You are Not Wordsworth

Being able to quote “I wondered lonely as a cloud” and wanting to be a poet, doesn’t make you a poet. Wordsworth wrote some wonderful poems and time has filtered out the also-rans, leaving an impressive  body of work, but that does not make him a suitable mentor for someone writing now.

Yet, when judging poetry competitions, I often find myself weeding out the poems that clearly used Wordsworth as a mentor or template for what makes a good poem. These entries are generally on love or nature use archaisms, and invariably are arranged in four line stanzas with clunking end of line rhymes on lines two and four.

What these entrants have failed to appreciate is that we are now in the twenty-first century and writing as if the twentieth century had never happened won’t win prizes or get published. There are good reasons for this:-

The world is now a global village

Wordsworth walked around the Lake District. Travelling poets usually only got as far as Europe. Today not only have poets travelled further but films and the internet means poetry readers are much more aware of what far-flung places look like, sound like, the tastes of the local food and local customs. Therefore, less description is required. More attention needs to be paid to ensuring a poem is not a travelogue or slice of botany.

Drop the Didact

Poetry readers get their reading fix from a variety of sources and have grown up watching films, TV, YouTube clips so expect to be shown a story and expect a poem to allow them space to draw their own  conclusions. Poems that tell the reader what to think or preach to the converted (eg by telling us victims are innocent, criminals are bad and painting the world as black and white) will turn readers off.

It’s harder to shock or surprise readers

Even bookshops stock volumes of anthologies of love poems and why should readers pick up your nature poems instead of John Clare’s? Can you find an original angle or contemporary twist on either subject?

People and Language Evolve

Literate women don’t bustle about in voluminous petticoats learning how to run a house and make an advantageous marriage anymore. Modern poetry readers want poems that reflect their own lives and speak in their language. Archaisms create a barrier between poem and reader and if the effort required to read isn’t rewarded by the poem, readers will move on.

Respond to what readers want

Nineteenth century audiences have passed on. You need to write for today’s audience if you want your poetry to be read and today’s poetry readers want poetry that tackles contemporary subjects and concerns.

If I want to read Wordsworth, I’ll read Wordsworth himself, not a pale imitation. When I’m judging a competition I’m not going to award a prize to a poem not written for the twenty-first century.

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