No pictures, frost or footnotes in your submissions please, begs National Poetry Competition judge Nick Laird
I spent a few weeks recently reading through 10,000 of the 13,000 entries for the National Poetry Competition. Many were very good; a few hundred were excellent. Of those, I picked my final 50, as did my fellow judges Vicki Feaver and Bill Herbert and, over the course of a long day, we whittled down our combined 150 to a few prize-winning poems, which you can read, and read about, at the National Poetry Competition website.
The winning poem, by Patricia McCarthy, which comes at its subject, the Great War, in a tender, oblique fashion, convinced us with its quiet technique and subtle observations. Jane Draycott's runnerup was dense, mysterious, and swept from a London living room across the whole world. John Freeman's third-place entry was neatly constructed, both love poem and elegy.
It was heartening to see poetry take a central role in so many people's lives, to read the evidence that thousands of people frequently sit alone for an hour or two, trying to capture or clarify something in words. Still, reading the poems was also, sometimes, depressing. There were poems that weren't good, and they tended to have features in common: a lack of control or occasion, a lack of linguistic felicity or surprise. A judge must be hard-hearted, looking for anything that will let him drop the poem into the No box. He wants to fault the poem.
Life works by a process of connotation, an evolving multisensory apprehension of the shifting world. We get impressions of things. They don't have sharp edges: they have atmospheres, and a poem is off to a bad start when the poet has spelled necessary wrong in the first line. (I know: some great poets spelled terribly; Yeats for one. But if the poet can't get their spelling right in a competition entry, it's tricky to hold out much hope for syntax, diction, imagery.) So although poetry doesn't have rules, after 10,000 submissions, one might discern some general principles for the competition entrant. A judge is hopeful for talent, what Whitman termed "personal force". In order to let that force show through, a writer must avoid obvious missteps, demonstrating mastery over his materials and effects.
If the title is a ready-made phrase such as A Falling Star, the poet already has a distance to claw back. So scrap the cliches: his breath is not bated, the contrast is not sharp. We want the language of a poem to renew our experience of life, not dull it with rote phraseology. A title can do various work but in a competition a smart move is to be interesting. Think of a poet such as Wallace Stevens, whose titles compel us to read on: "The Emperor of Ice Cream", "The Plot against the Giant", "Anecdote of the Jar". Even a poem that says upfront what the poem is about (like, say, "The Blue Dress" by Sharon Olds or "My Shoes" by Charles Simic) is immediately intriguing. An abstract cliched phrase isn't going to cut it. Interesting things happen when you try to, in Pound's phrase, make it new.
Making it new doesn't, though, include illustrating your poems, unless you're William Blake or Stevie Smith, and putting a border like a frame around your sonnet isn't going to help either. Please don't set your font to eight and please refrain from using dingbats. Nor is your poem aided by jpegs you've pulled off the internet. Don't use an epigraph that's a proverb, or a line from something really well known by, say, Sylvia Plath. Trust the reader (you don't need footnotes such as "the poet I refer to here is John Clare" or "Aung San Suu Kyi is currently held under house arrest in Burma"), but don't trust them too much: don't pick for your epigraph a massive chunk of Heidegger in the original German. And don't just chop up prose. Frank O'Hara puts it nicely: "As for measure and other technical apparatus, that's just common sense: if you're going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you. There's nothing metaphysical about it. Unless, of course, you flatter yourself into thinking that what you're experiencing is 'yearning'."
O'Hara's sarky quotation marks touch on another problem: diction. The register has to be controlled, and preferably not helplessly imitative or archaic. Be careful with words such as whence or din or guffaw or russet. Also, contorted or caress or ochre. Or clad or crave or pale or engorged. Or gossamer. Don't write about things frosted with dew. Don't write about a true gent of the road or heroic fragility. These words, to me, smell of the lamp, are chintzy, "poeticky", Victoriana. They're the sort of words you only find in poems but they're old currency: you can buy nothing with them.
As for content, anything goes, though try to avoid walking down paths too well travelled. Also, be careful how you approach that content: don't picture yourself or remember back or recall the sweet smell. And don't just say something nobody could disagree with: yes, war is bad, and it's terrible the ice caps are melting. Poetry has to be capacious enough to surprise or confound.
Despite my grouching, reading so many poems is a renewing activity: contra Auden, poetry makes a great deal happen, at least in the mind of the writer and reader. What exactly it does, though, is endlessly different and complex. I like O'Hara's reasoning: "It may be that poetry makes life's nebulous events tangible to me and restores their detail; or conversely, that poetry brings forth the intangible quality of incidents which are all too concrete and circumstantial. Or each on specific occasions, or both all the time."