Leaving actual judges aside for a moment (see ‘Judging Poetry’ blog post)… One way to look at the critical continuum is in three parts: the actual poetics influencing the poets’ writing; the poems themselves and how they ‘work’; and how the readers read, what they are ‘getting’ from the poems.
This speculative threesome is simplified to leave out the glorious minefield of what language is, does, carries as baggage within itself, etc, ie: philosophically, politically, psychologically…
I have read too many poems that make me drop the publication in despair and walk off. Poems that are typically little more than a series of descriptions or observations or statements about ideas or feelings… but prosaic in being no more or less than the literal statement value itself, written in arbitrarily-judged lines of lame prose, lacking syntactic interest or tension, lacking psychological and linguistic pressure, being weak in rhythm and musculature, and seemingly written as if rhythm has not been considered; which means the poems have no awareness of vowel and consonant values, and therefore are without any sense of an ‘ear’. And rarely gaining from insight or perceptiveness of a kind that might, might, just make up for these weaknesses in style.
At the reading level, I see and listen to those who applaud such a poem and perhaps rate it very highly indeed, because… they like the idea, or the stated feeling, it has ‘resonance’ for them. (How I hate that term, the ubiquitous and usually hollow ‘resonance’.) This reader agrees with the observation, nods at the point made, gets the feelings, and with that minor ‘yes, we think the same way’ they assess the poem as good. The above weaknesses… are not even noticed. What’s more, poems that are strong in these areas are perceived as weird. This is not only superficial, it is blatantly ignorant – what is not understood is the reach of real poetry from traditional manners to the latest claims of the avant garde. What I am complaining about is not on that continuum; it is poor prose of direct and superficial statement, perceived without any realisation of its lack.
It becomes as ridiculous as the galling sense that, for too many people, having no idea or experience of poetry is not a hindrance to writing a poem or appraising one. The simplest shift or variation on this view is to also consider those poems created by arbitrary and awkward flourishes and gestures, inventions of metaphor or line that make no sense whatsoever but ‘sound good’. None of these points made can satisfy the requirements of effective poetry.
I have seen poetry judging panels without one poet included, not one expert in poetry included, perhaps librarians and journalists and non-fiction people. On what insulting basis is this done? Conversely there are almost never any poets included in fiction and non-fiction judging panels. That is outrageous and offensive. Ignorance cannot apply to any profession, or craft, or trade. It cannot and has not. Poetry is not arbitrary. Poetry is not that naive or that amateur; anyone who wants to practice or praise at that level is welcome to, it’s one of the lesser pleasures. They may get into print or performance but they should never be let into judging poetic works which are beyond them. This was rarely allowed once and there is no reason to weaken the public, and award level, of the art by accepting it now.