Tag Archives: S.J. White

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.


Writers Helping Writers

by S.J. White

photo by Renjith Krishnan from freedigitalphotos.net

I was stuck for a subject for this blog until I realised that its purpose was for ‘writers to help writers’. Then I remembered a few weeks ago that one of my poet friends e-mailed me in a panic. He had a problem and wanted my advice.

I should mention at this point that we both share an incurable disease, a disease on which I have somewhat of a reputation for being an expert. As best as scientists can determine, we have an over-abundance of throw-back genes from the time when homo sapiens were hunters and gatherers. The major symptom is that we are unable to control our urges to frequent flea markets, thrift stores, and yard sales where we are helpless to avoid wasting money on totally useless things.

While this form of addiction does not wreak the damage on families, that say, alcoholism or opium eating might, nevertheless wives take less than an enthusiastic view of  it, probably on account of its waste of money, the outright stupidity of it and the fact that it tends to clutter up the house, hence my poet friend’s dilemma.

The previous Saturday morning he had had an attack while at a garage sale and bought a second guitar (he already had one). He managed to secrete it away to the trunk of the car while his wife was infatuated with a table of lace doilies and even managed to spirit it down to his den when he got home. The guitar now rested behind the chesterfield.

The problem he came to me with was: how on earth was he going to explain the new guitar to his wife?

A further complication was that he only had one guitar to start with. Had he have had, say, 17 or 23 or 57, one more wouldn’t have been noticed.

He confided to me one ploy that he had used on occasion which was to keep whatever he had bought for a lengthy time before announcing it. His wife, he said, reacted less unpleasantly to something that he might have bought say, in 1937 than she did if he had purchased it at 10 o’clock that morning. But he really wanted to fool around with his new guitar, and did I have some way of getting around the waiting period?

Of course I did and I suggested to him what I like to call my ‘Alzheimer ploy’. I realized that when we get older, both men and women, after we have experienced numerous ‘Senior Moments’ can’t help but suspect that we might be developing Alzheimer’s. When those moments are issues of memory, without exception we prefer to pretend we remember. It is simpler, less awkward, and less injurious to the ego than getting into any prolonged discussion about it. So I advised him to bring his guitars out into the open and when his wife broached the subject of the new one, to say “Oh, I’ve had it for years. Don’t you remember when I got from old Fred So & So?” Best to use dead people here it avoids potential for any further attempts at confirmation. Then, personally, I also contrive a fictional account around how the transaction took place just to give the whole affair an authenticity and finish off any rough edges.

I haven’t heard from him since but I presume it worked since the other day, he sent me a picture of five more guitars resting against the front of his chesterfield.

How very nice it is to have a forum in which writers can help writers.

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.

Member News

Image by digitalart; FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Four members of the CWC will be published in Ascent Aspirations’ latest anthology As One Cradles Pain: An Anthology on Issues Exploring Disorders.

Poetry Prizes
“The Great Illusion” by S. J. White received Ascent Aspirations Second Prize for Poetry.

April Bulmer – “Ward Paint”, “Perennials”, “Petting the Black Dog”
Barbara Lefcourt – “Good Housekeeping”
Diane Attwell Palfrey – “Birthing the Hexenhammer”, “Teratoma”
S. J. White – “The Great Illusion” (2nd Prize), “Mr. Whittaker”

Congratulations to all!

On Joining a Literary Group

by S.J. White

Image: creativedoxfoto / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

There is probably nothing that we know less about when we start, than serious writing. School gives us the rudiments but not much more. One way of short-cutting a long process is to join a group of writers.

The basis of most groups is the workshop, poetry or prose or sometimes both. Its purpose is, fundamentally, editing. Not just the correction of the occasional typo or grammar error, but suggestions on how the work can be generally improved. Also being a member, gives us the opportunity to try out our poems, our stories, before a group of our peers.

Sometimes workshops are scheduled on specifics: how to write certain kinds of poetry, like Haiku, for instance, or how to generate ideas, how to get published.

Another advantage is that some of its members will be better writers than we are. Some of this is bound to rub off. The old cliché of: ‘It’s not what you know, but who you know’ is still prevalent. It is easier to get published among writers who are familiar with your work. Many groups publish anthologies from time to time, and sometimes, on a regular basis. You might even run into publishers who are members. All this helps in getting you into the swim.

