It’s strange, how the approach changes as you move through the stages of judging. The first read-through was all about being open and not especially critical. Looking for reasons to say ‘yes!’, and only dismissing things that really were pretty bad. Then you move into the critical phase (whittling down), where you start being über picky and scrutinising the poems inside and out, actively looking for a reason to reject them. Then you go through yet again, trying to occupy the ground somewhere between those two positions. Ok, you say, maybe I was a little harsh. I’ll give you one last opportunity to convince me. Tell me why I should reconsider my decision. You go back over all the Noes, making sure every poem has had a fair shot at moving up. Then at the Maybes, again, being as scrupulous and fair as you can.Then the longlisted poems get a final chance to put themselves forward, and win their way through into the final selection. Yes milord, I really did give the defendants a fair hearing before dismissing them, and I can take the court over each step of the decision, should milord require it.
But now it changes again. From twenty shortlisted poems, I have to work my way down to just four. Four that I would be willing to argue the case for. Four that I can’t quite bear to let go. In an ideal world, the four poems would have made themselves obvious right from the start. Clearly superior. Four thoroughbreds in a paddock full of crossbred ponies.
In some ways, this is the easiest part. All I have to do is put each of the other shortlisted poems beside them in turn, and ask the question: better, or worse? (Although anyone who has ever had to get glasses will tell you, simple binary choices aren’t always either that simple or that binary.) There has been quite a lot of pacing around the room and declaiming of poems aloud. A lot of going away and coming back. I have it narrowed down to half a dozen now, and think I know the final order.
But this is where the Dubito bit comes in.
The poorly written poems are easy to dismiss. Hold any one of them up to one of the shortlisted poems, and the difference in skill is dazzlingly obvious. Even the Maybe pile are fairly clearly a step below in accomplishment. And of course no-one but me will know which pile a particular poem was consigned to, so as long as I am satisfied that I have done my duty by them, I can now ignore them completely.
But now I have six poems, two-thirds of which will stand as exemplars of what I believe good poetry is. Now I have to start asking the question a bit harder of myself: have I chosen this poem because of my own personal taste, or because it is genuinely and objectively the better written? Now the challenges aren’t just to the poems. I have to challenge my own decisions, my own motivations. There are a couple of things that all six poems have in common. (And no, I’m not going to tell you what they are.) Is that a co-incidence? Or have I been unduly influenced by some aspect of poetry that is colouring my judgement here? Have I picked poem X at least in part out of a wish to seem pro This or anti That, or to demonstrate how broad and funky and contemporary (or pure, correct and worthy) my tastes are?
Ultimately those considerations do have to come into things. Like everyone, I have blindspots and biases. So now I have to check my selections against those biases, and try to allow for them in my final decisions. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? That would be me. The judge, judging the judge.
(Overly analytical? Who, me? What makes you the eighty-eighth person to say that with that exact facial expression, and a not dissimilar tone of voice?)