THOUGHTS ABOUT JUDGING POETRY (#10)
Philip Guston comes to mind -- specifically how I have so much respect and admiration for his development of his art...and specifically how he wasn't afraid to switch directions from abstraction expressionism to what might have seemed its antithesis at the time: cartoony depictions. I admire the expanse of his mind and heart that allowed him to grow, as much as I admire the results of what Willem de Kooning aptly described at the time as works reflecting "freedom."
Philip Guston comes to mind as I've just read the first two SELECTEDS from the pile of COLLECTEDs OR SELECTEDs in this poetry competition I'm judging. While, as I said in my sixth post in this series, I try not to bring any criteria to a book but instead try to understand it on its own terms, assessing SELECTEDs/COLLECTEDs is a unique situation (for me) where I do bring a criteria to my reading of them -- even as I gently insist that this criteria surely should be inherent in the nature of a SELECTED or COLLECTED.
To wit, I view a SELECTED or COLLECTED as also something that offers something about the poet's development in addition to what else that book offers.
And so, Philip Guston comes to mind because the first two SELECTEDs I've just read disappoint, in terms of this particular perspective. That is, there seem to be no meaningful shift in how the poems were written over a prolonged period of time. Regardless of how lovely individual poems are, the collections overall are one-note wonders. The thing is: a poetry book can be a one-note wonder. But if a SELECTED or COLLECTED is just a thicker one-note wonder, is that a lesser achievement because of the nature of being a SELECTED or COLLECTED?
Of course both approaches (and many others) are valid. Going back to the visual art metaphor (how 'bout those monochromes after monochromes after monochromes...?!), there are plenty of artists who spend their lifetimes painting the same painting again and again and, somehow, there's both a logic as well as sublimity to the existence of such a body of work. But that I'm mentally cogitating over this, I concede, relates to the one bias I concede in terms of how I am operating as a judge:
I have a bias towards ambition in what an artist is trying to create. For poetry, I have a bias to those poets who write as if they make language and not just inherit it.
Relatedly, Catherine (hi Kasia!) Daly's posted another response, and I excerpt from it where she quite intriguingly says:
I think it is actually more ethical to say, ok, these are all ones I would publish. Rather than leave it to some sort of chance operation, I will choose among them with a motive.
What's interesting about Catherine's post is she's had occasions to talk confidentially with some poetry competition judges about the final stages of judging -- the motive (good word) for choosing the final one winner among a group of noteworthy finalists. And one of the reasons conceded by those judges is the identity of the publisher -- e.g., that an award would "help out" a particular press!
I was perversely tickled to see that example. Because I know of a contest winner who I'd long suspected received hir award due to the identity of hir (beloved in some circles) publisher. The problem is that the award had a, um, obnoxious effect on the poet -- the poet now believes s/he is an Artiste Who Knows More Than Others And Now Should Be A Gatekeeper Of Sorts since, after all, said poet got this big award! So I only have one plea to future poetry judges -- if you're going to turn to an *external* factor such as the identity of the publisher to make a decision, can you also please pay attention to another external factor as to whether an award would make a poet even more insufferable than usual?