand on its own, without any need for background history or explanation. In fact, a preamble might suggest that the poet has doubts about the strength of the work. In some cases a preamble seems to be used as proof that the poem is based on fact, but that should have no influence on a judge’s decision.

Thus, at the final point of decision-making, judging is very subjective. Every ABPA-accredited judge will have his or her particular view, which is why writing bush poetry for competition purposes can be part exhilaration and part frustration. It explains why a poem may be completely ignored in several competitions and then suddenly land a prize. That is why perseverance is so important. Written verse is challenging, but also most rewarding when others appreciate what you have done, whether for competition purposes or not. The learning process never stops because there is always room for improvement.

As stated earlier, we have a wonderful tradition of poetry in Australia, and today’s bush poets are writing about a huge range of contemporary themes. There are a great many opportunities for writers, and written competitions play an important part (but by no means the only one) in carrying on that tradition. I hope the above comments are of some assistance in indicating the factors I consider to be important in doing just that.

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Irene
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Re: A judge's viewpoint

Post by Irene » Wed Dec 08, 2010 11:35 am

Hi DAvid
Great to see your comments here - and you have certainly provided a great argument for the need to keep to the guidelines for bush poetry.
I agree wholeheartedly with you, and believe that we need to write for the competition we are entering.
I have organised a couple of competitions - the entry forms of which clearly state the criteria for bush poetry - and have received some free verse poems as entries. While those poems may be wonderful poems in their own right, in a written competition - as you say - they do not meet the criteria and will be discarded at the first culling by the judge.

And yes, the final decision does often come down to a judges personal preference - but somewhere a choice has to be made if you have several poems that are all winners.
In our last competition, the second place getter lost out over a very, very minor detail - which caused a deal of debate when the judges comments were posted - but it was all that separated the winner and him - in the eyes of the judge. Another judge may well have made a different decision.

Thanks for taking the time to post your comments - they are greatly appreciated.

Catchya
IRene
What goes around, comes around.

manfredvijars

Re: A judge's viewpoint

Post by manfredvijars » Wed Dec 08, 2010 11:47 am

David, Thank you for your considered post and shedding light on our craft from a judge's eye.

We can only benefit - Thank you.

M.

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Dave Smith
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Re: A judge's viewpoint

Post by Dave Smith » Wed Dec 08, 2010 12:08 pm

Hi David
I am new to the ABPA but have been an avid reader of bush poetry all my life, I have just started to write poetry and knew nothing about the rules you speak of, my wish is that people are able to read anything I write and understand what I am saying. Writing within the rules does this. Thank you for your post you have let me know that I am heading down the right track.

Regards Dave Smith.
I Keep Trying

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Re: A judge's viewpoint

Post by Zondrae » Wed Dec 08, 2010 12:54 pm

G'day David,

Thank you for you informative epistle. It is a clear and precise example of how you approach the difficult task often set before you. It is reassuring that you have referred to my post. On occasion I feel I am sticking my neck out and inviting 'the chop'. However you have confirmed that I have the right idea in relation to what we should be aiming for when we write for competition.
Zondrae King
a woman of words

Leonie

Re: A judge's viewpoint

Post by Leonie » Wed Dec 08, 2010 4:24 pm

I also thank you for your post and agree completely with you on all counts. I suspect the people who say that competitions are too stringent would dearly love to be able to write as well as some of the people who win them.

warooa

Re: A judge's viewpoint

Post by warooa » Thu Dec 09, 2010 4:54 am

Thanks David, your input from a judges perspective highlights the importance of upholding our traditions.

Cheers, Marty

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Re: A judge's viewpoint

Post by Neville Briggs » Thu Dec 09, 2010 4:15 pm

[quote="David Campbell"].. verse written for performance purposes is also an entirely different matter, as there is scope for far more flexibility with the spoken word. A skilful performer can easily cover up a multitude of technical faults in a poem...

G'day David, I was very interested in the above comments.

I would argue as strongly as possible that there is absolutely no difference between the words of any written poem and the words spoken in a performance or reading.
Poets, I understand are craftsmen ( persons ) of words. Poems are made from words, not ideas, any variation in reading the carefully chosen words of the poet is destructive to the integrity of the work, surely!.
Beethoven wrote his fifth symphony in a certain way, Da Da Da Daaaa. It would never do for the performers to claim performing flexibility .. Da Da Da Da Daaaa. Never ! What about Shakespeare " To be or not, now that's a question eh " Never, never... a thousand times never !

If a poem can be flexible in performance and the exact wording and metric construction can be altered ad lib without changing the impact of the work, then it's not a poem, it's just a script for a piece of cabaret or a versified story.
And if a supposed poem has, as you have said above, a multitude of technical faults, then it is not a poem, just doggerel, not worth the attention of a skilful reader or performer.


Neville.
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Re: A judge's viewpoint

Post by Zondrae » Thu Dec 09, 2010 4:36 pm

G'day Neville,

I believe David did not mean to vary any written work by performing it other than as it is written. I think he means, when writing a poem, the writer may have either a written competition or a performance piece in mind. The work, when performed must still be true to the writers words. But not every good performance piece will score in a strict R&M competition. Frank Daniel has a little saying: "Copyright means exactly that - copy right!"

I have many poems I call 'Elbow poems'. These are the cheeky little ones that either wake you in the middle of the night, or bother you while you are writing something else, and demand to be written down right then and there. You have no peace til it is done. These often arrive completely written and require very little adjustment to be finished. I would be a crime to fiddle with these too much. We should, however, strive to write as closely to perfection as we can, regardless as to where the poem will be read or heard.

Also, and I know this applies to a couple of mine, there are some poems that would lose something if changed to conform to very strict rules.
Zondrae King
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David Campbell
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Re: A judge's viewpoint

Post by David Campbell » Thu Dec 09, 2010 7:38 pm

G’day Neville

Zondrae is correct. I didn’t mean that the words of a poem could be altered when it is read, merely that the way in which it is read can conceal technical faults. Here, for example, is the first verse of one of my poems as written for a competition:

The legends have been handed on
through generations down the years,
of well-known places, men long gone,
of triumph, tragedy and tears.
They blazed a trail across our land,
to conquer desert, scrub and hills,
with few so famous or so grand
as Robert Burke and William Wills.

Now let’s make a few changes that introduce a number of technical faults:

The legends have been handed down
through generations and many years,
of well-known places, valiant men long gone,
of triumph, tragedy and tears.
They blazed a trail right across our land,
to conquer desert, scrub and vales,
but few were so famous or so grand
as Robert O’Hara Burke and William Wills.

The metre is now all over the place and there are two examples of poor rhymes. It would be shot down in a written competition, but I could present that version in performance in such a way that most wouldn’t recognise the technical faults. Judicious pauses would hide the erratic metre and careful phraseology would make the very shaky rhymes less obvious…and, even with its imperfections, I’d hope that the second version wouldn’t be classed as doggerel.

Cheers
David

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