Judgment calls

First, take 521 poems.

Then, presume—because it’s the job you’ve signed on for— to set aside 518 of them, in effect deeming them in some way less deserving of recognition and a cash prize than the remaining three.

Welcome to the world of the literary contest judge, replete with all the satisfactions and frustrations that go hand in hand with any impossible task.

The organizers of the 23rd Annual Reuben Rose Poetry Competition have just announced the winning entries (see below) for 2012, selected by me and two fellow judges through a painstaking scoring process that ensures that each entry receives a full measure of serious attention, at the same time it examines each anonymous entry through different lenses, different personalities, aesthetics, and—well—biases, I suppose I have to say.

When a poem shines all the way through such a rigorous process, you can be sure it’s deserving of the award it’s been granted.

And, for this judge at least, that’s where a large part of the satisfaction rests. When the winners’ names are revealed, you can be sure each of them will be a poet of merit and distinction. You can also be sure that I will be searching for more of their works, having had a taste of what they have to offer to readers.

But the satisfaction also goes well beyond discovering—and toasting–three poets whose work I’ve just learned I admire. It extends, too, to the 99.5 percent, or so, of entries that didn’t receive one of the top prizes in the end (although, a number of citations are being awarded as well). Dozens, if not hundreds, of those entries, too, might merit another prize on another day. Overwhelmingly, the entries were crafted and insightful, and sometimes startling in the way a good poem can be.

It’s frustrating, then, that I couldn’t nudge each of them along to an award.

But it’s satisfying to know that each of them has had close and appreciative readings from at least an audience of three judges. Given the commercial reach of most poetry, that’s a pretty good prize as well.

. . . You can see the winning entries here.


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