Bottling Lightning – judges’ tips

Originally published in Poetry News in 2009

What sort of poems are most likely to fire the judges’ imaginations? Mike Sims spoke to some former NPC judges to find out.

Are there ever surefire winners among the entries for the National Poetry Competition and, if so, what are they like? This is a question that will preoccupy every entrant as he or she selects their best work for the £5,000 prize, dreaming of the national press coverage and rush of publishers that follows. (After all, Carol Ann Duffy was a relative unknown when she won in 1983…)

But is there, as far as poetry is concerned, ever such a thing as a dead cert? When we asked a number of NPC judges for their views, some thought the question itself problematic (“I quite genuinely can’t answer it!” confessed Brian Patten). Others were happy to describe the conclusions they’d drawn from their experience as judges.

“A competition-winning poem stops you in your tracks, with an almost physical shock,” reckons Alison Brackenbury, a judge in 2005. “It is the one which marries feeling and form. Feeling, on its own, is not enough. The most polished of forms can be an empty shell. But together they are irresistible and remind even the most bleary-eyed judge why we care so much about poetry.”

Roger McGough, a judge in 1997, is more sceptical: “In my experience, the best twenty or so poems rise to the top and all the judges agree on them: they’re individual, quirky, elegant etc. But rarely do the judges agree on the winner…”

Bernardine Evaristo believes there is no formula. “Arguments about ‘quality’ aside, there are so many entries that some smashing poems will inevitably fall through the net. It also depends, of course, on individual judges’ tastes, and sometimes they are diametrically opposed. In 2005, we found a friendly way around our differences of opinion. How do you judge art anyway?” 

Once the deadline for entries is up, judges have almost three months to make their selection and arrive at a consensus on who the prize-winners will be. It is a process that allows for proper reflection on their relative merits, explains Ian Duhig, twice an NPC winner and a judge with Michael Donaghy, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze and Chair Michèle Roberts in 2001.

“The final places are, of course, committee decisions and that is a process no entrant could take into account,” Duhig says. So while first and second prizes in 2001 were awarded to the “marvellously accomplished, though very different, poems” by Beatrice Garland and Ann Drysdale, it was his experience of chancing upon what would become the third-placed poem (Rhian Gallagher’s ‘Embrace’) that for him was the most telling. 

“All the good poems somehow created space around them as I read through the pile. I think it was Eliot who said that poets aren’t really in competition because they are doing such different things. There are at present so many varieties of poetry around to be enjoyed that his remark seems truer than ever now. However, within their styles, some have more intensity than others: they command their space and ‘stand well’, so you want to keep looking at them. When I found a poem I liked I read it aloud several times as well as re-reading it mentally many more times. I suspect most judges do this, so entrants may want to bear this in mind and do the same with their poems before sending them off.

“Rhian Gallagher’s ‘Embrace’ electrified me with the passionate charge of its language. I stopped working diligently through my pile and looked at it, and read it aloud and looked at it again for ages. From “Unshowered…” through to “Everything had turned on” and back to the beginning again – a good last line really helps if you want to make a judge do this – it took me by the hand. It still does.

“Although I couldn’t be certain, ‘Embrace’ seemed to me not by an English poet, and although its mention of men on the pier, baffled at the sight of the lovers, was suggestive, this was incidental to my awe at the bottled lightning of this short lyric.

“The brutal injunction of the old variety act recruiters – ‘Show me something I’ve never seen before!’ – seems to me entirely possible to comply with in poetry. I see it all the time. I’d ask NPC entrants to consider what is different about their poems (to do that of course they must know a lot about what has already been done) although that is not a demand for novelty above all else. It is more often found in seeing what we’re all familiar with in new ways and, more than anything else, that applies to the language. All the elements of the poem interact to make it successful, but they are all made of, and interact in, the words.”

So, entrants, it’s up to you. The National Poetry Competition is long established as one of the world’s biggest and most prestigious poetry prizes. It draws thousands of entries from more than 70 countries around the world – but the best work will stand out. 


This is a slightly edited version of an article which was first published in Poetry News, the Poetry Society members’ newspaper, in autumn 2009. © The Poetry Society & the author