Poetry competitions: how to enter them & how to judge them

spotlightI was recently asked to judge Wokingham Library’s Poetry Competition for National Poetry Day and soon discovered that being asked to judge a poetry competition is a two-edged sword.

What is marvellous about it is being lucky enough to read the entries, to have an insight into the innermost thoughts of the poets, whether these be pleas for forgiveness, celebrations of joy or declarations of love. What isn’t so marvellous is having to decide which poems to pick as my winners! It is a very difficult task.

Even though the competition had a single subject which was ‘Light’ to coincide with today’s National Poetry Day theme, the interpretations of ‘Light’ were countless. We had poems about the Big Bang, about rainbows, stars, shipwrecks, trains and religion, as well as poems with a social or political conscience sitting alongside poems about vampires and mythical creatures.

The poems were at times funny and tragic; they explored the many shades of love and loss and were firmly set in definite places and times with poems about Wokingham rubbing shoulders with poems about New York!

What I noticed in reading through the entries is the popularity of rhyme schemes. Many of the poems not only rhymed but they carried with them an inherent sense of music and rhythm. They covered all the five senses and created wonderful soundscapes. But one overriding thought I had when reading them was their sincerity. These poets really meant what they were writing about.

There were longer poems and shorter poems, there was an incomplete villanelle and an acrostic poem as well as a couple that reminded me of Pam Ayres.

What I also noticed however is that a poet’s inattention to correct punctuation could make me swerve off course when I was reading. Punctuation in poetry is as important as word choice or line length; it is the scaffolding which holds a poem together. I would also say that for me at least an effective poem is one that journeys down the page; it starts with an idea and takes the poet and reader to a new understanding of something which they may have previously taken for granted or just not thought about. So I particularly like poems which do this. I also like poems that tell stories, not in a ‘once upon a time’ sort of way but which have a kind of narrative.

Finally, when asked to judge a competition whilst I take into account the care the poet has taken with their choice of words and the form of their poem, in the end it comes down to a matter of personal taste, so another judge on another  day may have chosen completely different poems!

So, to my winners:

In third place I chose ‘My Star Light’ by Jo Wyles

This is a deceptively simple poem; it has a regular rhyme scheme and doesn’t use long or complicated words but what pleased me particularly about it is its generosity. It is a joyous, perennial poem which talks of a parent’s love for their son, although it could equally be for a daughter (the line would still scan OK). It is a poem which flings its arms wide and says, ‘This is me. Here I am. I do what it says on the tin and I will stay in your heart forever.’

In second place I chose ‘Lighting Up’ by Jules Whiting

This sonnet is very carefully crafted and ends with a rhyming couplet. I like its movement, from the consideration of a TV screen’s light to the ‘glassy blue’ of morning, which is what the poet wants to share with us. I like the end stop at the end of the first stanza and then the push on that ‘lip’ gives at the end of the second, especially the possible double meaning of lip. At first glance it could be a noun or a verb. Also, the movement in the poem seems to reflect the movement of the light, its inevitability. After all, dawn will always come. This is a very physical poem and I liked it very much.

And the first prize went to ‘Bright Light’ by Shelley Connor

I have chosen this one because it says so much in so few words. In my head I can see a street of houses, I can see garages and cars and trees and recycling boxes left out for the bin men. I can see streetlights and starlight and rooms with light pencilled in around drawn curtains. I can see a person watching their neighbour who may be grieving for someone, or avoiding someone or working to repair a motorbike for someone they love. There are so many stories here in just seven lines of poetry.  The poem is uncluttered by punctuation, the poet uses line breaks to propel and halt the reader at just the right places. The rhymes are subtle and the title works well too.

So, congratulations to all the winners and to all the entrants. It was a tough field, I enjoyed reading the poems very much indeed and it has taught me a great deal about what I should do when entering my poems into competitions. I SHOULD take care with my punctuation, I SHOULD let my poem journey down the page, I SHOULD allow room for some kind of narrative. At least if I do these things I may stand a chance of pleasing a judge who thinks along the same lines as I do!


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