On the fearful lessons for writing a Winning Poem

Among the overwhelming amount of cultural offers, temptations and plain publicity that we’re prone to receive online in current times, frightully exacerbated by the Covid pandemic, there’s been the invitation to enter this year’s National Poetry Competition, ‘one of the world’s biggest prizes for a single poem’, as we are duly reminded by The Poetry Society.

Literary competitions are important for two reasons: they make visible what is being written now, and help to make it available for a wider readership. This matters because, despite the enormous amounts of books that are published every year in the world, a dismally small amount of them can be considered actual literature, by which I mean something worth reading because it can enrich and transform both your inner life and the way you understand and become curious about the reality of existence. Whatever works of any transcendence that are being written now are bound to get lost in the relentless assembly-line of an incontinent and greedy publishing industry, and we can and must hope that literary competitions help to redress the balance.

Then there is, of course, the recognition of the author’s work, and the encouragement that such recognition brings about. Being a writer, a real one, is not easy. It is a lonely business, and it’s easy to get the feeling that there’s no one out there who may find meaning in what we’re doing, or even ever get to read it. When encouragement includes a financial stimulus, it is a generous and necessary way of keeping literature, and writers too, alive: year after year, the Society of Authors reports that the median annual income of a professional author in the UK is below the minimum wage. It is true, believe me, and it obviously is the situation in many other countries, if not all.

I therefore applaud the existence of the National Poetry Competition. Many gifted poets have won it in the past, and we have all been the richer for it. I write these words with due respect for the judges this year, and in particular I feel great respect and admiration for Neil Astley, an author himself, and the editor and founder of the magnificent Bloodaxe Books. Through Bloodaxe, Astley has made visible indeed some of the best work written by contemporary poets in the UK and often beyond. The books, beautifully made, are a true work of love. 

This year, however, I read with more attention the publicity for the National Poetry Competition, and I have to say that I feel very uncomfortable.

No, that’s not quite it: I feel depressed. Angry, even.

I guess that the competition has had this format as well in other years. My apologies for having been unobservant. I will talk though about this year’s call.  In the Poetry Society webpage we can read: ‘Still looking for inspiration to create National Poetry Competition poems? – the 2020 Writing Guides are here to help!’

Does anyone, may I ask, who genuinely loves poetry ever seek inspiration to create a ‘poetry competition poem’? Poetry doesn’t get written like that, and we know it. Any sought-after ‘inspiration’ to write poems just to send them to a competition will be no inspiration at all. As much as I celebrate the existence of literary competitions, they aren’t the reason why people write literature, at all. If they are for some, it is clear to me that what they write cannot be called literature in any way. 

Then there are the writing guides themselves. There is nothing wrong in the insight they offer into a particular chosen poem. That’s not the problem. The problem is that they are conceived as writing guides at all, and come accompanied by “Writing Prompts”. Is this a National Poetry Competition, or the platform for educational material for some school? How can we be serious about the aim of choosing among the best poems being written now while at the same time we feel their authors may be in need of writing prompts?

This is wrong. Utterly, tragically wrong.

Let’s talk now about those documents titled ‘ Q & As with the judges’, which include further advice on how to write a poem, on a very basic level. I doubt that someone who’s starting to write poetry, and to whom this kind of advice would be certainly valuable, is ready to enter a poetry competition at all. I can’t help believing that poets that are indeed ready may feel patronised, infantilised even, by this kind of advice.

Judge Jonathan Edwards’s Q&As, on poetry and ice-cream, particularly depressed me. Rather than saying more, I include the link: Poetry and Ice Cream

Some years ago I entered a poetry competition. When I received the email announcing the results and saying that sadly I hand’t been lucky this time, I was surprised to find it included a message from the one judge, telling all those of us who didn’t make it why, in general, we had failed. I was annoyed not only because it was unduly patronising (after all, if a poet feels confident enough to send a poem to a competition, she’s bound to know already what she’s doing with her work. She may not satisfy the judge’s taste. She may even be not such a good poet, but she certainly can be trusted to be seeking her own way, rather than being gently reprimanded). I found even more annoying, and a cause of serious concern, the underlying principle behind that reprimand: this is how you have to write poems if you want them to be liked by the judges and therefore win a competition. These are the rules.

Inbred poetry. That’s what we’re looking for.

How on earth did we get here?

I know the intentions are good. Maybe that’s part of the problem, that we have mixed up the arts and literature with sociology in such an abysmal way that we have forgotten completey why people express themselves and create meaning through those means, and why it matters. In the process, we are emasculating the driving force behind any form of artistic expression (will I be accused of using an inappropriate, un-feminist term, I wonder? I’m sorry. I simply can’t find a better one.)

Is there still a way to check this downhill progress?

There is of course great value in learning from those who are ahead in the path, in sharing knowledge and skills and passion. I just believe this is not the way to go about it. It leaves the passion out of the equation. It is a recipe for setting up, then reinforcing, a form of establishment.

We know that poetry and the establishment have never been good friends, and never will be. Think of your favourite poets, and what poem worth its name would they have written had they been following ‘writing prompts’ such as those suggested by the ‘resources’ offered by the Poetry Society to those wishing to enter the National Poetry Competition. Think of Rilke. Anna Akhmatova. Paul Celan. Neruda. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Rimbaud. Think of any poet who has contributed anything of any value to the human spirit, the human imagination and the human mind.

You can be sure that none of them wrote their poems this way.