Techniques — David Campbell, “From a Judge’s Desk”

The following text is taken (with Author’s permission) from a discussion thread in the ABPA Online Forum

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.

David Campbell.