Acquittal and Condemnation – week two of the deliberations

Judex damnatur cum nocens absolvitur.
The judge is condemned when the guilty is acquitted.
Syrus, Maxims.

After a short break while the earth moved, it’s back to judging haiku.

This is where I become the anal-retentive, über-picky, petty, finicky and super-hard-to-satisfy critic that people have always warned me I was becoming. (I believe that the German phrase is “Korinthenkacker†”.) Going through and scrutinising poems that I actually quite like. Does it actually say what I think it says? Am I giving it credit it doesn’t deserve? Is the spelling correct? (After allowing for regional variations such as US vs UK English?) Punctuation? Grammar? Does it succeed as a piece of good writing, as well as as a poem? Looking for reasons – however minor – to cut poems out of contention.

A surprisingly large number of basic errors have made it to here. Misspelled words, where the actual word makes no sense in context. Although I can guess what they intended, that’s not what I’m allowed to judge. There was plenty of this in the initial discards, which wasn’t surprising, but now I’m into the ones that have made it through a week of nit-picking. I wish I could quote examples, but they’re probably too distinctive for it to be fair. Not ‘hear’ for ‘here’, or that sort of thing. More like using psychotic where you meant psychic. Chart for chat. Or cart. Possibly examples of spell-checkers making automatic corrections, and the writer then not picking them up?

Another common problem is article abuse. Ok, some people like to strip ‘the’s and ‘a’s and ‘an’s out of poems wherever possible. (Apparently a hang-over from American Creative Writing Workshops in the mid to late 1980s.) I tend to think you shouldn’t take them out unless they’re redundant, but that if removal leaves the poem unharmed and elegant, go for it. BUT (and we’re talking completely callipygian here), you have got to be consistent. Seven poems that made it this far were cut because they used an article in one line, but not in another. And it clunked. It’s often something you see when people are following a syllable count (and was an issue for nearly all the 5/7/5 poems in the competition). It’s just not good writing. Certainly not good editing. And when we’re talking about a poem of seventeen words (or fewer), what excuse is there for not checking every single word?

And then there’s the punctuation thing. I’m widely known as punctuation-obsessive. And yes, lots of haiku are able to function quite well without using conventional punctuation (although then things like spacing and line breaks become absolutely vital). But as well as keeping meanings untangled, they help to separate fragments from phrases, and/or provide an emotional shading (a function Japanese uses kireji for). But even with only one piece of punctuation to use (the most common punctuation in English language haiku are dashes and ellipses), there are poems in this final group who have essentially just bunged it in. In two cases, doing so turns a pivot line into an overt metaphor, and ruins the poem. If I was editing? Not a problem. A quick chat to the poet, and the error could be corrected. But I’m not editing: I’m judging. And no matter how easily fixed the error is, it’s still an error. I can only judge what was submitted, as submitted.

One heartbreaking example is a poem that I’ve had in the top handful all through my deliberations to this point. I keep hoping that I’m being unnecessarily petty here, but I don’t think I am. It’s very simple – no apostrophe. The problematic portion is written:

in the nouns noun
pronoun noun […]

(Not easy to read, but I have to be very careful not to inadvertently give the poet what is still privileged information. Just substitute your own nouns etc.) Please tell me it functions as a grammatically correct phrase even without an apostrophe of possession (either plural or singular) for the first ‘noun’’‽!


Sigh …

† These and other invaluable terms may be found in CJ Moore’s In Other Words: A Language Lover’s Guide to the Most Intriguing Words Around the World.

15 Replies to “Acquittal and Condemnation – week two of the deliberations”

  1. Not to me it doesn’t. But I’m an apostrophe terrorist, with a felt pen and Twink in my bag for when I go to the supermarket.

    1. These days I tend to mainly rant at billboards and make loud “whoever wrote this is illiterate” comments when I walk around shops.
      My current pet-hate though is misuse of quote marks. An example greeted me when I flew home from Auckland. Lovely big sign, saying:

      “Welcome to Christchurch”

      and yes, the quote marks were part of the sign. (So, not really? Which? I’m not really Welcome, or this is not really Christchurch?) (Maybe both?)
      Sigh …

  2. Sigh, just home from a day spent at a desk correcting possessives, collective nouns, the verb split from when the action took place, unnecessary use of semi-colons, women consistently referred to as “ladies” … and that’s before we even get to whether it makes sense. (Champ of the week, the reporter who wrote Ladie’s Night, not once but 3 times, aargh).

    I advised a woman writing a blackboard sign that before she got down off the step she needed an apostrophe in “dont” – and she went to put it in between the o and the n. My friend started joining in and 2 women at the next cafe table helped out too. There’s a few of us about, but, alas too few.

