I’m judging the Lawson-West Solicitors’ Poetry Competition to raise funds for LOROS (a Leicestershire-based charity). If entrants make a donation to LOROS, they get feedback on their entry. Getting feedback is valuable because it gives entrants an insight into how the judge read their poem as well as giving an individual indication of whether the poem came close to winning or not.
So what am I looking for in a poem? Or what gives your poem the best chance of winning?
Words in a poem have to work harder than words in prose. A poem simply doesn’t have enough space to allow writers to think “good enough” will do. A sloppy phrase will stand out as will the not quite right word tucked away in line three of the penultimate stanza. If you’re not sure of the exact meaning of a word, check the dictionary and beware of homonyms where words sound the same but have different spellings and meanings. Every word has to earn its place.
But, in poetry, it’s not just about what the words mean, but also about how they sound. How well does a word fit with its neighbours? Putting a polysyllabic word next to a run of monosyllables draws attention to the longer word – is that attention justified or what you intended? Appropriate use of devices like assonance or alliteration can enhance a poem. Overdo it and you’ve written a tongue-twister.
Read your poem aloud. If you hesitate or stumble over a phrase, so will the judge. Some poets record and play back their readings to listen to how their poem sounds. You can also look at the words on the page, are there any patterning of sounds or letters? Have you used a lot of long vowel sounds or mostly clipped consonants? Look again at phrases that don’t seem to fit.
Take two phrases, “the cat sat on the mat”, “the lazy, fluffy Burmese languished on the lavish deep-pile rug”. Both essentially say the same thing but the first has a clipped, staccato rhythm, the second a slower, drawn-out rhythm. Both produce very different poems.
A poem is like a dance, you wouldn’t put ballroom steps to a Latin rhythm unless you wanted to create a comic or jarring effect. Read your poem aloud again. Have you picked the right rhythm?
Form includes rhythm but is also about how the poem is structured and laid out on the page. Even free verse has form. I recommend drafting the poem before choosing a form, especially a traditional form as you may find the villanelle you wanted to write actually works better as a ballad. Let the poem chose the form and don’t try to straitjacket rhyming couplets into a sonnet or that you arbitrarily have to have nine syllables per line if this means choosing longer words where shorter ones would better serve your purpose. Personally, I am not going to insist that a sonnet has 14 lines had follows an iambic rhythm, but I do insist a sonnet has a volte.
Poems that mangle natural word order to achieve an end of line rhyme do not win competitions.
Free verse has form too, but that form isn’t driven by rhyme. It could be that your poem fits into three line stanzas or is better as one long stanza or conforms to a syllabic pattern. Experiment with line and stanza breaks too. These could come where you would naturally pause for breath at the end of a phrase or could be placed mid-phrase, using enjambment, to carry the meaning over into the next line or stanza. This can be used to create a sense of urgency or play on the ambiguity or duality of meaning.
“Alice in her party dress-
ed to kill.”
(from “Loved” in “Yellow Torchlight and the Blues”).
“Alice in her party dress” is a different image from “Alice dressed to kill” and running the two image together means the latter subverts the former. When read aloud, carrying the double “s” sound over the line break almost creates a hiss, creating a sense of menace. That sense would not be there if the lines were simply “Alice in her party/ dressed to kill.”
I don’t think any topic is unsuitable for a poem, although some topics need sensitive handling. It’s worth bearing in mind that traditional subjects for poems such as war, love, death and nature have volumes of excellent poems providing some very stiff competition for yours. Whilst First and Second World War poets didn’t have competition from armchair poets with internet access and rolling 24 hour news coverage, the poems that survived and are still anthologised today are the ones that focused on a specific aspect that gives readers a new insight into a bigger theme. Also bear in mind that poems are not reportage: find a new angle or something new to say.
Any topic will do: it’s about whether your poem pays attention to words, sounds, rhythm and form and is a compelling read.
When reading your poem, I won’t and don’t need to know if you have actual first hand experiences of what you are describing or if you have written your poem based on second hand reports. Poetry is fiction and, just as no one expects a thriller writer to have actually murdered anyone, a poet doesn’t actually have to have been there to be able to write about it. But what you’ve written has to be convincing and researched.
Titles are vitality important: they compel the reader to actually read your poem.
“Untitled” suggests you couldn’t be bothered, so I may not bother either. Using the first line of the poem as the title tends to only work if the line bears the repetition. If you pick up a weighty anthology and have time to read one poem, will you pick “Phone Call” or “Phone Call at 3 am”?
“Phone Call” is too vague and general and inspires a “so what?” response. On the other hand “Phone Call at 3 am?” is more compelling as the time of the phone call is unexpected and phone call at that time in the morning suggests urgent news.
Anyone faced with a pile of poems to read will gravitate towards those that are easier to read, ie a plain piece of paper with the poem typed in a standard, reasonably sized font in a contrasting colour. Black ink on white paper’s fine but pale pink on a floral background could be a struggle.
Check that your margins are right for your poem too. Narrow the margins if your margin settings are too wide for your line lengths.
Poetry is primarily about communication and that means respecting the reader. Sloppy presentation on stained, crumpled paper or choosing a font/background combination that makes a poem difficult to read implies you don’t care for the reader. In turn, the reader won’t care for your poem. It doesn’t have to be immaculate, just legible.
Check your entry complies with the rules.
No matter how great your poem is, it will be disqualified if your entry doesn’t comply with the rules.
A prize-winning poem is one that coheres words, sounds, rhythm, form and topic, has a compelling title, is legibly presented and complies with the rules.