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Judging Poets’ Night Out

A huge pile of poems arrives with a thud on my desk and for a few days I just stare at it, reconciling myself to this task.   Then I gingerly open the envelope, pull out the contents and read, read, read, read, read.  As I read I immediately start to make piles.  The “totally rejected” pile is the biggest.  The “I love this poem” pile is the smallest.  In between are the “isn’t too horrible” pile and the “has merit” pile.

It takes several days of reading, sorting and re-reading before I’m ready to arrange the poems.  I clear a whole afternoon on my calendar and sit on the living room floor.  Knowing that the appeal of each poem can change hourly, I lay them out on the floor in ever-shifting order of favorites.  When I have what I am more or less satisfied to be my fifty top poems, I walk away from it and  take a break.  I then rearrange the order one last time if necessary.  I make my final list and don’t look back.

I have instructed the other judge to also choose their favorites and number them from 1-50, with their favorite as number 1.  I ask them to write the number AND title of the poem on their list, explaining that it’s very important to have both.  When the judge ignores this request it inevitably causes problems because a) sometimes their numbers are illegible and b) sometimes the judge writes down the wrong number.  I wouldn’t know this except often the same number appears twice in their list.  Without the name of the poem I would have no idea what the judge intended.  When this has happened in the past, often a phone call cannot retify matters unless the other judge was very organized.

Choosing the Winners

With two lists in hand I first make a copy of each list and set aside the originals.  Each poem on each list has a numerical value of 1 through 50.  I will now assign each poem on each list a new number that is the sum of the two numbers it already has.  For instance, if poem number 324 has been ranked number 1 on my list and number 23 on the other list, it now has a new number of 24. (1+23=24) So far, so good.

If a poem is on one list but not the other, in that case the second numerical value is 51.  So if poem number 200 is ranked number 2 on one list but not even on the second list, its new number is 53.  (2+51=53)

Now all of the poems have a new ranking, but a few adjustments need to be made before the final list is complete. 

  • The contest awards the top 25 POETS not the top 25 POEMS.  So as the final ranking begins to fall into place, once a poet has a poem in the final cut, all their other poems are eliminated.
  • Several poems are likely to have the same number.  Some of them may be eliminated after the first adjustment, above.  If not, an arbitrary adjustment will need to be made to place one in front of the other.  I choose according to the following rules:
    • A student poet always gets preference over an adult.
    • The poem with the lowest original number gets preference.  For example, poem number 200 was ranked 3 by one judge and 7 by another judge, equaling 10.  Poem number 220 was ranked 5 by each judge, also equaling 10.  Poem number 200 will be place before poem number 220 because it has the lowest original number which was 3.
    • If rules one and two can’t be applied then I place the poem that the other judge ranked higher before mine.  For example: poem 200 was ranked 3 by the other judge and 7 by me, equaling 10.  Poem 240 was ranked 3 by me and 7 by the other judge, also equaling 10.  I rank poem number 200 before poem number 240 because the other judge ranked it higher.
    • One more adjustment may need to be made before the final list is complete.  Our prize structure requires that we have a certain number of students in the final cut.  If this has not occurred naturally, then we have to elevate enough student poems artificially.  This happens so rarely that it is barely worth mentioning.

So, starting with the smallest number and making the above adjustments along the way I discover the 25 top ranked poets according to the two lists.  I type up the new list, complete with titles to eliminate any confusion, and mail it off to the officials.

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