capacious enough to surprise or confound…

This year’s National Poetry Competition attracted 13,000 entries. Winning and commended poems can be read here and previous winners here

Nick Laird was one of the judges and has written a piece in the Guardian where he describes the process of selection:

‘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.’

It’s impossible to say exactly what makes a prize winning poem; criteria used for ‘very good’ and ‘excellent’ are ultimately subjective. The mystery of poetry is precisely how it hits home for some and not others; resonance being a personal experience. If there were a formula for poetry the magic would be lost. But there is practical advice on hand. This includes no border art, no pictures stolen from the internet, no size 8pt font, also avoid footnotes, pay attention to the title and don’t be obvious or pretentious with epigraphs. All useful comments when judges are actively looking for excuses to say no, although it is likely anyone doing their homework would not be guilty  in the first place. To get onto the long list, a poem must ‘work’ on a personal level. It needs space for the reader to fill in from their own experiences; as Nick Laird suggests ‘capacious enough to surprise or confound’.

on subjectivity and poetry comps

When poetry competitions print the winning entries it can help to see what judges consider ‘best’ examples of practice. It’s also useful to read about the judging exerience; how they approached the process of sifting through hundreds of entries, created the long list, short list and finally decided the winners. This link offers both from the YorkMix Poetry Competition.

The winners of the Poetry Business 2012 Book and Pamphlet Competition have also been announced this week. No poems to read but comments from judge Simon Armitage again help to see something of what judges are looking for.

Of all the arts, poetry suffers from dependency on personal opinion.  I’ve been re-reading Saussure for my phd and reflecting on its application to poetry. In a ‘Course in General Linguistics’, Saussure challenged realism (the world can be known) with linguistic relativism (the world can only be known through the structures of language). Semiotics , the science of signs, was key to Structuralist belief in the possibility of uncovering  multiple ‘truths’ of social reality. Structuralism revealed language as a system of signifiers (the word) and signified (the idea the word conveys) with connections between them cultural and arbitrary rather than innate or fixed. Single meaning is replaced with multiple possibilities for example roses have become associated with cultural images of love, passion, beauty, valentines, romance, gardening etc. None of these describe the flower but are all part of the agreed consensus of meaning around the signifier Rose.

Where a poem emerges from the process of editing an idea, paring down the words to create maximum impact, the intention of the poet can be lost through this system of arbitrary meanings. Barthes in The Author is Dead describes how the writer has no control over the reader’s interpretation. When you let go of a poem, it really is a case of handing it over to the reader to make of it what they will. Poetry competitions demonstrate the power of differential reading so it’s useful to have insights into the processes the judges go through.

Universal truths; the language of politics and poetry

George Orwell

George Orwell is better known for prose than poetry but the essay Politics and the English Language has relevance for poets. For Orwell, political prose was designed deceive or ‘spin’ the truth. In a challenge to the spreading habit of convoluted writing this essay calls for a return to plain English with some sound advice for poets. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. Never use a long word where a short one will do. If possible cut unnecessary words and never use the passive where you can use the active.  All standard guidance frequently found in DIY poetry books. A worn out metaphor or cliché suggests lack of original thinking whereas a new way of showing (not telling) can be enough to create a poem. Trimming a poem is also an essential art. Leave a new poem for a week and the superfluous words will make themselves known.

The ideas were later developed into Newspeak in 1984; a book whose impact must depend on when it was read. Reading 1983 in 2013 is less impressive than reading it prior to the development of digital surveillance. The internet and cctv has made the predicted future of Big Brother a frightening reality while political rhetoric is more widespread than ever. Orwell claimed language should be “an instrument for expressing and not for concealing thought” while those writers dealing in lies would inevitably become corrupted.

The power of poetry is resonance. Telling ‘it as it is’ or grounding fantasy in universal experience enables the reader to recognise universal truths. In the words of Orwell, now to be remembered annually on 21 January “Orwell Day”, anything other than dealing with truths allows writers not only to cheat themselves but their readers.

Politics and the English Language is available from


Letting the noise of thinking subside

Chase Twichell writes poetry and practices Zen. In No Imaginary Fences, Twichell compares zazen and poetry saying they might seem to come from different planets, since one is languageless and the other expressive, but both are primarily concerned with the quality of attention one pays to the world.

‘In zazen, we sit without moving and study, without judgment, what the mind does. The mind is very, very busy! It dislikes silence and stillness. It thinks, and thinking gets in the way of seeing things as they actually are, free of all of our associations and distractions. To me, writing poems requires the same kind of concentration, and the same patience, to let the noise of thinking subside.’

Sometimes poetry sneaks in when you least expect it. The chosen words are more than the sum of their parts. The gestalt of a poem is not constructed. It arrives, using the words as its bridge. The task is to make the best possible choices for that bridge. Letting the noise of thinking subside might seem like the wrong direction; writing is an act of doing rather than not-doing.

Twichell has an answer for this.

It’s said that poetry goes where prose can’t, and I’d add that Zen goes where poetry can’t. But poetry gets closer than anything else.

This short video A Day in the Life of a Zen Monk includes the practice of zazen.

Letting something creep, crawl, flash or thunder in…

Dylan Thomas

I suspect everyone has a different answer to the question of poetry and each answer would be valid. Resonance has no monopoly. I like the description given by Dylan Thomas. There are several versions of its origin online.  I don’t know which one is true so am breaking academic law and quoting without reference. It feels strange to do so!

‘You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it technically tick, and say to yourself, when the works are laid out before you, the vowels, the consonants, the rhymes or rhythms, ‘Yes, this is it. This is why the poem moves me so. It is because of the craftsmanship.’ But you’re back again where you began.

You’re back with the mystery of having been moved by words. The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps in the works of the poem so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash or thunder in.’

The sense of a poem tapping into a universal truth like an archetype or some other manifestation of the collective unconscious is often referred to. Poems need spaces which can bring different meanings to different people. Back where this began; poetry is individual and part of the success of a poem might be measured by the number the people it resonates with.