NWR Issue 35

The Numbers Game

Reading over 5,000 poems for the City of Cardiff International Poetry Competition inevitably gives the judges an insight into the state of poetry in English in the UK and abroad. But first things first. Poetry competitions are less about poetry than money. In the case of the Welsh Academy's Cardiff International, now one of the best established and most popular competitions anywhere, a highly worthwhile profit is made annually and fed back into the Academy's events and publications programme.

The generous first three prizes, plus no less than eleven other awards of £250 (see winning poems, page 35-43), ensure that entries pour in from everywhere English verse is written. And of course nobody agrees to adjudicate in such competitions unless there is the promise of reasonable payment.

Indeed, after the judges have established a system of working - inevitably based on ruthlessness - reading 5,000 new poems does not have to be the mind- numbing spirit-crushing experience it might first appear. However, it is impossible not to arrive at various cynical conclusions during the judging process.

The first is that a huge proportion of the entrants have obviously not read any modern poetry since leaving school, so that their lines seem to glow with undertakers' rouge. The second is that there is often an indeterminate line between literary originality and psychosis. The third is that competitions such as the Cardiff International are mini National Lotteries, and that intriguingly, amongst our established versifiers, there is a hard core of inveterate gamblers only too eager to shell out handfuls of fivers in entry fees, in the hope of hitting the Jackpot. (Quite clearly, hundreds of the writers whose work I read spend more on competitions than on new books or magazines. In order to accumulate, even the poet has to speculate.)

But perhaps the most important conclusion stems from the possibility that in the near future, more, or perhaps almost all of our poets will have to depend on sponsors' whims or National Lottery largess for their publications and readings, as the Arts Council is emasculated, notions of 'qualify' overshadowed by 'commercial' concerns, and monies that now go to individual authors in the form of grants or bursaries are diverted into community publishing schemes. A good thing too I hear certain voices roar. Writing and publishing should be subject to the laws of artistic Darwinism and natural selection. Writers whose work does not sell should not be supported by a public-funded bureaucracy such as an arts council. And publishers that bring out the wrong books, i.e. ones which don't sell, should inevitably go to the wall.

Well, it's a rough world. As a judge for this year's Cardiff International, I think of all the fine poems that Liz Lochhead and I were not able to reward. (Winners take note - there was no inevitability about your good fortune. Luck played its part, as it always will. We both thought there were things wrong with the first three prize-winning poems, but we were also mindful of their ambition and risk-taking. As to the ten fourth prize-winners we have attempted to present a variety of styles, and some of our personal favourites remain amongst the anonymous also-rans.) Yet already the poet- gamblers amongst us are preparing their sheaves for the big spring competitions, checking the judges' prejudices, generally doing their homework. Good luck to them I say. Whether antenna of the race or slick literary Thatcherite, everyone has to earn a crust. Because sniffing the air, peering through the millennial fog, it looks as if all of us will soon be playing the numbers game


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