Poetry blog: Top tips for writing a winning poem – by our judge

‘Woken by the xylophone of sunthroughblinds’… great poetry paints pictures. Photograph © Lisa Plummer on Flickr
8 Feb 2016 @ 11.05 pm
| News

I’m just back from London where I was reading at the lovely Troubadour and read the thirteenth batch of competition poems emailed to me by David Nicholson at YorkMix on the train back (Dave is the unsung hero of this competition, incidentally. He puts in countless hours of work preparing the poems for me to see and contacting entrants personally about any problems with their entry).

Enter our 2016 poetry competition here

Closing date: February 14, 2016

When the judging is complete I don’t know who is more exhausted, me or Dave. Sometimes we go out for a meal, drink far too much prosecco and vie for who is the most knackered (me, obviously, but it’s a close run thing).

The wonders of modern technology enabled me to do the first read through of the latest batch on my phone and I was delighted to find some real gems. I have blogged before about how to maximise your chances of making it to the shortlist but nevertheless here are a few things the ‘gems’ sitting pretty in my longlist folder have in common.

Maybe yours is among them. I hope so.

Interesting and unusual subject matter

Not a must but it helps. Poems sparked by recent news items, by songs, by the poet’s inside knowledge (or careful research) about historical figures, other cultures, the natural world, faraway places, corners of York, geology, archaeology, a particular period of history, war, witches, saints, the Bible, anything really which you can give your unique take on.


Of course subject matter is only half the battle, if that. The tone, the voice of the poem is equally important. Given the right tone you can get away with treading a well-worn path thematically.

If you can move me, if you can make me laugh out loud, if you can spark my interest in your subject, whatever it is, my hand is already hovering over the print symbol.

And I’m very generous. I print out far too many. I’m very careful not to miss anything which might stand a chance.

I’m not nit-picking when I read, I’m looking for the good in every poem. I’m looking for work which speaks to me. Probably not much help but it’s true.


So few poems so far in any kind of traditional form. I don’t mind – I love free verse too – but if you have a cracking sonnet or a half decent terza rima please send it!

Just flicking through the poems in the folder and came across a lovely sonnet, by the way.

Also poems in every shape on the page, poems which use the white space to good effect, couplets, tercets, block poems, prose poems (we get very few of those) and poems which are just beautifully judged and where the line-breaks really work to maximum effect.

That’s probably not much help either but I am trying!


It probably sounds blindingly obvious but you really can pick out a good poet by his or her use of language. Interesting words interestingly put together is the only way I can think of to explain what I mean here.

A poem which speaks to me as if the speaker was sitting in the room, a poem which sings, a poem where the language itself is so beautiful you want to read it again and again. And I do. I read them aloud. Honestly.

Not on the train, of course. Well, I was in the quiet coach where declaiming verse might get things chucked at you.

I’ll tell you one thing I’ve noticed in these poems. Sometimes they ask you a startling question. I actually love questions.

I also love instructions. I’m a sucker for poems written in the command form. They’re quite rare too and surprisingly effective. I would give you an example but that would be giving the game away…

That certain something

No, I don’t know either but I know it when I see it. I’ve got one right here in my hand (shame I can’t show you it) but, of course, as the poems come flooding in (about the same number of entries as on this date last year) my favourites may change.

Last year the winning poem came in very late on. I’d like to stay sane so please if you’re going to enter, don’t leave it till the last minute though, of course, if you do your poem will stand just as much chance as the ones already in my folder.

But only if it has some or all of the above!

Read Kim Moore…

‘Kim is amazing.’ Poet Kim Moore
‘Kim is amazing.’ Poet Kim Moore

You may have already entered or you may have a batch of poems you’re thinking of submitting (in which case I hope the pointers above were some help) but, in case you don’t have anything suitable to hand and would like to write a new poem or two, here are a few suggestions to get you started.

I mentioned interesting and unusual subject matter so I’ve been looking for examples of poems to illustrate that. Here’s a link to Kim Moore’s website.

I am taking part in New Writing North’s project Read Regional and Kim is deservedly one of the chosen poets this year. She may be coming to a library near you.

Kim is amazing. Her poems always surprise. I suggest you read ‘Teaching the Trumpet’ from The Art of Falling which is a very good illustration of someone writing about something they are an expert in but which would be new and exciting to the reader. How’s this for a startling opening?

I say: imagine you are drinking a glass of air.
Let the coldness hit the back of your throat.

…or read Andrew McMillan

Writing about love and loss… Andrew McMillan
Writing about love and loss… Andrew McMillan

Or you might try Andrew McMillan’s physical which recently won the Guardian First Book Award. Here’s a taster from Finally

a day will come when
woken by the xylophone
of sunthroughblinds
you’ll realise

McMillan’s poem is about love and loss as so many good poems are. The trick is to approach the subject from an unusual angle.

I’d challenge anyone reading that opening to resist reading on to find out what has happened to make daylight into ‘the xylophone/of sunthroughblinds’.

So, your challenge is to write about a loss of some kind, starting your poem with waking. Give us a precise image so we can see and hear the room you are in and then look at how in Finally the poet, through sounds and sights and scents leads us to the dawning realisation that the lover ‘isn’t coming back’.

Or, if you prefer, you could look again at Kim Moore’s poem and then think of something you are very skilled at and could teach to someone else. Use that powerful instructional tone.

You can make it funny if you like. I love funny. I have just read another batch of entries and couldn’t resist a completely bonkers poem which made me laugh. It may not win but it’s in the folder and you never know.

Thinking of poems which gain their power through voice, here’s an example from Carol Ann Duffy, of a dramatic monologue which really resonates.

Why not try a dramatic monologue, especially if you tend to write poems in the first person? It’s a great way to extend your repertoire and explore others’ experience. Here’s one about Anne Hathaway.

Note the fresh, modern language of the poem. Avoid archaisms if you can. All rules are there to be broken, however, and there is one poem in my folder which is full of them, but for a very good reason.

Experiment with form

Another inspiration: Carol Ann Duffy
Another inspiration: Carol Ann Duffy

And that brings me rather neatly on to form. Most of the poems in Duffy’s collection, The World’s Wife, are in free verse.

For this poem she chose the sonnet form because of the subject matter. I love sonnets. They can free you up to write in a different and surprising way.

Because of the demands of the form it is as if one part of your brain is concentrating on getting that right while another part you didn’t even know you had is free to come out and play. Try it. A very good app if you have an iPad is Sonnets.

If you listen to the readings on it something of the rhythm is catching. Don Paterson’s recent 40 Sonnets is also well worth getting hold of [PDF].

Or try any of the other traditional forms. They can all be very beautiful if skilfully handled. Send me one. I may not shortlist it but you can be sure I’ll sit up and take notice when I read it as it will be in the minority among the entries.

If you want a book which gives the rules and lots of examples of each form you can’t do better than The Making of a Poem by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland.

The importance of language

And finally, language. Such a huge topic I don’t know where to start but since I highlighted its importance, here goes. My example this time is taken from Sarah Howe’s TS Eliot winning collection, Loop of Jade.

Just listen to the beauty of Howe’s language. There has been some controversy over the prize this year, the first time it has been awarded to a first collection.

For me, Howe won it fair and square and good for her. It is a beautiful collection. You might like to try writing about your mother’s jewellery box or your father’s toolbox? Objects can be very evocative.

Here is the closing image in Jewellery Box. The poet is describing an amber ring

‘teaspoon of honey
whisky poured
by morning light’

Look at the way that white space adds to the effect. Write me an image half as good as that and your poem will go straight to the top of the folder. Guaranteed.

Good luck and I’ll look forward to reading your entries.