Gardeners' World poetry competition 2012

Posted: Wednesday 4 July 2012
by Sarah Langan

I was a judge in last year’s Gardeners’ World poetry competition and I am really happy to be doing it again this year.

Notebooks and pencil

I was a judge in last year’s Gardeners’ World poetry competition and I am really happy to be doing it again this year. However, when I was asked to write something on ‘how to get started in poetry’, I felt a flicker of shame…

There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, I am one of life’s great procrastinators, as any of my former allotment neighbours may have noticed (there was a lot of planning and sitting involved.) I find it hard to get started on anything. 

I also confess that I have entered quite a few poetry competitions myself and never once got so much as a ‘commended.’

However, I have attended a fair few poetry workshops in my time, and had the pleasure of producing a series called Poetry Workshop for Radio 4, which is presented by Ruth Padel. (New series coming to a radio near you in the Autumn.) And I am lucky to work on other poetry programmes, including Poetry Please

Which leads me to my first tip, if you like. Open yourself up to poetry. I mean by that not only pouring yourself into your poetry (too much of that can be a very bad thing), but appreciating other poets’ work and seeking feedback on your own. This is not always easy to do. It can make you feel vulnerable, but other people’s support and criticism is invaluable.

Also, the image of the poet in the lonely garret is quite an appealing one, but great poets feed greedily on each other’s work.

So – read poems old and new, listen to poetry on Radio 4 at four thirty on a Sunday, read your poems aloud, and go to workshops. They are great places to test out your work. I once became obsessed with creating a particular image in a poem, but the more I tried to perfect it, the more distorted the rest of the poem was becoming. I needed a friend to point this out to me. I just couldn’t see it myself.

Be original in your choice of language. It’s easy to fall into cliché when talking about flowers. Are bluebells really ‘innocent’ for instance? If they are, I wonder which are the guilty and depraved plants.

A brief word on rhyme. I love a good rhyme but I find it difficult to do it well. I find that it can become such a preoccupation, that you can rhyme at the expense of the rest of the poem. Sometimes you can hear a rhyme coming a mile off and you just know that the rest of the words have been assembled to accommodate it, however inelegantly. If you find yourself (as I have) going through the alphabet to find the rhyming word, it might be worth asking yourself if the rhyme is serving the poem or the other way around. 

And if you think this is all modernist nonsense, this is what Milton said in 1674, “…Rhime being no necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or good Verse, in longer Works especially, but the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meeter; grac't indeed since by the use of some famous modern Poets, carried away by Custom, but much to thir own vexation, hindrance, and constraint to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse then else they would have exprest them.”

Finally, for inspiration why not have a look at last year’s winners. I still remember the expression about the couple who ’intimately ignored’ each other, and the richness of the compost poem. 

Happy digging.

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