Many groups have websites, and like this one, even a blog, and frequently publish newsletters. We all have to start somewhere and in my experience, this is one of the best ways I know.

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.

Books for Poets

by S.J. White

It is easy to get into the habit of simply writing poetry and not have the least concern about the medium itself, of how it emerged from oral societies where it was essential to the furtherance of the culture, and moved into literary societies where a dozen other mediums can do better what it used to do. Yet still thousands of people write it. Why? The first step in this quest is to understand the construct of the medium and what others have written and are writing.

So if we write poetry, it is impossible for us read too many poems or too many books on what it is thought to be, and how to write it. Such resources are invaluable to our own needs to constantly strive for new ways to use words. I list here, some of the books that have been, and are, useful to me. Some will be out of print but are usually available used through Abebooks and others.

Image: digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

20th Century Poetry & Poetics, Edited by Gary Geddes.

Introduction to literature, Poems. Edited by Lynn Altenbernd & Leslie L. Lewis.

A College Book Of Modern Verse edited by James K. Robinson.

How Does A Poem Mean by John Ciardi.
An Introduction to English Poetry by James Fenton.

Inside Poetry by Glen Kirkland & Richard Davies.

Creating Poetry by John Drury.

Sound & Sense by Laurence Perrine.

Two excellent anthologies are:

Uncommon Wealth, A 2000 page Anthology of Poetry in English Edited by Neil Besner, Deborah Schnitzer, and Alden Turner. This book gives examples of poetry from the 14th Century through to the mid 20th Century.

Good Poems for Hard Times Edited by Garrison Keillor. Another excellent anthology of more modern verse.

There are many more, but these books, in particular, I have found to be invaluable for reading and reference.


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.

Tips for Reading Poetry

by Stan White

Photography by BJWOK / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The success of your reading starts at home with the choice of your poems. Some poets find this quite impossible, but do try to decide what to read before you get behind the mike. Avoid poems that your critics will argue for months over what you meant. Keep in mind that your listeners only get one go at it and they don’t have a hard copy. Lighter poetry works best. You have it made if you are a lyric poet, for poetry that has lots of rhythm and is a babble of words can be pleasantly enjoyed without your audience knowing what it means. Most audiences will give you the benefit of the doubt if it doesn’t last too long.

Find out how long you are expected to read, then divide it by three. Every minute of preparation time in your basement translates to about 20 seconds when you get behind the mike. This is hard to explain but it may because you can’t resist telling a joke every other poem, or you have difficulty separating the pages, or that microphones are designed never to stay where you put them, or any number of other things that all seem to be necessary as well as reading your poems.

If you have a choice, don’t go last (see short bio) and don’t go first. For the first five minutes the audience wants to talk amongst themselves, take off coats, drop things on the floor, and cough. If you are further down the pecking order you get a chance to see the poets who have muffed it by standing too close, or too far away, from the mike.

When it is your turn you will start by thanking the host for inviting you, then thank the owners of the venue for providing it, then thank the person who has provided the refreshments (there is usually a round of applause that goes with this) then finally you thank everybody for being there even if half of them have already left. Add to this the round of applause you get when they introduce you and the much lesser round of applause they give you when you come down from the stage and by then, after you have told them why you intend to read the poetry you are going to read, there is rarely any time to read it. But since you are doing all this for free it doesn’t really matter. Most important, it is bad form to run over your allotted time. I do hope that this short preview will ease the path for any poet who aspires to this extremely rewarding pastime.

Stan White has read poetry under a bridge sheltering out of the rain in a thunderstorm; in nursing homes frequently interrupted by Code Blue’s over the intercom; in cafeterias to a chorus of coffer makers sounding like mustard plasters being ripped off hairy chests. He has read poetry in bus shelters with objections from dogs, birds and motor bikes; in railway cafeterias with 20 minute waits between goods trains passing; in bars where the customers would have been loud even if they were sober. He has read poetry through sound systems that delivered every “P” and most every other letter as though fired through a canon. With a name beginning with “W”, he was the last poet in a five hour poetry marathon where the only audience left was the caretaker waiting to lock up. Stan has read poetry in a coach house to the perpetual and annoying iambic squeak of an air conditioner; in venues where massed Salvation Army brass bands would have wavered. Yet still he dreams of reading to nymphs in sylvan glades over the barely audible babble of brooks and to the accompaniment of Pan Pipes.