Last week, I was a judge in the regional Staffordshire/Shropshire heat of the first ever National Poetry by Heart competition. ‘Oh yes, I’ll do that,’ I’d airily said, imagining how nice it would be to sit listening to young people bringing poems to life. The night before the competition, however, I lay awake worrying. All those young people with their hopes of making it through to the final at the National Portrait Gallery - I imagined them practicing hard, giving it their best, trying to remember their selected poems and deliver them in a way that proved they understood, and maybe even loved, them. And all to be marked on score cards by judges which included me.
What if I got it wrong? Never mind the other judges - what if the best boy/girl didn’t win and I was the one to blame? Would I be the one the audience would end up shaking its collective head at when so-and-so’s shining talent was overlooked? I'd done all the things you'd hope a judge would do before this sort of event. Certainly all the things the organisers hoped I'd do, because my judge's pack was full of good advice. I'd mugged up on the poems of course. The Poetry by Heart anthology gave me plenty to get excited about, if not a few to groan over as well. Some of my favourite poems/poets hadn’t been chosen to my disappointment [where was RS Thomas, for example, and great to see Charles Causley but where was Jack Clemo and where was John Donne?]. But then that’s the way things go - there were some interesting choices too.
I'd read out loud the list of poems that contestants had selected from the anthology, aiming to get a feel for how easy or difficult they might be to understand and to perform. Then I'd allowed myself the pleasure of reading the poems again, not as a judge but just for myself. Then, judge's hat back on, I'd waded my way through the judging criteria [as complicated as a national curriculum in miniature – were we really meant to take all this into account in the short time that a poem was being read? I mean, what are people thinking of when they produce this sort of stuff?]. I'd even done as they suggested and practiced judging using performances on line. Finally I was about as prepared as I could be - yet still in the night that niggling doubt. I feared my judgment would let someone’s talent - and, just as badly, their appreciation of their chosen poem - fail to shine.
But then I don’t like judgments. Never have done. God help the general public if I’d ever been a magistrate. I shudder to imagine the petty criminals who’d have walked free to re- offend.
So why had I agreed to do this, you might well ask? Certainly it wasn’t born of a desire to select the best at the expense of the rest. No, it was for the poetry that I said ‘yes’. ‘Best news of the week after the renaissance of Ziggy Stardust,’ is how John Walsh, in the Independent, described the Poetry by Heart competition back in January when it was announced. ‘School champions will declaim Keats or Browning at oikish rivals from other schools. There’ll be heats and a nail-biting final in April. It’s very Michael Gove – and I’m all for it.’
Good for you, John Walsh. I’m ignoring your mention of John Gove [and Keats and Browning, since so many modern poets are included too] but when you say that poetry learned by heart is like a private iPoems library available for download, I’m with you. And I’m with Andrew Motion when he talks about poetry moving us before we understand it, because it operates as ‘emotional noise’. ‘Its sounds allow us to receive it in our hearts, as well as in our heads,’ Andrew Motion says.
And that was what happened on the night. Without delving into the secrets of the judges’ deliberations, I can tell you that though the choice was tight the best girl won and, as far as I was concerned, she did it with her second poem, Edwin Morgan’s ‘Strawberries’, which she absolutely made her own. Before the competition, I’d identified this poem as one of those that interested me least, but Shropshire/Staffordshire finalist, Concorde College's Alexandra Tham, unwrapped what it was saying and made it shine. Hers was a rendition that I won't ever forget.