Want to submit a poem to the Hysteria Writing Competition? Here’s advice from our Writer in Residence.
I’m not a poet, says Bridget Whelan, but I’ve read enough bad poetry to know what to avoid…
Carl Sandburg said that for him poetry was a synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits. I don’t know if that helps as you think about the poem you want to send to the Hysteria competition which ends in six weeks. But to be a winning poem it does have to have something of that element of surprise that catches the reader unawares, the sense that this is something different, even if the subject has been written about in 1000 poems…
I’m not a poet. In fact, one of the exercises in my guide to creative writing is called the I-don’t-want-to-right-a-poem poetry exercise. The fact that I’m not a poet I think makes me well-qualified to support a writer taking their first tentative steps. But how can I help you, someone who doesn’t need to be persuaded that poetry is a good thing, someone itching to write a prize-winning poem? Well, I love poetry and I’ve also read enough bad poems to recognise some of the pitfalls. Here’s my list of five things to avoid:
Don’t stick to “poetic” subjects
Nothing is off limits. The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh wrote a sonnet to the hospital ward where he was treated for lung cancer. Chilean poet and politician Pablo Neruda published an entire collection that praised socks and other ordinary things, while Sharon Olds, a leading contemporary American poet, writes with great frankness about sex and the body and the corners of life that are often neglected. Among other things, she has celebrated tampons and toilets.
Abstracts need concrete images
Abstract words name the things we can’t touch or see. They are wonderful words about important things, but if you tell me that the evening sky is beautiful I’m not sure if what I mean by that word is the same as what you mean. Precision is important in communicating effectively and that holds true for poetry just as much as it does for a business letter. Here’s T.S. Eliot in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table…
Don’t trade in second-hand goods
Never use a figure of speech which you are used to seeing or hearing. I know that’s a very high standard, but it’s the one you should aim for. A cliché doesn’t start life worn out. On the contrary, when the ink was fresh it created such vivid pictures in the mind of the reader it was used again and again and again. And then it died. Or almost – it retains just enough strength to creep into our writing when we aren’t really thinking about what we want to communicate.
Don’t use words just because they rhyme
If you’ve decided to use rhyme (and a proper well-thought out rhyming scheme) you want it to appear as though you chose each word because you needed that particular word and no other would do and hey! It’s a lucky coincidence that it happens to rhyme. While it might be a very good idea to avoid obvious rhymes like cat and mat, June and moon, don’t despise ordinary words. What could you make out of night and skies, bright and eyes? It might not sound that promising, but Byron crafted some of the most beautiful lines in the English language with those end rhymes.
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies,
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meets in her aspect and her eyes
It’s not cheating to use a rhyming dictionary
I realise that not everyone will agree, but I heard Leonard Cohen in a radio interview say that he often picked one up, not necessarily to check for a particular rhyme, but to read through it like a book, immersing himself in the language of rhyme. If it’s good enough for Leonard Cohen…
Write from the heart and the head. Sleep with it. Dream about it. Only let your poem go when it’s ready to fly. And make sure that you’ve read your entry aloud again and again before you press send.
Bridget’s creative writing guide has been endorsed by university lecturers and bestselling novelists. Back to Creative Writing School is now available in paperback at £5.99 as well as an e-book £1.70 from Amazon.