Entering the Tower Poetry Competition:
Some Questions Answered
Surely I need to be a poet already?
Well, what is “a poet” anyway? I’m certainly not sure that I know an answer to that. Very few people aged between 16 and 18 are “poets” in the sense of writing poetry continually, and taking what they write seriously in order to write more of it – very few people of any age are, in fact. This really doesn’t matter, and the competition isn’t intended to sniff these people out and reward them for being who they are. In any case, just wanting to be “a poet”, like wanting to be a pilot or to conduct an orchestra, to win the World Cup or rid the world of malaria, isn’t enough to guarantee you can do the thing you want. The competition is about writing a single poem well, one that will stand up on its own terms, and impress and intrigue readers. No entry is ever judged on how well it approximates to somebody’s idea of what the work of “a poet” should look like: think of an entry as a single piece of verbal arrangement, with a job to do and lots of resources – in the language, and in you – to draw upon.
It doesn’t matter who you are – where you’re from, what you do, what you like to listen to, watch, or have for breakfast – there’s plenty in you that can help to write a real poem. All you need to do is find it; and it can be fun as well as liberating to start the search. At Tower, we’re not in the business of trying to talent-spot the next generation of “poets”, and fit them into some preconceived career-path. And there’s no such thing as one kind of background that ‘fits’ for us, and another that doesn’t. We have no preconceptions about the kind of person who is likely to do well in the competition, so you shouldn’t be held back by preconceptions about us and what we expect.
What we’re looking for are poems, and poems that work: you might never have written one before, and might never write another one again, but that doesn’t stop you from writing a poem now that will bowl the judges over.
Why have a set theme?
This is one way of making it clear that we’re interested in the poem itself, rather than the author. In any case, having to write to a set theme can be a liberation. W.H. Auden once said that a decent poet should be quite happy to compose a double sestina (and what exactly is that, anyway?) on the virtues of a particular brand of toothpaste. Auden may be going a bit far, but at Tower we certainly believe that thinking your way into a theme is a creative act, and one which helps, rather than hinders, the kinds of creativity that go into writing a proper poem. Lots and lots of personal baggage can be left at the door. And everyone entering comes in on broadly the same terms. Remember that a theme is not a narrow thing, and ours are designed to give you lots of scope for your own intellectual engagement. This isn’t to say that you should set out to do something really unexpected and unusual with a theme – an approach which is fine if it comes naturally, and chimes with the ways in which your poem works, but almost never successful if it’s just a policy decision taken in advance, with the poem having to follow instructions. The difference always shows.
Do I have to make it really clear that my poem relates to the theme?
If the poem’s a good one, it will be clear anyway, even – perhaps especially – if that relation is quite subtle. But don’t put the judges to school by making your point stridently and repeatedly in the poem. A lot of entries over the years have been spoiled by attaching a “reminder” ending: imagine a “Bananas”-themed year, when scores of entries ended with a line going (roughly) “That’s when I thought – Bananas.” (Just as bad, in a way, would be an entry in yellow and black typeface, the shape of a banana.) So, please remember that you don’t have to spell everything out: just think hard before you start writing. Also, of course, don’t try to pass off a piece that really has no relation whatsoever to the theme as some kind of super-subtle approach to it: again, the difference shows.
Are there expectations about form?
None at all. The judges don’t give extra points for something just because it’s cast in a certain form – even’s Auden’s preposterous “double sestina” – unless that form really adds something, and is intrinsically a part of what the poem is saying. Also, poetic forms, which are so various, have one thing in common: they are either done well, or they serve no purpose at all. But don’t think that there’s an easy alternative to “form”: in a way, every real poem has a form of its own, whether it rhymes or not, whether it’s in stanzas or not, and whether or not its rhythms and line-lengths are in any kind of pattern. Good free verse is just as demanding as something formally intricate, and leaves your style just as exposed. You really should be thinking about these things as you compose a poem. Think of them, though, not as hurdles standing in your way, but as essential and enabling tools. As with most issues in learning how to write, your best helper is your own reading. Look again at things you like; take them to pieces, and see how they work. Why that rhyme? Why that line-length, and here rather than there? Why that kind of ending? Why the strange expression rather than the obvious one? Do this for long enough, and you will be equipping yourself with the kinds of composing reflexes your poem can use.
Why a limit of 48 lines?
There’s a simple answer to this: competition poems shouldn’t be too long, for we want to see what you can do within the limit of (at most) a substantially-sized lyric poem. 48 is a number that allows various kinds of stanzas to fit – six eight-line stanzas, for example, or eight six-line ones; twelve quatrains, perhaps, or 16 versets of terza rima (should you be so inclined). However, our limit does not mean that your poem should be 48 lines long, and will be penalized for failing to reach that length. Some entrants every year seem to be under that impression, and pad things out accordingly. Conversely, others take material which is clearly much too long, and contrive to turn it into exactly 48 lines of what is then effectively prose. So, our judges don’t take 48 as a magic number, and think less of a 47-line piece. Look through past winners, and you will see that much shorter poems have often done very well.
How should I approach the theme?
The judges will never have any “right” approach in mind, so there’s no need to waste your time trying to second-guess one. It’s fair to say, though, that the most obvious approach can sometimes be the trickiest to pull off, and it’s worth your while to think for a while about various possibilities that the theme might open for you.
Is there anything I should avoid?
All the answers to this are concerned with style, and not subject. So: try not to use clichés, look out for bad grammar, avoid too-obvious or clunky rhymes, and steer well clear of archaic English (“thou”, “thee’, “thine” etc. may make your poem sound like something written 200 years ago, but only as imitation: remember, good imitation is very difficult indeed, and anything else can look clumsy, or worse!) Try not to go too far in the other direction, either: stream-of-consciousness, like direct transcription of casual talk, is terribly hard to turn into poetry, no matter how “real” you feel it is. Try not to provide notes to help the judges understand: the judges have seen a thing or two in their time, and in any case the poem ought really to explain itself. As for pictures – well, unless you’re actually William Blake, these may do your poem more harm than good. Above all, please remember that the poem is judged on how well it does the thing it sets out to do, rather than on the merits of what is claims to be “about”: that means that style – careful writing, a sense of phrases and their rhythms, a feeling for sentences, a grasp of words as both simple and complicated things – is at a premium.
A last thought
From the English poet Edward Thomas, who wrote this in 1911, before he had written a single line of his wonderful poems:
“Anything, however small, may make a poem; nothing, however great, is certain to.”