During National Poetry Month, a local newspaper (Lehigh Valley Press) sponsors, with a local public radio station (WDIY), a poetry contest for children ages 6-17. This year I was one of seven people, most of us educators, on the judging panel.
Judging poetry is always a rather fraught endeavor, and when one is reading the work of novices–particularly very young ones–setting standards can be challenging. What were we looking for, exactly? How could we decide whether the writing of one 14-year-old was “better” than the work of another? How to assess the poetry of 8-year-olds?
Our coordinator and organizer began with such questions and by asking us to describe what each of us seeks in any poem–not poems by children, but any good poem. Would children’s work feature any of these attributes? Successful attempts at poetic strategies or craft, for example–we may be able to determine that a 10-year-old’s work shows signs of poetic craft. Imagery that moves beyond the expected or clichéd? Young people often prove quite capable of that part of writing.
We are experienced in the classroom, too, and can usually tell when a child’s work shows signs of being ‘overly-coached’ by a well-meaning adult. Alas, all too often an adult’s interference deadens the imaginative if occasionally grammatically-incorrect approach children take. We can also tell which poems come of a classroom assignment when we get submissions of numerous 7-line poems on “snow.” This is not to suggest that none of the poems are worthy of note: an imaginative writer of any age can probably create a lovely piece conforming to the assigned framework. But, as teachers, we found ourselves responding to the assignments themselves (“That’s clever and would work well with third-graders, too;” “They must be studying the Black Plague;” “Looks as though they made a word bank for this one;” and so on). We had to remind ourselves to look at the work itself for the earmarks of imaginative ideas and use of language.
Interestingly, first-place poems seemed obvious and agreement was usually unanimous. This was true for elementary school, middle school, and high school writers: the best work does stand out.
Choosing the second and third place poems was more difficult and resulted in lively conversation about what makes a good poem, what matters more: authenticity of experience? discernible voice? vivid imagery? clear use of craft? emotional expression? imagination? Each of the judges had useful insights that reminded me of the value of thoughtful criticism and the value of poetry-as-art.
It was also heartening to read the work of so many young people who showed a willingness to play with words, to think about aesthetics and feelings and language, and to show their work to others. I’m grateful to the teachers who took the time to introduce their students to poetry and to encourage their pupils to write.