Clare Pollard Offers feedback on poems in form

Many thanks to everyone who responded to my first call for poems!  Running an open trouble-shooting session gave me a great chance to see what areas young poets need help with, and has given me some ideas for the rest of my residency.

A few things which came up again and again:

Titles: A lot of poets seemed to be struggling with these. I know they can be hard, but I think titles are really important – they get a reader’s attention and give them a way in. For ideas, do check out Matthew Sweeney’s article.

Cliches: poets should always avoid well-used phrases like ‘old as the hills’ or ‘the time of my life’ or ‘at the end of the day…’  Poems should be in your own words. As Ezra Pound said: ‘Make it new’.

Old-fashioned language: similarly, just because you’re writing a poem, don’t feel you have to use ‘poetic’ language. Avoid old-fashioned words like ‘thou’ and twisting your grammar (‘be you not afraid’.) People want to read poems that sound authentic – speak in your own voice.

Redundancies: a common mistake is to say the same thing more than once. This can really clutter a poem. For example: ‘the garden was full of flowers and blooms’ or ‘I felt the dry, arid dust’. Dry and arid mean the same thing!

Form: Rhythm and rhyme seemed to particularly concern young poets. Which leads me onto…

This Week’s Writing Challenge

In poetry, ‘form’ refers to the rules poets set for themselves when they begin to write.  Should all the stanzas be the same length? Will there be a rhyme scheme? Will you keep to the iambic rhythm throughout? Sometimes these rules are eye-catching – such as making the poem the shape of angel’s wings – sometimes they are subtle, and only the poet may realise they are there. Poets like rules for all sorts of reasons – they may make a poem more memorable, more musical or more tightly controlled. Often poets find that imposing rules can push them into creating interesting lines they would never have otherwise thought of – they can push our thoughts in unexpected directions.

For this week’s troubleshooting session, I’d like you to send me poems that use form – whether you’re struggling with a sonnet or having hassle with your haiku, I’d like to help.

Not sure which form to pick? Why not choose a ballad?

If you don’t usually write in form and would like a go, you might want to try one of my favourite types of poem – the ballad.  It’s one of our oldest forms, and is very simple.  There are just two things you need to remember

1)      Ballads are narrative – they tell a story with a beginning, middle and end.

2)      Ballads are written in quatrains (4 line verses) in which the second and fourth lines rhyme (an ABCB rhyme scheme)

Traditionally ballads were often subversive, responding to politics and even being like newspapers in reporting on events of the day.  So you might write a ballad inspired by something in the news, or an issue you feel strongly about.

How to submit: all you have to do is email a poem which uses form of up to 25 lines to [email protected] (please only send one poem per person). Feel free to accompany it with any particular questions you have about form. 50 poets will receive private emailed feedback – the poems will not be posted online so you really can send the one that’s been frustrating you most! I will also be posting up general comments and tips which come from reading them as a group. This challenge has now closed, but of course you can still be inspired by Clare’s post, and send your poems to one of the competitions or submission opportunities in our Poetry Opportunities.

Clare Pollard’s Top 5

Here are my top 5 ballads to inspire you:

1) The Twa Corbies – my favourite traditional ballad, this is the chilling tale of two ravens deciding who to eat.

2) The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In 1798, Wordsworth and Coleridge published a radical book called Lyrical Ballads that aimed to show the literary importance of simple, folk forms. This ballad – a tale of a man cursed after he kills an albatross, is its most famous poem.

3) As I Walked Out One Evening by WH Auden – Ballads often begin with a narrator overhearing something (as in The Twa Corbies). Auden gives this a very different spin in this brilliant ballad.

4) The Ballad of Rudolph Reed by Gwendolyn Brooks –a shocking and powerful American ballad that tells a story about racism.

5) The Ballad of Chris and Ann’s Chip Bar by Luke Wright – Luke Wright is currently touring a show called Cynical Ballads that explores contemporary society through the form.

Clare Pollard at her computer

Clare Pollard’s first collection of poetry The Heavy-Petting Zoo (Bloodaxe, 1998) was written whilst she was still at school, and she has just published her fourth collection, Changeling (Bloodaxe, 2011), which is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. Her play The Weather (Faber, 2004) premiered at the Royal Court Theatre and her documentary for radio, ‘My Male Muse’, was a Radio 4 Pick of the year.  She recently co-edited the Bloodaxe anthology Voice Recognition: 21 poets for the 21st Century and is on the board of Magma poetry magazine.

Published June, 2011

4 thoughts on “Clare Pollard Offers feedback on poems in form

  1. it’s great to know I’m not the only one having some of the problems above! Might have a go at a ballad at some point 🙂

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