Poetry blog: How to win a poetry competition

Need a few pointers? Reading WB Yeats is a good start
4 Feb 2014 @ 9.07 am
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Need a few pointers? Reading WB Yeats is a good start
Need a few pointers? Reading WB Yeats is a good start

With a little more than three weeks to go before our poetry competition deadline, YorkMix Poet In Residence Carole Bromley offers some tips

I am loving the task of reading the poems entered for the YorkMix Poetry Competition. Not that it feels like a very arduous task (so far) as the vast majority of the poets entering clearly know their onions and this shows in the very high standard of the poems so far longlisted.

I have to do it like this in order to stay sane but don’t worry if you haven’t entered yet. I’m just printing out about one in ten after reading them carefully on the screen and then rereading many times and putting in a rough order which will probably change and all of them may be superseded by later entries.

Later entries will, however, have to be pretty damn good to stand up to the best two or three of these.

Anyway the process got me thinking about what makes a poem stand out from the crowd.

1. A really well-thought out title

Sometimes this simply means a title which helps the reader get a handle on the poem, sometimes it’s a title which is intriguing and which draws the reader in. Rarely is it a title which “does what it says on the tin”.

If you can, go for something a bit surprising. A long title with a short poem, for example, can be very effective. There are no rules, though. A short title with a long poem can make it into the longlist folder too – and has done!

2. A strong first line

This is more important than you might think. I’ve read some lovely poems this week and wanted to say “Ditch verse one. You’re writing your way in.”

A mistake I make all the time. If you do, too, why not interrogate that opening and you might find you can dispense with it altogether.

3. Tone/voice

There are poems where you instinctively trust the speaker. They could sweet talk you into anything. It’s something to do with confidence.

4. Trust your reader

Let him/her do some of the work. You don’t have to hand it to them on a plate. Let them work it out for themselves. So what if they have to read to the end before they “get it”. It’s their job to read to the end!

5. Subject matter

if you can come up with something unique you’re really onto something. Take your time. Do a bit of research.

Get out there and use your eyes and ears. Don’t fall back on cliché. Tell us what you actually see and hear, not what you expect to see and hear.

6. Take a new path

If you’re treading a well-worn path, think of a different take on it. Write from a different point of view, for example, or try writing it as instructions. I love those!

At the very least freshen up your language. Don’t fall back on the well-worn phrase, be precise, use startling images.

7. Read, read, read…

…and see how the experts do it. This should have come at the top.

8. Pay attention to form

And, by this, I don’t mean attempt a sonnet (though it would be lovely if you did) but just experiment with the arrangement of words on the page, white space, good line-breaks.

9. Sounds

Read your poem aloud. Who cares if the neighbours think you’re barmy? Do it. Hear the rhythm, listen for the line-breaks. Does the ending have the right cadence? If not, change it.

10. Endings

They are often the deciding factor. Keep something up your sleeve for the last line. Know when to stop as well as where to start.

You don’t want your lovely poem to end with a whimper. You want it to sing. You want it to stay with your reader all night.

There is one poem in my longlist folder which disobeyed most of the above rules. No punctuation, random capital letters, no real idea of form and yet it was so startling that I couldn’t forget it and had to trawl back through all the poems and print it out after all.

It was the real thing. Send me the real thing and I will recognise it at once. That’s a promise.

Talking of promises, I said I would come up with a few ideas to help you get started so here goes.

Love poems

The Muse Of Love Poetry by François Boucher. Photograph: Wikipedia
The Muse Of Love Poetry by François Boucher. Photograph: Wikipedia

Why not write a love poem? It’s nearly Valentine’s Day after all. Surprisingly few love poems so far.

If you write one (or get one out that never quite made it and work on it some more in the cool light of day) it can double up as something to give your lover on February 14th and it won’t cost a thing.

Red roses are overrated anyway. You have to feed them soluble aspirin on day two if you want them to keep their heads up. You never have that problem with a good poem.

As always, start by reading some love poems. Here’s a link to The Poetry Foundation where you will find dozens of them.

You can take your pick from romantic, erotic, poems of lost love etc. There is also a new anthology just out from Penguin called The Poetry of Sex.

