The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.
Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made
is star-stuff too?
– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –
dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.
Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.
Tuesday, 12 February 2013
new lambs, and 350 poems
No-one's unmoved by new lambs. Seeing them, though, for me as a vegan is always touched with a poignancy – their destination being the table, and I find it really hard that we in England are so sentimental about new lambs, and so effectively and hypocritically dissociate them from the plastic-wrapped lumps of anonymous flesh on which we feast. I can't help feeling that far fewer people would eat meat if they had ever visited a slaughterhouse.
The way we humans relate to animals has long been a source of great distress to me; and the best we can usually manage is the Judeo-Christian stewardship model, which doesn't go far enough for me, anthropocentric as it is and founded in the view that other species are here to serve our needs. For me, we're all in this together, and 'do as you would be done by' is as relevant to our treatment of fellow species as of other humans.
'The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men.' (Alice Walker)
There is one huge book to be written about all this, and one of the reasons I don't write more here about my own deeply committed ecocentric approach to the world – one that considers other beings to have the same rights as humans – is because there is so very much to write about this – in effect an alternative history – or bible – of the Western world (in fact I have a vegan friend who is doing just this). (I am not saying it's only the West that is anthropocentric – clearly that's not true – but I can't reliably speak of a culture other than my own; and ours has a particular history, from the Greeks on and fertilised nicely by the Age of Reason, that perpetrates and perpetuates that belief.)
OK, rant over.
Back to reading through the box of around 350 poems I'm judging for a competition. This is an interesting process – poetry being as personal as it is it's hard to reject people's work, and yet I have to pick a winner. At this stage I'm primarily looking for ones that I can pretty certainly disqualify (because I have to).
As long as I make myself be ruthless, the 'no' pile isn't too hard. I do have to include in it poems that are OK but are not outstanding, as I have to start somewhere. Into it must go the ones that mostly consist of clichés, those that use rhyme in a rather stilted and contrived way (I'm happy to read rhyming poems, but the rhyme needs to be unostentatious and 'fit for purpose'), ones in which the grammar and spelling let the work down, ones that read as prose, ones that are overly sentimental, ones that don't go far enough, ones that might work for a C19th audience, or are slight and trite or doggerel, ones that 'tell not show', ones that are derivative. (Does that make me sound fierce?)
As in most competitions, probably, there's a huge range, and some poems that won't make it into the shortlist are still very moving. Some are startlingly original in their approach but don't quite open up from the personal to cast light on something more universal. Others are fine at face value but don't resonate in a deeper way than that. Oh – this is hard.
What I'm looking for, of course, is something that sets a poem apart from the merely 'acceptable', something that makes it really original, surprising, multilevelled, outstanding. I want a poem that will make me think, move me, give me a new angle, make me see things differently; one that will haunt me as I read the rest. It will probably also conjure up a sensory picture. It will for sure 'deliver' more than it would seem to at the beginning. I like, too, to be surprised by a title: one that offers a different or lateral or deeper view is always good to find.
Because it's also subjective, I personally am also drawn to poems that speak of the human relationship to the natural world; and while I don't mind – actually to some extent require – dark (the juxtaposition of dark and light can add substance, depth and dramatic tension to a poem), I do mind nasty.
I have a suspicion I have already met the possible winner; we'll see.
The 'maybe' pile grows almost as fast as the 'no'. The 'yes' pile is small, but I know from experience that by the time I finish a second or third reading of the 'maybe' and 'yes' piles there will be a long longlist that will be hard to whittle down.
I'll of course be considering all the things that work to create a good poem: originality of voice, subject, style, a marriage of form and content, cadence and musicality, the subtle use of 'poetic' devices – chiming words, alliteration, assonance, metaphor, imagery, scansion, diction, strong verbs and so on to scaffold the poem, an awareness of the need for the poem to appear fresh and spontaneous while also having clearly been worked, subject matter beyond the merely personal and emotional, etc. It's fairly obvious, fairly early on, too, which poets are readers, familiar with a range of poetry, which does matter, given that we don't work in a vacuum.
In the end, though, although I will have noticed subliminally or otherwise all the aspects above that create a strong poem, the winner will be the one to which my heart and mind in tandem instantly say YES.
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