We were once again blown away by the quality and variety of the poems in this year’s Poetry Prize. Mark Strand sums up our feelings well:
Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.
But now the poems have been read and re-read and re-read, the arguments had, the heart-breaking decisions made. And we wanted to share a bit about what brought us to the winning and shortlisted poems we were so excited to share with you.
What follows is, inevitably, a personal take and nothing we say is supposed to be a “rule”: these are just our thoughts and reflections. We tried to include things that we, as poets submitting to other competitions, would find useful to know, and to cast some light on what can at times feel like an opaque process.
Moons and origami
There were some common themes in the poems we read. Covid was still influencing many poets. Grief and joy competed for dominance, while new beginnings started to bloom. Lovesickness remains hard to overcome.
Certain images also recurred: origami is a popular choice, as are roses, stars and grass. The moon still refuses to wane.
Using popular (stereotypical) images does not disqualify a poem. But you’re going to have to do something special with it to stand out!
If you’re writing an ode to origami, make sure you’ve considered all the connotations of folded paper. If you want to use the moon as a symbol, think carefully about what this is adding to your poem.
Vivid imagery makes a poem stand out
When reading through lots of poems, we found those which centred on a vivid and unique image had an easier job standing out. Being grounded in a concrete image can really make a poem pop and bring it to life. If a poem stays entirely at the abstract level and refuses to engage with anything real life, it can be harder to grab the reader’s attention and imagination. This can be in the form of an interesting metaphor or specific (relevant) details.
Standing out is not just about making an immediate impact. The winning poems often emerged in the later stages as those ones which dug in their claws and didn’t let us go. The vital hook, in many cases, was a wonderful image which we couldn’t get out of our heads.
Punctuation can be powerful
Punctuation can often be forgotten by poets focused on the bigger picture. But small can be mighty and we found that impactful or sloppy use of punctuation had the power to make or break poems.
Use commas, which help the reader navigate your poem, making it easier to read. And use fullstops. They can add drama. And flow. And if you’re feeling creative, experiment with colons: a beautiful image can follow. And dashes – though be a bit careful with these – to bracket off different parts of a poem.
Don’t feel the need to go big
Another thing we found was that a good poem doesn’t always need to be about the Big Themes. Often those that did strive for grandeur slipped into generalisation. We don’t want to put anyone off writing about Truth or Life or The Meaning of It All. But don’t feel like you have to. And only write BIG if you have something to say, such as bringing your own personal angle to these well-trodden topics.
Get out your red pen and be brutal with the cuts
A number of poems came across rather waffly and padded out and felt, well, like they could do with a brutal edit. Don’t be scared to make big cuts. One good place to look for edits is often at the beginning and end of a poem. It is natural to feel the need to start by setting the scene. But when your poem is so short, you don’t want to waste your first few lines describing the misty morning and the songbird’s warbling if they are not going to make a reappearance later in the poem. Jump straight into the action. Equally, resist the urge to add a last line neatly summing everything up. You’re not writing a school essay which requires the obligatory ‘In conclusion…’ to finish. Trust your reader. They don’t need to be handheld all the way through the poem.
Top tip: Set up a new file where you keep all the lines which don’t make the final version of your poem – they might just make the perfect springboard into a new piece!
Re-read, re-read, re-read
We know it’s obvious but it really is important to re-read your poem before submitting. Remember that to get through to the shortlist, a poem needs to be able to withstand many rounds of judging. It’s on these re-readings that the annoying little typo we were willing to overlook initially really starts to grate, the lack of internal coherence is exposed and a hastily chosen word finds it suddenly has nowhere to hide.
Here are four things you can do right away to get your poems straight back out there:
(1) Re-read your poem
(2) Re-edit. Have another look and see if there are any (small) tweaks you would now make. Is every word contributing to the overall effect of the poem? Have you thought carefully about line breaks and form?
(3) Re-submit. Find somewhere else to send your poem! Don’t delay: send it straight back out there to another competition or journal.
Then, (4) Bookmark this page ready for next year! The Briefly Write Poetry Prize 2023 will open next May/June. It will be FREE to enter again… and we’d love to read another entry from you.