    BTW, this posting sent me scrambling back to read my entries. Ha!

    1. Sandra, it’s all I can do not to start hinting broadly … or to start bending your ear to make sure the one’s I’m leaning towards actually have merit!

  3. I kind of think that you’re passing a judgement on society if you take this approach. The language should be free to evolve, and the general concensus or majority view is the measure of correctness. If an average reader would not sense any wrongness, any clunk in the flow of works, then there isn’t an error because the standard against which you are measuring them is outmoded. After all poetry is written by(?) and for ordinary people. Also, if someone has a idiosyncratic way of writing, that doesn’t make them wrong. Would you tell e.e.cummings he was wrong for using a lower case ‘i’. Please someone tell me how many mistakes I just made.

    1. Judgement on society? I think you might be surprised at how many people (especially people who write poetry at a serious level) do get pissed off at apostrophe abuse. There are a lot more of us than you might think. And it’s such a simple bit of punctuation – it’s not like trying to work out the difference between semi-colons and colons. It’s almost more spelling than punctuation.

      But this specific case is a poem entered in a poetry competition, which I’m being paid to judge. Pretend it’s cooking, not poetry. If I’m judging six hundred sponge cakes, then I am perfectly entitled to decide that X number of cakes are ruled out because they haven’t risen, yes? And any that are burned, or not cooked? The ones that have bits that have stuck to the tins and torn? Surely yes. And once I’ve dealt with those easy discards, I’m entitled to decide the same about cake Y – despite looking beautiful, being high and lofty, having the perfect amount of filling etc – if it has lumps of unincorporated flour in it. Maybe some people like their cakes that way, but when you are judging, there is an assumption that “excellence” is both a reasonable and a worthy standard to hold people to.

      In this case, I’m judging haiku. It’s not unreasonable to expect a basic standard of literacy in a literary competition. And you need to keep in mind that this isn’t a “Beginners’ Poetry” comp – it’s routinely contested by some of the best writers of haiku in the English language. And while I welcome as many “ordinary people” as possible to writing and reading haiku, if you don’t have at least a basic competence in the form, entering a serious competition is not a good idea. Competition is about excellence, not ordinary. If that sounds elitist of me, then yes, you’re exactly right. I’m looking for the best. I don’t consider “elite” to be an insult. I’m not an “average reader” here. I’m a judge. I’m being paid to put in about 3000% more effort into teasing out the relative merits of every poem than any “average reader” would even contemplate. I have to hold people to a high standard – that’s my job. Cummings was doing quirky things with punctuation (just as Emily Dickinson before him) in order to wring maximum possible value from every symbol, and to disrupt the usual easy flow of reading. But there is no reason at all to assume that this poet has omitted the apostrophe for some deliberate purpose – everything else in the poem is classically “correct” and “literate” writing. There is nothing at all to suggest that they’re doing funky things for a deliberate purpose. And anyway, it’s not like choosing not to use a full stop in order to add a sense of indeterminacy. This is just an error, plain and simple. And as such, it has to count against it when being judged against poems that do not have such basic errors. (And as a general principle, if you want to do something “original” in a poem, you need to do it in such a way that it can be clearly seen to be a conscious, deliberate choice. More than once in the poem, for example!)

      Which is a long long answer to a polite and stimulating question!

  4. It just came across as a bit political, and as an amateur I wasn’t aware it was a big issue for poets. I thought with postmodernism nearly everything in the arts was a democracy now. I understand where you’re coming from, and I tend to think that people are aware of how the apostrophe functions in simple cases (I was going to speak of apostrophes, but I’m chicken), even if only subconsciously. The point I’m trying to get around to though is that the strict rules of grammar do not necessarily apply when it comes to judging fluency, whether it be written or spoken english (and that is probably because most of us are a bit vague about the technicalities). FWIW I think if it’s an error that a fluent reader wouldn’t notice, then the poem isn’t any less excellent. But then I guess you’re splitting hairs because it must be nearly impossible to judge which “aha!” was the biggest when they can only surprise you once. Good luck!

    1. I think the main thing is that good communication of any sort is a lot easier if you have good grammatical skills. Getting your point across with the minimum number of dead-ends (as opposed to ambiguities) is always an issue for any writer. It’s a lot harder to play around with punctuation and grammar in something as short as a poem because you don’t have enough space to ease your reader in. In a novel, there’s enough contextual information for the reader to able to just float along with the gist until they click in to the particular techniques you’re modifying. Much harder to do in a poem. And a poem like haiku makes it virtually impossible – partly because of the length restrictions, but most of all because you can’t foreground technique in haiku. The whole point of the form is to dissolve the poem away completely and leave nothing between reader and moment. And there’s one poem in this comp which has rocketed up the ranks because of an apostrophe – the way it’s phrased allows the reader to take it as either and both a possessive and a contraction, and the two meanings just work perfectly.

