I have been asked to judge a thing. A good thing. A serious thing. (But this isn’t about that. We do not name names. Even if I did know, I wouldn’t tell you.)
I said yes straight away, as you do. But I caught myself thinking: I’m not much of a judge. There are fantastic gaps in my knowledge, not to mention my taste. That Very Brilliant Prize Winner from a few years ago, the poet you love, you know the one, well, if I am honest they do nothing for me. That Other Poet, who was famous with a buzz before their first book even came out, I still don’t see what the fuss is about.
What do you mean I’m wrong?
Isn’t this how we all work, haphazardly, chaotically, with our tastes and prejudices intertwined with who we met at X’s party and what they said about Y?
I did judge a thing, once. Above a pub, in south London, a rainy-shouty night of shouty-smoky poems which now we would call Spoken Word. It was excellent. Smoke in pubs (remember it?) Shouting. Verbal jostling. Electric.
In the end the judging wasn’t that hard. The work before us on the stage had done the work for us. All we had to do was confirm what everyone knew.
It’s made me think. We judge all the time. You, me, we. About him, about her. We meet in cabals in pubs (or perhaps we just email) and whisper. Seamus Heaney called his meetings with Jospeh Brodsky ‘doing the shopping list’. Who is in. And who is out. We all do it. All of us. All of the time.
Take this, from the back of a book, about the very same Heaney, by a young Clive James: ‘With Seamus Heaney . . . an already achieved, uniquely precocious maturity is being deepened into a tragic voice. He has already left the point at which is contemporaries are now arriving.’ That was about Wintering Out. But in a sense it is about all of Heaney. Getting to a point of saying something one way, then moving on. I love it. But it also leaves me out. Those mysterious ‘contemporaries’. And by which measurement do we precisely know that Heaney left this mysterious ‘point’ (where?) at the moment his ‘contemporaries’ were arriving at it? We don’t. It’s both marvellous and complete balls. In a way it proves that this is not a science. We are mistaken if we think that it is.
This reminds me of a remark I once heard Liz Lochhead make at Aldeburgh, in a debate about whether ‘poetry had disappeared up its own arse’. She confessed to the audience that in truth she would rather read early Muldoon or early Heaney than late Muldoon or late Heaney. (It may not even have been her main point. The point is: this is what I remember.)
A kind of gasp went up. Not a football or Centre Court gasp, a poetry gasp, barely audible, but very loud at the same time. I thought: this is what we say in the pub (or on email): do you know what, I didn’t get Z’s last book. I thought: how rarely we see it, or say it, in public at any rate. (I’m differentiating here between cruel, atavistic, ad hominem attacks and remarks about the work.)
She said it so gently. Whispered it almost. She smiled. (She has the best smile.) I thought: that’s judgement, that’s wisdom. Let’s have more of it.