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Alabama State Poetry Society
Poetry: Style & Substance


The point of free verse is not that it has thrown the traditional rules of poetry out of the window; it means that every poet who writes in this form must work to create his or her own rules. These rules are based on our personal thought patterns, our breath patterns, our sense of how the poem should look on the page, our deepest feelings about life itself.

Free verse grants us the freedom to find our own rhythm, our own heartbeat, rather than traditional rhymed-and-metered poetry, which insists that we follow the patterns laid down by others. Walt Whitman saw it as a perfect expression of democracy.

In free verse the line is very important. Lines can be long or short, or long and short in the same poem. What we must ask ourselves is whether or not the line looks and feels and sounds right. The form (or shape) of the poem that is coming into being as we write it is telling us to watch and listen to it.

So free verse offers no excuse for sloppy writing. In fact, it demands more of the poet, because he or she must question every word, test the shape and sound of every line, and be able to defend the choices made.

If you find it hard to break from traditional rhyme and meter (which can be deadly to some poems), write your poem as a paragraph of prose. Then go back and break it up into lines. Do several versions of the poem, one with long lines, one with short lines, and so forth, until the right (for you) shape of the poem begins to emerge.

As you do this, you will undoubtedly change things in the poem itself, adding words or descriptions, taking others out. When you fee that you can do no more - like a sculptor who can't cut deeper into the image without ruining it - your poem may be finished.

If you prefer writing free verse by imitating poets who do it best, Walt Whitman provides an inspiring model in his greatest poems. If Whitman's line is too long for you, read Robert Creeley, William Carlos Williams, Theodore Roethke, Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara, Sylvia Plath, Diane Wakoski, and Hilda Doolittle, among others. By reading these and other poets, you will begin to get a sense of what you want in your own free verse lines.

written a found poem? Well keep your eyes open for one: it could be a fragment from a grocery list, instructions for starting a new wristwatch, a section of synonyms from a thesaurus. You might look through the personal ads in your local newspaper and parse odd fragments together. Or try a foreign language phrase book. It is sometimes a matter of simply calling attention to the most ordinary fragments of language by shaping them into a poem. Abridge it if necessary, break what you use into lines that emphasize the musical nature of the language, and then give your poem a title. If the idea of a found poem delights you, do a series of them.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle thought a lot about beginnings, and he created the definition of a beginning as something that may not necessarily have something before it, but does definitely have something following it. He also had excellent insight into the nature of beginnings when he explained that a small error at the beginning of something could produce or cause huge distortions in what may follow.

So remember Aristotle when polishing the first line of a new poem . . . and avoid distortions!

     by permission of John Ottley, past owner/editor Midwest Poetry Review
  1. Contest judging is not a scientific process. It is highly subjective. No poetry judge can deal in absolutes of good and bad. Every poem entered competes with every other one, but none of them may be outstanding (or awful). The judge tries to select the best of the lot according to his or her lights.
  2. Don't take the results personally. If you don't win, it doesn't mean you're not good. You may not have touched one of the judge's hot buttons. If you win, it doesn't mean you're a god of the craft.
  3. Read the guidelines carefully. If the maximum allowable line count is 40, don't shoot yourself in the foot by submitting a 42 liner because it is "too great to cut." It will be thrown out automatically! Change some line breaks if you must. If the theme is music, don't send in one about cars.
  4. Learn from the results. If you don't win, read your entries carefully aloud to yourself. What images can be made more graphic? What words can be eliminated? Have you repeated words inadvertently? Have you interrupted your poem's flow with needless philosophical inserts or afterthoughts? Have you made your point more than once? Did you stop at the end or go on and on with new ideas that should have become a separate poem? Did you start before the real beginning with unnecessary introduction or trying to "set up" your reader? If any of these apply, make corrections, and try again.
  5. See the contest in perspective. Win or lose, it isn't the end of the world. In fact, it may be the beginning.
  6. Develop a thick(er) skin. The judge isn't judging you or your vision. It's your craft that's under scrutiny.
  7. Send several entries, but all to the point. The first three may not tickle the judge's fancy, but the fourth (or 13th) might. This isn't pandering. It's realizing that the judge is human - even as you are.
  8. Make the deadline. Procrastination means disqualification. It may be some Freudian way to avoid losing, but, if you're that chicken, why make the effort in the first place?
  9. Realize your entries are making it more of a horse race. Within reason, the more entries, the better the judge's verdict. Make the rascal work for it, and he or she will come up with a better decision. It will mean even more to you if you win or place.
  10. Understand that your entries support the credibility of your poetry society. A contest with too few entries makes it look as if something fishy is going on or that we don't deserve respect.
  11. Be sure your spelling and grammar are perfect. This is the big league. You won't even be allowed on the field with errors in these two areas.
  12. If the rules ask for your name on only one copy, don't put it on both. You'll be tossed out in the first round of reading.
Always use a font (type) that is legible and can be scanned without errors. When in doubt use 11 or 12 point Times New Roman (found in most computers). Do NOT use fancy type (handwriting or fancy fonts, all italics, all caps, etc.). Single space poetry. Contest judges are always favorably influenced by professional-appearing manuscripts. "Typos" in poems in print are usually the result of the poet using type that cannot be correctly read by a scanner. This is the electronic age: there's no going back . . .

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