Head Judge Paul Maddern’s Top Tips
1. Read contemporary poets to see how they might have already written about ‘messages’. And go to reputable sources. Don’t Google poems+about+messages (or a similar search) as this will inevitably lead you to dross. Perhaps start with several favourite poets, or browse anthologies. Read those poems over and over again that, in whatever way, address the topic of ‘messages’.
2. You needn’t take the theme of ‘messages’ literally. Think outside the box.
3. With that in mind, look up the word ‘messages’ in a good dictionary. It is a noun, verb and adjective (and adverb often sending ‘messages’). Some of the definitions will surprise you and might get you writing in interesting, unexpected directions.
4. Think about words associated with messages (letters, emails, text messages, even letters and words themselves and so on). Equally important, think of antonyms (thoughts, ponderings and so on). Expand the lexis of messages. (See below)
5. Look up instances of the word ‘messages’ in common phrases and sayings. Then , don’t use those phrases as they exist already (they are cliché.) Instead, can you make the phrase fresh? Can you reinvigorate the phrase
6. Consider how your poem contributes something fresh to the topic of ‘messages’. Is it something we’ve read in a hundred other poems, or is it distinctive?
7. Consider the form in which you will write your poem. If a sonnet/villanelle/sestina/haiku sequence/dramatic monologue, then why is that form best suited to the subject? If rhyming: why? (And keep those rhymes fresh and interesting!). If free verse, what aspects of the poem make it poetry (alliteration, assonance, rhythm, metaphor, etc.)?
8. Is your poem more than a transcription of a memory? A tale from childhood does not necessarily a poem make. That memory might be a valid starting point, but does it have any interest AS A POEM? You can make a case (quite easily) that poetry is more about how language is employed than it is about the subject to hand.
9. If you are going to take ‘messages’ literally, do some research on the subject. What does Science have to say about the properties of messages, for example? What is the history of the understanding of messages or the history of the construction of messages? How do we receive and interpret messages? Etcetera.
10. Write – leave aside – edit. Leave aside. Edit. Leave aside. Repeat the process. Then repeat the process. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. And while editing, make sure that the basics are covered; i.e. grammar, spelling and syntax. And check the use of capitals at the start of lines. Is your choice consistent? And is the poem presented professionally? Is the font ‘normal’? Is it single spaced? Is it left-justified? (PLEASE do not centre your poem on the page: leave that for greeting cards)
Top Tips from Funeral Services Northern Ireland National Poetry Competition Judge – Colin Dardis
The theme of this year’s competition is ‘messages’. That in itself is pretty simple: a poem is a message. But there are some further points to consider:
what is being conveyed in the message;
who is conveyed the message, and who is the intended audience (if any);
how is the message being conveyed?
The ‘how’ might seem obvious: it is being conveyed in words. But what medium might the words been delivered in? Is the poem intended as a love letter, a reminder, a memo, a message in a bottle, a manifesto pinned to the door of your town hall?
Additionally, the ‘how’ concerns what tone the message is written in. If we want to express anger, or passion, or criticism, this will affect our word choice, our form, perhaps our line length (short and snappy for angry, long and ponderous for romance). Is the message urgent (the transcript of a voicemail left to a love one at the plane goes down) or it is purposely casual in tone (a flirtation, or a note on the fridge, reminiscent of William Carlos Williams’s ‘This Is Just To Say)?
Think of a time you’ve receive a clear message, that was easy to understand. A monthly performance report you get in work might be full of jargon and business-speak. If you’re part of the industry, it will probably make sense. To an outsider, it could be meaningless. In this way, try to avoid personal allusions and shorthand that might only make sense to you, and use language that allows the reader to enter your world.
Ultimately, we write messages as a way to transport information from point A to point B. Go and read a few poems, and ask yourself what information is the writer trying to get across. What impression are you, the reader, left with at the end of the poem? Has the poet succeeded in getting their point across? Or are you at a loss as to what it meant? In weighing up what is a good message, we aren’t necessarily troubled by what the poem is telling us (after all, a poem can be about anything), but by the methodology of how that message has been related.
So, what is the message you want to tell us about? And most of all, how are you going to make us sit up and take notice of it? Good luck, and happy writing!
Top Tips from Funeral Services Northern Ireland National Poetry Competition Judge – Stephanie Conn
1. Allow the theme to inspire rather than restrict you. Explore the word and its meanings. Can you put your own slant on the expected or go with the strange and intriguing?
2. Avoid the abstract. Observe and consider the ‘little things’ – the physical detail, the personal experience, the meaningful object that will in turn communicate universal truths.