I haven’t seen it yet and it does say “raucous” so it might not be your thing but it sounds fun.

Your love poem will depend, of course, on your situation. Declaring your love directly is more difficult in poetry, for some reason, than mourning the passing of love.

If you want to tell someone they are the most beautiful, sexy, fascinating creature you have ever set eyes on you might be well advised to compare them to something, not necessarily a summer’s day, though a quick peek at Shakespeare’s sonnets wouldn’t go amiss.

Try some contemporary poets as well. Carol Ann Duffy’s Rapture would a good starting point, or maybe Wendy Cope who always sees the funny side.

It is often a good idea to come at a love poem (or any poem) at a slant. Instead of saying how much you love someone and ending up in a tangle of cliché, try listing why you love them.

Just a simple list will do it. Be as specific as you like. Include something physical, something they are good at making, something they say or do which is endearing, what they smell like, taste like, feel like.

Include something you wouldn’t normally think of as attractive but in their case it is.

So – they rejected you. Make a poem out of it. Set the scene, give us some actual words, describe the sight of them walking away. Read Hugo Williams’ Billy’s Rain or Dear Room. Williams got two winning collections out of being dumped.

WB Yeats knew a thing or two about rejection as well. He went on writing poems to his beloved Maud Gonne all his life.

Read He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven and write a short poem to your love telling them about a gift you would love to give them if you could. Make it as far-fetched and wonderful as you can.

Journey poems

Not in the mood for love? Write about a journey. Take a walk or a bus ride or a train trip and just look around you.

Notice things. Jot them down, a horse in a field, a snatch of conversation, that hawk hovering near the motorway. Fill a page or two with notes, then find a nice warm café and write a first draft.

If your journey is by bike you might need to keep stopping to note things down, or maybe speak them into your phone?

I find the notes app on my phone invaluable and it emails all that stuff you might otherwise forget to your computer.

Currently it has some snatches of conversation, a list of names off gravestones and some details from a painting. You never know when these things might come in useful.

Be a magpie. Hoard stuff, especially anything shiny!

Form poems

Or you might want to set yourself the challenge of writing in a particular form. This can be surprisingly liberating.

Haiku are fun to write and you can end up with a sequence of them to form a longer piece. The demands of sticking to the 5/7/5 syllable count keeps the worrying part of your brain busy and frees up the fun part of your brain to do the singing.

Try it. Go on.

Sestinas are great too for a change. This form dates back to 12th century France and depends on the intricate repetition of end words in a different order in each stanza till you end up with a poem of 39 lines which, on a good day, can be surprising and beautiful. Click here for rules and examples.

Or try a sonnet. Although no sonnets were among the actual winners of last year’s competition, it was striking how many very nearly made it. The shortlist was littered with them, some beautiful and tender, one or two poignant, others witty.

If you’ve never attempted one, have a try. You’ve nothing to lose and you only need to come up with 14 lines.

There are plenty of websites which will tell you the rules for sonnet writing, or you can just read some and notice the rhyme scheme and the rhythm and model yours on that.

Or you could invest in The Making of a Poem by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland where all the traditional poetic forms are explained clearly with dozens of examples.

Whether you attempt a poem in traditional form or in free verse, enjoy the writing of it and good luck in the competition if you decide to enter.

I have set myself the task of writing a poem a week for a year by joining a website set up by poet, Jo Bell, called fifty-two which I can’t recommend highly enough.

There are now nearly 400 of us and you can even post your poems onto an online forum on Facebook where other poets will comment. What’s not to like?

The deadline for the competition is February 28 and, by coincidence, I am reading at City Screen that night with a group of amazing York poets. Why not come along and say hello?


Carole Bromley is married with four children and lives in York. Twice a winner in The Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition, she has two pamphlets with Smith/Doorstop (Unscheduled Holt, 2005, and Skylight, 2009) and a collection A Guided Tour of the Ice House. She has won a number of first prizes, including The Bridport and Yorkshire Open, and her poems have appeared in a range of magazines and anthologies. Carole is a graduate of the MPhil in Writing at Glamorgan University and teaches creative writing for York University’s Centre for Lifelong Learning. Read more about Carole on her website or on the Poetry Business site.