This Contest and Your Poem: a primer for novice poets

Image by graur razvan ionut FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image by graur razvan ionut FreeDigitalPhotos.net

by S.J. White
published poet and Poem-A-Day poetry judge (2008)

I wrote this piece for the Cambridge Libraries after judging their Poetry Month, Poetry Contest, in 2008. It seemed that there were some difficulties experienced by contestants who were new to medium that could be eased by a few pointers. The hope was that it would improve the quality of entries and also make judging easier.

Most of us start by writing rhyming poetry. It seems as though it might be the easiest to write but it has its pitfalls. On any given subject it is surprising how few English words will rhyme. In consequence, we find the same old words used over and over. Too often the rhyme takes over the poem. The poet cannot get away with a line that would otherwise not have been used, except to satisfy the need to rhyme with a word in a previous line. Furthermore, rhyming poems must scan, that is to say, there must never be the feeling that one line is too long or too short. The experienced reader will quickly spot a line with an extra adverb or adjective that has been included to pad out its length. These tricks serve to trivialize the poem so that at best it becomes doggerel.

If you do write in rhyme, then try not to emphasize it. A slant or approximate rhyme will be less obvious than a perfect rhyme. Rhymes three and four lines apart will be less obvious than rhyming adjacent lines. Not every line needs to rhyme. The poet is free to begin and end a line anywhere; run-on lines can de-emphasize the effect of rhyme because a rhyme within a line is less obvious than an end rhyme. Keep in mind that the words are your slaves: you must never become a slave to your words. The poem should never exist for the rhyme. The rhyme should exist for the poem.

An alternative to rhyming poetry is free verse. Most contemporary poets write in free verse. This is poetry that doesn’t rhyme or have fixed rhythmic scheme, but is distinguishable from prose because of its subtle rhythm.

Blank verse is another poetic form. It is non-rhyming poetry but with a rhythmic scheme. Just as in rhyming poetry, the rhythm of each line is important. Whichever approach you take, ask yourself: do you have something novel to say, or do you have a novel way in which to say something? Whatever you decide to write, when it is written, this is one of the aspects it should have achieved.

Some poems do not lend themselves to being widely advertised, especially in contests. You may be going through a difficult time and by all means write about it. But poems of such a personal nature belong in your journal or your diary, perhaps to be shared with intimate friends, but they have no place in a poetry contest. Remember that your poem has to be judged on its merits as a piece of creativity.

Your poem is a sound bite. It is committed to paper through the technology of writing. When it is read aloud, it is resurrected and once more becomes a sound bite. Hey diddle diddle/The cat and the fiddle/The cow jumped over the moon, once had a meaning but what it once meant is now irrelevant. It has lasted through hundreds of years because it describes an intriguing nonsense event but more importantly, it has lasted because of the delightful sound and rhythm of the words. Not all poems need meanings and in those that do, the meaning may not be the primary reason why the poem works. Never underestimate sound.

“My love is like a red, red rose,” is a simile. “You are the promised touch of springtime,” is a metaphor. Not all poems need simile or metaphor but these powerful associations are more strings to a poet’s bow, and this is a reminder that we should avoid clichés at all costs.

The traditional way to write poetry is to capitalize each line but that is often disregarded in contemporary poetry. Some is written as prose would be written. Some is even written completely in lower case. In some poetry, grammar needs to be precise and correct, but in other styles it need not. Some poems need to be punctuated exactly like prose, others are not punctuated at all. All of this is left to the poet.

The worst person to vet your poetry is you. Before you submit it, give it to somebody with a good grasp of language to edit it for you. Spelling mistakes are unforgivable. If you have a computer, it helps if your poem is set in a legible type like Arial or Times Roman. And do not centre the lines unless you have good reason. Not withstanding the above, keep in mind contemporary poetry may be anything. Sometimes all the rules are broken successfully.

And to the very young poets we would say, disregard all this and write in any way you choose, for you have the advantage of us all: you are not burdened by experience.

Digest these guidelines but don’t be put off. If your poems are rejected don’t be discouraged. Remember that judging is subjective. Rejection is part of the game. It happens to the best of poets all the time. Successful poets just keep plugging away, for poetry is good for the soul.

And advice to all who write: read, read, read, read and read.


Stan White has published three books of poetry and numerous chapbooks. His poems have been published in the usual literary journals and anthologies. He is retired and lives with his wife in Brantford, Ont.

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