3. Explore the senses. This can help draw your reader into the poem and make it real.
4. Don’t overcomplicate things. Saying something in the most complicated way you can, in a bid to demonstrate your extensive vocabulary, rarely serves a poem.
5. Have fun with language. Allow word patterns and sound patterns to emerge.
6. Be wary of adjectives and adverbs – this is not to say you should never use them but make sure they are earning their place in the poem. Often the ‘thing’ itself is enough and an adjective can dilute rather than strengthen.
7. Read your work aloud. Let the ear do as much work as the eye. Get someone else to read it to you. If something grates with you, it’s likely to do the same for the reader. Edit, edit, edit.
8. A poem should not merely be a record. Is there a sense of movement? A journey or arrival of sorts? Allow the poem to go where it wants to. If your writing takes an unexpected turn and surprises you, then chances are it will do the same for the reader. You may end up with a very different poem than the one you set out to write – that is fine.
9. Don’t be tempted to tie your poem up in a nice little bow at the end. Finishing with an image can be very effective.
10. Consider form. Often the appropriate form, including free verse, will become apparent as you write – go with this. The ‘correct’ form will enhance a poem’s content.
Top Tips from Funeral Services Northern Ireland National Poetry Competition Judge – Ross Thompson
1. Be honest. The more honest, the better. If a memory makes you cringe with embarrassment, weep or wince with regret, it will most likely make for a strong basis for a poem. Who knows, you might make the reader respond in the same way. Don’t be afraid of revealing something personal about yourself. It is tempting to write about things that are entirely separate from your own experience: characters from novels, events on the news and so on. However, inspiration for a strong poem can quite often be found closer to home. That said, poetry is not meant to be therapy so people don’t necessarily need to hear the innermost workings of your fevered mind.
2. Be emotional. If your poem does not move you, it is not likely that it will move your reader. Do not be afraid of the phrase or word that makes you upset. For example, you can clearly hear W. H. Auden’s poetic voice cracking in ‘Stop All The Clocks’ when he reaches the phrase “I was wrong”, and the use of caesura right before that poignant confession strengthens the gut-punch. Saying that, avoid being maudlin or cloying. Rather than writing about the full scale of a tragedy, focus on a small aspect of that tragedy: a broken necklace, a discarded shoe, an unopened letter, an unfinished piece of graffiti during wartime… you could never cover all aspects of a full-scale catastrophe in a sonnet but you can capture a snapshot. Simon Armitage’s deeply moving collections Black Roses, The Not Dead and Out Of The Blue are excellent examples of this technique. On the other hand, there are certain things that do not need to be described in words. There is nothing you can add to a melancholic story or event that already speaks loudly enough.
3. Be musical. A poem is not a short story, newspaper article or instructions for assembling flat-pack furniture from a Swedish furniture store. A poem should catch the ear when read aloud. Rhythm and rhyme (half, full, end or mid-line are all lovely) along with sibilance, assonance, onomatopoeia, metaphor… there are so many ways to make your poem sing. Some words are leaden and almost hurt the ear when they are dropped on the page. Other words are magical when they are allowed to chime together. Therefore, read your poem aloud. Imagine how it might sound to one or three individuals or an auditorium full of listeners. Disparate poets such as John Keats and our own Seamus Heaney are connected by the musicality of their writing. Their work sings.
4. Be sparing. Limiting yourself to a certain number of syllables is a very useful and often productive exercise. One quickly learns the value of words if they are only permitted a select number to play with in their poem. A traditional sonnet, for example, has 14 lines of 10 syllables (iambic pentameter) yet can convey so much in that short amount of text. Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Browning were masters of balancing restraint and emotional heft.
5. Be different. Good poetry takes ordinary things and renders them extraordinary. See, for example, the way Philip Larkin’s masterful poem ‘The Trees’, which vocalises universal feelings of loss in an enigmatic, spine-tingling way. The poem’s opening couplet, “The trees are coming into leaf / like something almost being said” is both lyrically beautiful and semantically complex. At the other end of the spectrum, in ‘The Lanyard’ the American writer Billy Collins encapsulates the parent / child relationship in a way that sounds fresh and deftly avoids cliché.
6. Be meticulous. A good poem requires work – and lots of it. Sometimes, several drafts are required to unlock the poem’s true form, much in the same way that a sculptor chips and cuts away at a block of stone until they are happy with the results (this, of course, is a dirty lie: a poet, generally being an experienced misery-guts, is rarely happy with the results). There is real graft involved in thinking about the poem, writing, rewriting, thinking some more, tweaking, editing, thinking again… there is real joy to be found in this act of creation. Also, poems containing typos are not likely to win competitions.