Winning with 50 Lines

A poem is an art form dense with energy.

At least,  it ought to be.  The Torbay organisers  allow poems up to 50 lines, which for a competition is quite long .  The opportunities offered by this generous length are huge.  The problem is how to maintain such a poem’s essential  tension and focus across so many lines.

I have already committed myself  in these pages to the principle that the winning Torbay poems can be written on any subject, adopt any approach and express themselves in any style.  I also did a page on William Blake’s The Sick Rose whose 8 lines could clearly walk away with a First prize.  A winning poem can be any length within the remit of the rules.  But is long more difficult to bring to prize-winning readiness?  I suspect it might be. 

It goes without saying that any winning poem will rivet the reader’s attention from first to last.  After a certain point, more of the same, however well written, will not be enough.  So as well as finding a compelling subject, the author of a long piece has to do something deeper, wider and more entrancing than he or she would need to do in a poem of 12 or 20 lines. As soon as a poem takes proper hold of us, of course, we stop minding how long or short it is.  But if you are considering your submissions, or currently writing to submit, here are a few suggestions, warnings and ideas.

One way to capture attention is through the device of storytelling –  to make us ask the unfailingly effective question what happens next ?  and then to hold us spellbound while we find out. A good story well told is one of the most satisfying of verbal forms – perhaps THE most satisfying, across cultures, genres, time.  50 lines of writing is enough to tell almost any story well.  There are fascinating discussions to be had about HOW to storytell effectively in limited space, but this page has no space to embark on that. Frivolously, dear competitors, a judge is also human.  It would be no bad thing to delight and relax him or her with the diversion of a good story now and then.

Another way to hold attention is to choose a subject so intrinsically intriguing to the writer that the reader becomes convinced  that no amount of lines would ever be enough.  Intriguing does not mean exotic.  The simplest subject observed with the passion and patience of a John Clare or a Francis Ponge can leave you feeling that 50 lines (or their prose poem equivalent) scarcely opens the door to what can be said. ( I immediately realise that before the closing date we ought to to consider some of the problems of entering a prose poem to a poetry competition so hopefully watch this space!) Whether the subject is already familiar to the reader or not, it is essential that he or she feels drawn into a previously  not fully known and fascinating place.  A mollusc and snails are  familiar but who ever observed a mollusc or a snail like Francis Ponge? 

A third way is to use the competition’s generosity of length to create a new world, a new space for the imagination where  the reader can surrender to new magic as he or she would to the set in a darkened theatre. Nothing has to ‘happen’ for the enchantment to be complete. And by ‘enchantment’, of course, I don’t mean the enchantment of fairytale, but the enchantment of being wholly convinced for the duration of the poem by the reality of a world that isn’t there. Allen Ginsberg’s poem about going round a supermarket with Walt Whitman which my workshop poets met on a recent Writing Day is a poem of this enchanting kind.  So is Derek Mahon’s poem A Disused Shed in County Wexford which Michael Longley once called one of the best Irish poems ever. ( Though it  would have to drop a verse to enter for Torbay. ) So is Kubla Khan,  judging by its capacity to endure. So is Eliot’s Journey of the Magi which could come in with seven lines to spare.

I decided that four suggestions for achieving competition success with a longer poem would be quite enough.  The fourth is to use the Forty Ways to Look at a Blackbird template – turning the prism of your chosen subject this way and that so that each small and perfectly formed view also adds to the richness and complex vision of the whole.  Five ten-line pieces. Ten five-line pieces. Twenty five couplets. Sixteen tercets….and so on.  This choice seems to me to  require that however many units you use to create your multi-faceted poem, in a competition as opposed to in a collection, that number must absolutely seem to be enough. A competition poem needs to satisfy as a finished artefact.  It leads nowhere. The reader mustn’t feel either that thirty one ways to look at a blackbird would have been quite enough.  Or that the blackbird is wretched  without another seventeen.

To temper that, of course, hungering for a poem to continue beyond its given end is one sign of the writer’s success and skill, so that last thought needs to be hedged about with the opposing argument  that a poem which offers twenty five takes on something and leaves you wanting more and more and more has worked its magic and done its proper work….. 

On the next page, I will visit the current edition of the  Forward Poems of the Decade and consider five longish poems which might have ended up on a 50 line limit competition shortlist ( I wish …I wish …) and commit myself, as forthcoming Torbay Judge,  to saying why.