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.

Poetry Comps and a MOOC

Jackie Kay is judging the Larkin and East Riding Poetry Prize, to be awarded at the Bridlington Poetry Festival 14-16 June at Sewerby Hall in Bridlington Competition closing date 15th April, £3 entry fee per poem. Further details here

Peter and Ann Sampson are judging the Mclellan poetry competition awarded through the Isle of Arran Theatre and Arts Trust as part of the annual McLellan Festival. Closing date 30th June.  £5 per poem and £4 each for three or more poems. Further details here

The free online course on Modern & Contemporary American Poetry offered by the University of Pennsylvania is running for a second time in September 2013. Starting with Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, the course follows American poetry to the present day.  Further details at

Random poetry in public places

Poems on the underground

Poetry on the Underground is a great idea – but don’t stop at the underground and don’t keep it in London.  Let’s have random poetry in public places all over the UK; the sides of buses, in bus stops,  train stations, airports, advertising boards. Maybe start a ‘pick up a poem’ campaign. What happened to poetry in doctors surgeries? I remember Dr Geoff Lowe at Hull University talking about this many years ago. Rarely, has google let me down but all I can find is Geoff’s paper on the Health-related effects of creative and expressive writing and the Poems in the Waiting Room site at They may be connected – maybe not – but both have validity.

All over towns, small doctor’s surgeries are being replaced by corporate, depersonalised Health Centres. Here’s an idea. Alongside the the bland impressionistic pictures of flowers, there could be framed poems on the walls and with the donated magazines, poetry cards. It wouldn’t cost much and if poetry is good for you then it might help us feel better.


continuing the experience of resonance…

Guardian Poster Poems is giving permission to plagiarise. It calls for the writing of a poem containing a line which has already been published. The text can come from anywhere so long as it is not your own.  Here is an opportunity to continue the experience of resonance. When a line stands up on the page, or the sense of a poem reminds you of something long forgotten, instead of putting it to one side in isolation, you can take this opportunity to play with the feelings it evokes, follow your thoughts and see where they lead you. Writing for competitions and deadlines is a useful discipline and once a month the Guardian makes a new suggestion for content.  Licence to Steal is the best subject for some time.