“Must I?” I said to my wife.
"Judge for yourself", she answered. "Money’s running low again."
"Where else can you get $500 for five days work?”
"Digging ditches? No, that would pay at least seven or eight hundred."
"And treated like a king for once?"
"That sounds more appealing. Even a co-regent breathes power and infuence. Who did you say the other judges are?"
"You’ll be replacing Silas Weatherby."
"How jolly! Second choice to Silas Weatherby – an idiot of the garter!"
"Here it is: The other judges are Professor Swinford Tabbener — "
"Never heard of him! What’s he a professor of?"
"Search me! You’re the writer in this family. I’m just the bread-and-butter lady who puts dinner on the table."
"Never heard of him or her either. Where do they get these people from?"
"Same place they got you. Writers’ Society."
"Remind me to forget to renew my membership!"
As an entrant, one thing I’ve learnt to avoid are contests with more than one judge. It’s rare indeed for two or three judges to agree on the list of finalists, let alone the placings within that list. The results of such contests are inevitably a compromise in which the actual prizewinners are lucky contestants who have managed to appeal to – or at least not antagonize – all the judges.
However, money is money. And when you write novels that don’t sell and poetry that no-one reads, judging literary events at least keeps your name alive.
As a judge, I’ve also learnt to appreciate myself over and above the low rating the world gives me. I note how tolerant I am compared to many of my fellows. I’ve met judges who quite automatically consign to the reject bin all those entries that don’t measure up to their own fixed and finalized ideals of spelling, grammar and punctuation — no matter how talented their authors in characterization and narrative skills. If Charles Dickens had submitted Bleak House to some of these judges, his masterpiece would never have seen the light of day. (Dickens invented his own system of punctuation and thought himself above the conventional rules. And why not?)
My first impression of Professor Swinford Tabbener, however, was surprisingly encouraging. He was a little man with a big voice and a dwarfish sense of humor. "Do you enjoy judging poetry contests?" I asked him.
"Judging poetry contests? I love it! Love it! Judging poetry’s a walkover compared to flicking through prose. Don’t you agree, John? Why, there’s nothing I like better than to read a well-crafted poem. Nothing I like better! A poem that says something. It doesn’t have to be something profound or something learned or something earth-shattering. Just something that strikes me as sensitive or original. It can be (and often should be) something quite simple, but something expressed in a way that strikes me as original, novel, unusual."
"Obviously heartfelt?" I interposed.
"It would be jolly difficult not to write something heartfelt about famous figures of history," I suggested.
"Not a theme that particularly appeals to me," he admitted.
"Like it or not, that’s the theme of our contest," I argued.
"What do you mean, we’ll see?" I picked up the nearest entry of several hundred on the table. (Ten or twelve unopened mail sacks were piled underneath). I read:
Washington, George, was the finest man
That Valley Forge did ever see.
He gripped his musket with great elan
And led his soldiers o’er land and sea.
"An instant candidate for the reject bin?" I suggested.
Tabbener nodded his head glumly. At least we were off to a good start. He picked up another entry:
If Tennyson felt a quiet urge
The softly rolling seas to merge
He repulsed that instinct quick as a flash
And sold Arthur Hallam for a spot of quick cash
"Another no-no!" I remarked.
He seemed less decisive. "I don’t know. The sentiment is unusually scathing. And notice how the lines are arranged to form an attractive pyramidal pattern."
"Who cares?" I asked.
"Perhaps we should wait for Lesley."
He looked up at me in surprise. "Lesley Eldercott."
"I thought her name was Morlea?"
"He prefers to be called Lesley."
"Just great! And when does he get here?"
"I’m here!" came a cold voice right behind me. "And I agree with Swin. The lines do form an attractive pattern."
God help me! Item two, and already two against one! I turned to shake a perfunctory hand with an undergraduate type, self-consciously dressed in one those hideous sweat-shirts labeled Kick me Colder on the Shoulder. "Time for my lucky dip", he said, pushing forward to select a sheet from the table pile. He glanced at it quickly and then burst out laughing. To my surprise and annoyance, he then handed the entry across the table to Tabberner.
Tabberner smiled back and then, to my amazement, tore the entry in half. "Can’t use it," he said. "Winning and commended entries will be published in a printed anthology," he quoted. “So famous figures are automatically restricted by censorship regulations and the combined sensitivities of printers, distributors, sales managers, booksellers, librarians, schoolteachers, clergymen and assorted community do-gooders. Therefore famous fanciers like Casanova are most definitely not persona grata.”
Without waiting for an invitation, Eldercott stepped forward and chose another entry. This time he did read it aloud:
Jesus is a worthy man.
He fitted in with God’s great plan.
He died, you see, for you and me.
They nailed His body to a tree.
We didn’t need to comment on that entry. Most entrants are peculiarly one-eyed when it comes to judging the worth of their own work. In poetry contests, the writers of doggerel, particularly religious doggerel, seem to regard the truth and the worthiness of their subject matter as imparting an automatic uplifting quality to threadbare phrases and trite rhymes. Or maybe they simply don’t realize their sentiments are at best merely faint echoes of work that has been far more powerfully expressed by hundreds of thousands of far more gifted believers over the centuries. It takes real talent to write religious, political or polemical verse well.
Tabberner seemed to read my thoughts. "How would you express such ideas?" he asked.
I was flattered. Presumably he had read up my bio, and knew something about me. "I don’t generally use rhyme, but here goes:
Yeshua, guide-guardian of my soul,
Your strength conspires to control
Youthful yearnings of my surreptitious mind.
Yeast of my imprisoned fancies, boldly bind!
I could continue along these lines." I spread my hands. "In another place, another time."
Kick me When it’s Over – I beg your pardon, Kick me Colder on the Shoulder – was gazing at me with an odd expression of distaste, but at least I had gained one ally. The only way to judge contests on set themes is to disregard all entries that scrupulously follow or echo expected or "normal" conventions. Somehow the First Prize candidates had to distinguish themselves from their competitors. But first we had to ask ourselves, who or what is a famous figure of history.
"There’s no question of what!" argued Kick me.
"The set theme is simply famous figures of history. That doesn’t exclude inanimate figures or even mathematical figures. 666, for example, is a famous figure of history."
Tabberner agreed with me and therefore Kick me was forced to go along.
In the end, however, we chose a First Prize poem that none of us really liked. It was the only one out of ten possible candidates that we all agreed – for quite different reasons – had some merit.
Colossus is as Colossus does
The Colossus of Rhodes caused quite a buzz
When Helios lit the waves of the Aegean Sea
And Chares caught the unquavering spirit of sun-bronzed Liberty
At least among all the presidents, pop stars, baseball heroes, religious icons, and entertainment identities, The Colossus of Rhodes failed to follow the usual figurative template. He out-shone Betsy Ross, Humpty-Dumpty, the Mock Turtle and even Old Mother Hubbard. A light that failed, yet neither villain nor hero, he was most definitely unique. (The poet’s luminescent lines formed a pharos-like pattern too).