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Friday, March 2, 2012

Who wins poetry contests and why?

Before you enter a writing contest, you need to judge its quality before it judges yours. Last month poets, writers, and poetry judges talked about writing contests and what you should look for before entering one. In addition to that very helpful discussion, the article “The Perfectly Imperfect Poem” posted here a couple of years ago should help you to judge your poems for yourself before deciding which ones to enter in an upcoming competition.

That article listed a number of negatives to avoid, too, based on mistakes I kept seeing in the poems entered in the annual writing contest sponsored by Writers-Editors.com. To give you full disclosure, I’ve been one of the judges for that long-run competition for over ten years, and I recommend it to you for the same reasons I like being part of it: The contest is well-run, fair, and encouraging to poets and writers who write well. It’s also “blind,” so I do not know who entered what until winners have been decided prior to public announcements about six weeks after the March 15 deadline. If, however, I have critiqued a poem or seen an entry for any reason whatsoever, it will be totally disqualified.

But enough about negatives! Why does one poem place high in a judge’s eye? What positive qualities make one poem stand out over another?

If you watch American Idol every year as I do, you have most likely seen for yourself how a few performers inevitably stand out in a huge crowd of very, very talented people. Poetry writing is similar in that most poets have some measure of talent or they probably would not be drawn to writing poems in the first place. And, like the well-practiced voices of highly prized singers on American Idol, poets who stand out have typically read lots of poetry, written lots of poetry, found their unique voice, and remained open to suggestions about improving their work. Often, the poems of such poets show these outstanding traits:

• Honesty from the inside out – nothing fake

• Sense of something! humor, wisdom, or sensory data gathered from the senses

• Freshness – fresh language, crisp comparison, unusual perspective or insight

• Refrain – used as needed to add drama or accentuate an important thought

• Rhythm – not a monotonous beat but a rhythmic flow with musicality

• True to form – whether paragraphs to denote a prose poem or lines free of regularity in free verse or the consistent pattern of a traditional form from haiku to sonnet to villanelle

• Strong ending – that, like a good joke, saves the best “punch” for last


© 2012, Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved.



  1. Thank you so much for this article.It helped me very much.

  2. Good to know! Thanks for taking time to tell me.

  3. Unfortunately every poetry judge will have their own idea of perfection. Still, I enjoyed this post and I agree with all of your pointers, because even though the whole idea is creativity, we cannot abandon our sensibilities.

  4. For me, judging a poetry contest should be based on the literary quality of a poem and its ability to engage readers, rather than personal preferences on style, content, etc., but then I guess that's my idea of perfection :)

  5. It's a complex process as you outlined - I'm a novice poet, on my second semester of a poetry course, tho really a novelist at heart. In part I'm doing the class to get to know one of my characters in the novel who is a poet - it's been a really interesting process getting more of an insight into her through her work .
    But some of the things you noted could apply to a number of different writing forms. Perhaps not rhythm & refrain, but certainly freshness , a sense of something and a strong ending.
    Thanks so much for the post.