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Judging the Forward prizes for poetry: my verdict


Reading 162 collections, it was fascinating to compare the work – and to see whose lines stayed with me

What's the best thing about judging the Forward prizes? Free books? Reassessing a poet you hadn't paid enough attention to? Those are good, but the best might be the poems, and odd lines, that stick in your head. They may be from books that didn't even make the shortlist, but they've still made a mark – Dannie Abse's line "Men become mortal when their fathers die" from his collection Speak, Old Parrot, isn't going to leave me any time soon.

I admit that the main reason I agreed to judge was that the panel includes Sam West, and the fan-girl in me couldn't resist meeting Major Edrington from the Hornblower series. (His mellifluous readings during the judging improved many a poem about which I'd been unsure.) But I did wonder if I could keep up, especially when 12 or 15 books arrived at a time. Ninety-six publishers submitted books; we read 162 collections.

It became addictive to compare one with another, to re-read and see something that didn't immediately impress become more powerful, to find a poet whose work I thought I knew doing something unexpected – and to glory in the work of good new poets. This last happens most often on the First Collection list, my favourite to read for. It's also pleasing that half the shortlist comes from tiny houses: small presses are often where the most adventurous writing happens. We were supposed to produce shortlists of five in the three categories (Best Collection, Best First Collection and Best Single Poem); there are six on the Best First shortlist, which indicates the quality in depth in that category.

When the judging panel – Jeanette Winterson, Sam West, Paul Farley, David Mills and myself – compared our shortlists, some books and poems had gripped only one judge, who was nonetheless passionate about his/her fancy and would argue fiercely to convince the rest. If you ever thought it was possible for these lists to be "fixed" by one judge, be assured it's jolly hard; there are four other equally opinionated folk in that room.

I'm glad to say there was no pressure to achieve unanimity, because that's how to end up with an anodyne list that neither offends nor inspires. Some choices are unanimous; others are majority decisions. At the end of our four-hour judging session we were all allowed to break with consensus-building and nominate a few personal favourites for the 2014 Forward Book of Poetry, which should ensure the book – published on 1 October, the same day the prizes are announced – shows a wide range of the best poetry of this year. The anthology, possibly even more than the prizes, is the real fruit of our labour: it's for those who suspect they might enjoy contemporary poetry but who aren't prepared to pick through 162 collections to find out. In other words, we've strained our eyes and, occasionally, our minds so you don't have to.

Any trends? Philip Larkin once famously denounced the "myth-kitty", but his disapproval has not killed it. I met the whole Greek and Roman pantheon, several times. Unlike Larkin, I'm not against mythical beings in poetry; it depends how you use 'em. But I was surprised at their popularity in this year's crop. Another kind of poem much in vogue is where a narrator watches a craftsperson making something. It might be anything from lace to a Dutch barn; the fascination is with the act of making, which parallels the poet's own craft. Again, this can work or not, but it can risk looking a little vicarious. It's no accident that one of the books on the first collection shortlist, Adam White's Accurate Measurements, is by a poet who has himself worked as a joiner: the immediacy and assurance of his poems on the craft is striking.

There are collections with a central theme, like Rebecca Goss's Her Birth and Dan O'Brien's War Reporter, and more disparate ones – Sinéad Morrissey's Parallax, Marianne Burton's She Inserts the Key. In the individual poems list there is both grim subject matter and humour, often coexisting. I don't think you could identify any unifying principle to the poems and books chosen, other than that they had to be memorable, to stay in the mind even after the judge had read another couple of dozen. That was my yardstick.

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