Diamonds in dunghills

Germaine Greer, chair of judges for the National Poetry Competition 2000, invites entries from IoS readers, but be warned: poetasters need not apply
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The Independent Culture

Contemporary poetry interests me because poetry interests me. Contemporary poetry interests me particularly because it is in some kind of trouble. There is probably nothing new in this. Poetry is produced out of trouble. It is troubled utterance, its virtue clarity but mystery. It is thought clouded by feeling, made flesh, registered along the sinews, in breath and bowels. Its rhythm is a version of respiration and circulation, mimicking the speech that is driven by the blood's pulse, quickened by rage or fear, slowed by grief or lust. In the year 2000, when readers of poetry are so few that publishers of poetry dare print no more than a few hundred copies of any volume, hundreds of thousands of people pen what they think is poetry. Any more or less literate person, who thinks her/himself entitled to stack up words in a column between wide white borders, may pay publishers to utter it in slim volumes. Many such bundle up photocopies or print-outs and send them, without a stamped self-addressed envelope, t

Contemporary poetry interests me because poetry interests me. Contemporary poetry interests me particularly because it is in some kind of trouble. There is probably nothing new in this. Poetry is produced out of trouble. It is troubled utterance, its virtue clarity but mystery. It is thought clouded by feeling, made flesh, registered along the sinews, in breath and bowels. Its rhythm is a version of respiration and circulation, mimicking the speech that is driven by the blood's pulse, quickened by rage or fear, slowed by grief or lust. In the year 2000, when readers of poetry are so few that publishers of poetry dare print no more than a few hundred copies of any volume, hundreds of thousands of people pen what they think is poetry. Any more or less literate person, who thinks her/himself entitled to stack up words in a column between wide white borders, may pay publishers to utter it in slim volumes. Many such bundle up photocopies or print-outs and send them, without a stamped self-addressed envelope, to defenceless souls like myself. Count yourself lucky that I do not now reproduce the kind of self-important drivel that thuds on to my desk literally every day. I refrain from inflicting upon you a solid wodge of this stuff only because I have a fair idea that the duller the poetaster the more assiduous in defending her/his worthless copyright.

If good poetry is to be written, enormous amounts of bad poetry must be written too, if only because it is important for a serious poet to know what it is she/he is trying not to do, but this orgy of scribbling is altogether too much of a good thing. Most of the people who send me thick sheaves of handwritten or word-processed doggerel appear never to have read any poetry, good or bad; neither do they listen to the cadences of speech, let alone register the intense mysteriousness of everyday communication. Though they write no language they are unable to resist self-dramatising clichés. The extent of their insensitivity may be gauged from their impertinence in sending such ropey effusions to a total stranger, who has spent her whole life in the company of sublime poetry.

Far be it from me to demand that the ignorant and ungifted should not spend their days scribbling reams of what they take for poetry. What I would ask, however, is that would-be poets who are too idle to read the poetry of other people assume that the rest of the world is at least as uninterested as they and keep the ropey issue of their brains to themselves. Many a good poet has feared to expose her/his verse to possibly unsympathetic eyes. The poetasters are troubled by no such pudeur. The lazier the poet, the more work she/he demands of her/his readers. A scribbler who boasts that he dashed off his 10 pages or so in less than two hours will still expect me to read it carefully and write him a "constructive" criticism of it which he will then fancy himself at liberty to resent or ignore, supposing I were foolish enough to supply it. A dunce who has been sending me his pert trivia over the last few weeks expected me not only to read his "finished" verse, which was execrable, but also his rough drafts which were only slightly less so.

Every week poetasters, like literary flashers seeking to amaze and appal hapless passers-by with the sight of their grey flaccidities, send their effusions to people like me. I am fool enough to read them all, unable quite to dispel the faint hope that somewhere among such unenlivened dross a proper poem might be lurking, like a diamond in a dunghill. I keep all the dunghills carefully filed, just in case some other reader, long after my death, may open one and find a gem that I was too arrogant and hidebound to recognise. The aesthetic judgement must be sincere, subjective and eternally subject to revision, which is where the excitement comes from. For half my life I did not get Stevie Smith; when I began to glimpse what she was, it was as if I was peering through a peephole into the tomb of a pharaoh.

A good poem is treasure trove, which is why I go back and forth across the ploughed land of literature waiting to hear my detector ping, so I can begin my excavation, brush off obscurities and learn what kind of thing I have found. Though a proper poem costs me nothing but the effort of comprehension, it is an object of inestimable value that no one can alienate from me. If I give it away I lose no part of it. The more I seek to share it, the more of it I have, because each time I expound it I understand it and its resonances better - if it is a proper poem, that is. If I were to find myself in solitary confinement tomorrow, the poems I have learnt would keep me sane, if sane is what I am. If mad is what I am, they will preserve and sustain my madness, protecting me from the madness my gaolers seek to inculcate.

A real poem is inexhaustible; the only key I need to its limitless store is the half a million English words I possess in common with its writer. (Though one may read poetry in other than one's native tongue, the extent of comprehension can never be the same, while a translated poem is either a new and different poem or it is a failure.) Comprehending a poem is nothing to do with being able to paraphrase it; indeed, true comprehension will always show why a poem cannot be paraphrased. Its form of words must be the only way of doing what it does.

What prompts me to judge a contemporary poetry prize is simply greed. The poems I shall see will be new, but their resonances will have been registered by ears at least as well-tuned as mine, and they will have stood up to reading and re-reading. If there are one or two worth hoarding in my mind-store, I shall be ahead of the game. More likely there will be promise of bullion to come. New poems are a superior kind of IT stock and I want to play the market. *

Germaine Greer heads this year's panel of judges, Lavinia Greenlaw, Ian McMillan and Don Paterson. 1st prize: £5,000. 2nd prize: £1,000. 3rd prize: £500. There are 10 special commendation prizes (£50). All winners receive free membership of the Poetry Society for one year. Poems must not exceed 40 lines (not including title), must be in English, and must not have been previously published or broadcast. The closing date for all entries is 31 October 2000. The name of the poet must not appear on the manuscript. Competition entries cannot be returned under any circumstances.

The first poem submitted costs £5, subsequent entries cost £3 per poem. (Cheques should be made payable to the Poetry Society.) All winners will be notified on or by 31 January 2001, and the three prizewinning poems will be published in the IoS.

Please send your entries to the Poetry Society at 22 Betterton Street, London WC2H 9BU. For a full copy of all rules, or for more information about the Poetry Society, call 020 7420 9880, or visit the website at www.poetrysoc.com.

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