Sunday, October 15, 2006

I've been judging a poetry competition. It's been hard because of the number of poems I've had to read and because of the insight it's given me into what people think poetry is.

It's like a mirror of contemporary culture, many very competently written pieces, polished and clearly thought about, but little that challenges me. Many writers have appropriated a style of language but ignored the fact a poem has to do something else. I blame the new formalists. There are many in the poetry world, the cliques who hold court in universities and conferences, at prize givings and festivals, who have set language as the key criterion, beyond meaning or substance.

I'm not suggesting that every poem should make a big statement. It's tempting to choose poems that seem to do that because of course there's big prize money here and we're a society obsessed with the concept of value for money (is that in the number of words or ideas?). I want poems to make me think and feel different, that create their own world and rules. There are not enough people who are willing to challenge the norm and the norm-setters.

So I think poetry's confused. It shows in the many poems that eloquently describe nothing. I want a poem to lift me, to stay with me, to jump into my mind on the train or in the morning when I wake up. I want it to be that nag at the back of my mind when I'm talking to someone, the reminder.

So, I've been reading Penelope Shuttle's latest book, Redgrove's Wife, which describes everything that's important. It's a magnificent book. Also Robin Robertson's Swithering, which is also totally engaging. These are reassuring. LIke Vicki Feaver's The book of blood.

I have been reading them in between reading competition entries, together with Neruda's Captain's Verses - the most astonishing book of love poetry there is. I've adored Neruda's work for years. Food and love. He can't be matched.

I have to make a final decision about the winners today.