I was asked to judge the 2009 Poetry Super Highway Contest because I won 3rd place in the 2008 contest. It's been a diverting and instructive experience. The contest was difficult to judge fairly, but the system did enable rapid decision-making. Where the difficulty in scoring lay was that, in reading the batches of poems, it was obvious that most of them were not good enough to win, but I had no way of telling how good—or bad—they would get; i.e., of determining the range. In setting arbitrarily imposed aesthetic limits for numerical score increments, there is a risk that if scored too low, too many poems will end up with very high or perfect scores, and if standards are too stringent, no poems will attain a sufficiently high score to signify in the final results—in both cases, making those scores worthless when combined with those of other judges, as far as influencing the contest outcome.
In dressage, which is an equestrian sport where horses perform in succession and are scored numerically with no opportunity for revision (as in this contest), a well-known effect exists in that judges tend to be overly cautious in assigning scores to the first few competitors, resulting in score creep. This effect is even more pronounced in poetry slams, where it is enhanced by contagious enthusiasm and alcohol. Because the contest poems arrived in groups, there was also a glamour cast by the accompanying poems: a tendency to judge a poem among good poems more rigorously than if all the other poems read at the same time were vastly inferior. Ideally, I’d have preferred to simultaneously read all the entered poems, or at least to reread the higher-scoring poems, rank them, and adjust the scores. But I do read quickly, and find that lesser poems are quickly assessed and rejected. I applaud the PSH method as enabling the results to be announced promptly; there are far too many poetry contests whose decision-making processes are indefensibly sluggish.
In the initial judging, using the designated scoring system of assigning scores from 0 to 5, using quarter-point increments, I set a score of 2.75 as the lowest score for a poem good enough that, as an editor, I would have considered it at all publishable—less than a quarter of the poems achieved this level. I chose 4.00 as the threshold for a poem that I would not be unhappy to see win, and only 28 poems—about 6%—ended up in this range. I reserved 5.00 for the very few poems that impressed me in the original reading as poems I would truly enjoy reading again and again, of which there were only three; two made the tie-breaking round for the top five and one, "Hugo," actually placed fifth (there was a tie for fourth place). The lowest score I gave was 0.50—even the most unskilled and inexperienced writers who entered were putting forth a modicum of effort. I was somewhat generous with the scores; if the contest were to have been scored in comparison to the full range from the worst to the best poems I have ever seen, the highest scores would have been more like 4 on a scale of 0 to 5.
I did weigh grammatical and punctuation errors in my assessment of the poems. Spelling and syntax are skills just as valuable as word choice and turn of phrase, and those who demonstrate expertise deserve credit. There were occasional typos that were obviously the result of carelessness rather than lack of skill, and contest organizer Rick Lupert assured me that editing would take place before the winning poems were published. Note that if there are oddities in a poem that could be interpreted as either interesting, original variants or as mistakes, the presence of incontrovertible errors elsewhere in the poem will drive the latter interpretation. Poetry is an exact science.
Speaking of which, the absence of italics in any of the poems as I received them was unfortunate. The level of writing was sufficiently elevated in some of the poems that the omission of italics where they should have occurred was obtrusive and displeasing, as well as suspicious. In plain-text e-mail messages (which do not support italicization), italics are normally indicated by _underlines_, a request which would be easy to insert in future contest rules.
Scoring the better poems—deciding, for instance, how much an ill-chosen word or two, or an unambitious approach to a commonplace subject, should affect the poem’s score—took considerably more time, and is easy to second-guess. Sometimes fascinating double meanings or structural flourishes do not emerge until further, closer readings; however, one legitimate measure of a poem’s worth is its ability to capture the reader’s attention from the beginning. I would have liked a chance to reevaluate my scores for the better poems at the end of the competition. I am glad that the tie for the top five places allowed me to adjust the scores I had originally given to those poems.
Comments on the poems tied for the top five places, in order of my own preference, with my initial scores in the 0-5 range and my final scores in the 0-10 range:
“Breccia” 10.00 (First place in contest)
4.50 was my original score, but this blank-verse sonnet impressed me much more in the later reading. The initially puzzling title is perfect for this poem; not only is it the Italian word for “broken,” but it is also the name of a rock in which fragments of one rock are embedded in a variant matrix, usually as the result of destructive encounter; I relate this to the poem’s structure, where each line is a single sentence ostensibly unconnected to what precedes or follows. I had been critical of a number of other contest poems for inaccessibly opaque content—and this poem is certainly not transparent—but it invites speculation rather than locking out the reader, and creates ominous intimations of a personal tragedy in a manner that elicits fascination even as it mystifies. The language of the poem is very simple (an effective contrast), allowing the reader to free-fall into the elusive content, up until the fabulous last line, “Outside the silent river rumples by.”