      And as a last footnote – postmodernism is something I dislike very strongly. Seriously, don’t get me started …


  5. Thanks, this has been a fascinating blog for me. I’ve learnt almost as much about haiku here as from the ahapoetry website. And now I know if I want to compete in a poetry comp I’d better brush up on my grammar. I’m going to read Eats, shoots and leaves. Can you recommend any other books on grammar?.
    I’ve got to admit I used to hate PM as well. When I was at art school, learning abstract painting, it always annoyed me that other people said their paintings were better than mine when they hadn’t put any thought into theirs. Mine were rubbish precisely because they didn’t understand them, and they didn’t want to. But then one of my tutors pointed out that the postmodern could also be the result of working through modernism, that is, the next step in the dialectic, in which the art work makes itself accessible to the viewer, rather than simply renewing or advancing the art form. When I read your book it seemed to me to fit that mold. It’s a thorny one, I think, because as much as I admire a modernist like T.S Eliot, it annoys me that an understanding of his supposedly greatest works (e.g. ‘the wasteland’, personally I think ‘the hollow men’ is better) requires a university level education to be understood. Cheers

    1. Always happy to be useful! 😉 My own grammatical knowledge is functional rather than theoretical – I went to school during a 20 year experiment when the Australian Department of Education (and their various State bodies) decided to see if they could get away with teaching virtually zero grammar. So I learned nothing beyond noun, verb, adjective and adverb. Which completely stuffed me when I went to university and tried to learn Russian! (Genative case? Sorry, what’s a case?) I have very good practical grammar skills because I was raised by pedants. (Kind of like being raised by wolves, but with less venison.) Sandra is probably better equipped to recommend books, but ES&L is well worth reading regardless!

      Interesting your reasons for disliking modernism. That’s pretty much my reason for detesting PostModernism. That and I strongly dislike the whole “you fool! There is no such thing as meaning!” which always feels to me like a triple-inverted form of intellectual snobbery. Sod that – I go to quite a lot of trouble to make my work have meaning! And I get annoyed too with PM’s snobbish attitude to accessibility. Although that may be more of a facet of the particular post modernists I’ve encountered so far. And aren’t we in a post-post-modernist period now?

  6. The pedant’s bible should be Fowler’s Modern English Usage – I was weaned on to this years ago in London as an ignorant young colonial. My boss (a proper book editor slumming it for cash for a few years before going back to what he loved) always referred to it in times of doubt or dispute and I now have one on my shelf for the same reason.

    That’s not to say that Fowler’s is the last word, my edition is from 1983 and things have changed since then, but at least you can read why something is/was done a certain way before deciding to ignore it.

    The book was first published in 1926 and has its own pithy comments about certain conventions. Enjoy.

    1. I had a look at it today, and it appears to be a dictionary. I too will probably one day buy a copy, but in the mean time could you suggest anything a little less daunting?

  7. Hmm, I can only really speak from my point of view as a painter and I should admit that I only know of 2 other people who consciously hold (perhaps held as I haven’t been able to contact either in about 8 years) this view of postmodernism (i.e. the postmodern as being achieved through the modern). I am very skeptical of any postmodernist who hasn’t worked through the problems of modernism in at least one discipline, as the postmodern is nearly synonymous with ‘the critique of the modern’, and any postmodern work should be able to be read as such(although if that is all it is/does, it is probably a dry and lifeless thing); and how can anyone give a useful criticism of something they do not understand?

    As for meaning, my understanding is that what they mean when they say “there is no such thing as meaning” is “there is no such thing as objective meaning.” And I have to admit that it is entirely possible that they are right, given that meaning is dependent on a Subject/Self that understands. Ultimately though, it is equivalent to saying that there is no such thing as a self, which again may be true, but is absurd, when considered from the point of view of a self. Now even if you allow them to be correct about objective meaning, as a Painter/Poet you are still left Subjective meaning, Transcendental Meaning, and possibly Subliminal/Dreamstate meaning (and there may be others) to work with; and as artists isn’t that what we’re really concerned with?

    As for accessibility, this is a much bigger problem for a painter than a poet, as a viewer cannot even begin to understand, for example, a Mondrian painting, without first forming a set of concepts, which are not immediately obvious (e.g like that you are trying to create a picture that operates in 2D not 3D). It took me years to get a handle on what was going on. So by its nature, abstraction in painting is an elitist practice, and the painters involved were particularly tight lipped about what they were doing because they didn’t want everyone to know their secrets.

    I hope this helps to break the cycle of ab(str)use, but I doubt it.

    I was part of a similar experiment, I can’t remember being taught any grammar at school.

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