On judging


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.


  1. I love your description of ‘a poetry gasp’, so recognisable. Good to have these thoughts aired. On the subject of judgment there is an interesting reference point for us as writers – all artists suspend judgment of the subject they are dealing with in order to engage fully in the empathetic act of creating. There is judgment too of course but in a sense this is held to the side, held back at least for phases of the process. This ability to suspend judgment in order to fully see/hear the subject is something we can invoke in experiencing one another’s work, making sure we fully absorb something before we position ourselves in relation to it.


    1. Thank you so much for taking time to respond to this.I think judgement and evaluation are intimately built into the cycle of creativity that all art-makers go through. Often it might be operating at an intuitive, pre-verbal level, but it is there nevertheless. Even to say What does this poem/ book of poems want to be? is a different frame from What do I want to express?
      As ever with good wishes


  2. Great post – again. Not about opinion, but informed opinion. There are times I have set myself tasks of reviewing poetry I can’t understand, and usually come out full of praise. There are some, mostly contemp American, and contemp London, do nothing for me, no matter what. As you wrote previously somewhere we keep trying it to see if it is a thing of approach, or attitude/temperament, and/or background knowledge.
    Judgement – confidence can get you most places, even when you are talking nonesense.


    1. Hi Michael, and thank you -again.
      I’m not great on schools. London contemp etc.
      But there are poets, and there are poems. Especially poems.
      This gives me hope.
      I think nonsense is greatly underrated by the way.
      As ever with thanks


  3. I’m a little bit worried that you raise the issue of ‘what we like’: surely, as a lecturer you have a grid of assessment criteria which moves beyond and above liking something? Liking something is the last thing one comes to as a critic; and we all know there are books, songs, albums, performances we don’t like that we have to admit are good – not just popular, but fantastic poetry or songs that fail to move us. Gasp or no gasp I’d rather not read Heaney or Larkin at all, would rather read Ted Hughes’ Crow than anything else he wrote (except maybe Gaudete) but that doesn’t mean I don’t acknowledge Heaney and Larkin aren’t good poems. The need to emote and share experience (perhaps even be lifesaving?) doesn’t strike me as criteria necessary to assessing or judging poetry, that’s just personal response. Language first, content second, response last…


  4. Great post, Anthony, in which you manage to say so many things. I suppose we’re all a bit diffident about being too judging about contemporary poetry, since (a) it’s so diverse and (b) it makes many of us feel vulnerable about being judged ourselves. The most I usually feel able to say is that “it doesn’t work for me”. Add to this the fact that my reaction to a poem I admire is often on an instinctive level – a recognition, a resonance – and you then have to go back and see how that effect has been achieved. The same things don’t resonate with everyone – as Rupert points out with his comments on Heaney and Larkin. Similarly, although early Muldoon I do like some of his late stuff as well – it just strikes me as being less consistent. It’s not easy, this poetry biz, is it? best of luck with your judging.


    1. Hi Anthony. And thank you for your kind comment. It certainly is not easy. Whether the judgements we make are in private or the public square, it is good to be able to articulate how we got there. If possible. As ever with best wishes


    2. Hi Antony
      Thank you for your kind comment. It doesn’t work for me is always a good one since no one can argue with it.
      As I get older I like to be able to say why, though, and that is not always easy, since it means challenging my assumptions and prejudices.
      The judging was great fun by the way. We had a ball. And the winner is…………..


  5. Judge not, that ye be judged
    Begrudge not, that ye be not begrudged!
    Twas ever thus,
    At a poetry-festival, in a TV-studio, or in a bloody Clapham omnibus!


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