“Thanatopia” 9.75 (Third place in contest)
5.00 original score. A rereading did not change my initial impression of the poem, nor did it reveal further depths. There is always a risk in writing tragic poems with “I” as the narrator: they can far too easily be read as “poor-little-me” narratives that engage the reader’s hostility or distaste rather than his sympathy. This poem, with its ambitious title, nicely evades that pitfall in its weird veerings back and forth between the mundane and the surreal, nor is it afraid to bounce from the sublime to the ridiculous. I have a personal weakness for work that is both mysterious and silly, and this poem is my cup of scopolamine tea. Many delightful lines: “Send me wherever/failed stars go,” “I choose to translate the icing,” and the outré ending, “The watcher crawls in, closes her ribs.”
“The Day the Beekeeper Died” 9.25 (Tied for fourth place in contest)
4.00 original score. This is a wonderful narrative poem, but the short lines, ill-chosen breaks, and indents hinder its effect. It would have been much stronger as a prose poem; or at least if breaks on the weakest words had not been so frequent. It was, of course, easier to follow in subsequent readings, which allowed the substance of the poem to emerge more powerfully from its distracting form. This poem does a remarkable job of elliptically evoking intense grief through its focused description of a very unusual reaction to the death of a father. Although—and perhaps because—the father is mentioned only twice in the poem, and in the title only by inference, the poem is vivid and effective in spite of its unfortunate structure.
“Awaiting Dionysus” 9.25 (Tied for fourth place in contest)
I originally gave this one a 5.00. Greek myth has been done to death as a subject for poetry, and so has the longing for spring’s return, but this poem is filled with strikingly original phrases: “morose vineyard,” “the hellish year.” Not only that, but it’s a sestina, and I admire form very much when it’s done well. On the minus side, the envoi is slightly weaker than the rest of the poem (“Dormant the dye that lengthens apart” is particularly opaque); I like a poem to end with a tour de force. Other flaws that became more evident on rereading were some flukes in the punctuation and certain word choices, especially prepositions, that were a little off in a way that caused me to wonder whether English is the poet’s first language. Even so, the poem shows immense promise.
“Slainte” 7.75 (Second place in contest)
4.00 original score. This poem is very correct and workmanlike, which in this competition was enough to put it near the top 5%, but no more. The absence of errors distinguished it most, and certainly the writer deserves praise for his meticulous craftsmanship—but I was disappointed, especially upon comparison with the more original efforts of the other finalists, that this sestina does nothing that could be described as adventurous, and does not take advantage of the form’s possibilities. It uses predictable, pedestrian end-words with none of the playful variations in meaning that are the usual point of a sestina, and there are no real surprises or particularly memorable lines. The poet is certainly competent, but not ambitious.
The statistical analysis of data is always interesting, particularly where the data stem from pure aesthetics. In a flurry of cat-vacuuming, I've made a little bar graph showing the distribution of all the scores I gave in the contest. Note that there is a lot of room at the top end of the graph.
The Poetry Super Highway site is very amateur-friendly; it's possible that academic literary contests are more rigorous, and that the poems which won here might not have been competitive elsewhere. In my previous judging experience and, I am given to understand by others who have judged literary contests, most of the entries are not of sufficient quality to merit winning scores. However, when choosing among the better poems, a judge's tastes may play an unexpectedly aleatory role. All three of us who were winners last year and judged this year have been widely published and have won awards in respected venues; even so, our scores, by inference from the top-ten placings given by Rick on the PSH radio winners announcement, must have significantly diverged in many instances.
There were certain qualities that drove low scores—from me, at least. From a judge's point of view, here is some advice for poetry contest entrants: a) have someone competent edit your poem for basic grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.—errors in writing are just as annoying and disruptive as when someone reads aloud and mispronounces and mumbles, plus they show a lack of both competence and respect for your own work; b) write on an unusual subject and/or in an unusual manner--surprise the reader with your content, style, or word choices; c) prose anecdotes or journal entries are generally not poems, no matter how heartbreaking, even with line breaks; d) lines are best broken on strong, interesting words, as opposed to ending with an article, pronoun, or preposition; e) consider the rationale before indenting; f) think long and hard before capitalizing Important Words—the effect is Antiquated; g) avoid end rhymes unless writing formal poetry—and if writing formal poetry, it had better be damned good. These are not hard-and-fast rules (except for a!), but it would be wise not to break them without carefully considering the intended effect.