For language-lovers, it might seem odd to focus on getting rid of words – but in this challenge celebrating the short poem, that’s exactly what we want you to do…
Of course, we love poems that flower and flow across many stanzas, pages, even filling whole books. But there’s something about the brilliantly executed short poem – punching out from a page’s white space – that really makes us sit up and pay attention. Concision, precision, a hyper-awareness of what word goes where, and why, when the line should be broken – these are all hallmarks of a skillful poem, and definitely a welcome antidote to the reams of blether and bluster that can often seem to clog up our airways and newsprint. The Imagists knew what they were talking about when they launched their battle cry against ‘flabby’ language – we want you to channel that kind of spirit!
For this challenge, we’re asking you to write a poem in ten lines or less (sorry, sonnet-lovers – those are out). You don’t have to write within any prescribed poetic form (although you’re very welcome to), but you do have to stick to the ten line limit (titles and stanza breaks not included).
The New Zealand-born author Katherine Mansfield, talking about her writing process, said “I feel as fastidious as though I wrote with acid”. That sounds dramatic, but we’d like you to have a go at injecting a bit of that figurative acid into your own pen, honing your poem until you’ve expressed exactly what you want to say in the fewest lines possible. Have a look at our below tips and examples to help you write your own pared-down poem.
- Don’t aim at the 10-line limit in your very first draft. Write your poem, and then start the editing process. You might even want to work on editing a poem you’ve already written for this challenge, rather than writing something from scratch. Once you have your draft, start to think about what you can lose. Which word isn’t 100% necessary? Is there a metaphor that uses a few too many words to pack a real punch? Vicky Hozaifeh’s ‘By Patrick Darren Connelly’ plays with the idea of not wanting (or in fact, being able) to say too much, creating a quiet poem that’s much greater than the sum of its parts.
- Experiment with losing your first two or your last two lines. If you’re dithering about where to cut, it can help to do one drastic chop and see what the result is. You don’t have to take those changes into the final version of your poem, but lopping off a few seemingly integral lines can help you to appreciate what’s really needed, and how a poem’s intensity might be increased by some canny cutting.
- Don’t think that a short poem necessarily means simple content (although that’s fine, of course). That’s the exciting, infuriating challenge of the short poem – can you say something really big, profound and important in just a few short lines? Of course you can, and in fact, an imposed limit often means you’ll be expressing your ideas with more power and impact than if you give yourself pages and pages to write in. Have a look at W.H Auden’s ‘Epitaph on a Tyrant’ – Auden conjures up for his reader not just the towering, menace of one individual, but a sense of whole era of tyranny, and its legacy for those who lived under it – a remarkable feat in just six lines. Listen to Gwendolyn Brooks’ reading her poem ‘We Real Cool’. There are just 24 words in this poem, but its masterful syncopation and chilling final line make it unforgettable.
- Form and structure. When you have only a short space to get your idea across, structure – the architecture of the poem on the page – is obviously significant. Ten lines might not feel like much room to play with, but there are countless ways in which you can experiment with the space you do have. You might want to write a very dense poem, with long, run-on lines. Alternatively, you might experiment with stripping back the structure as well as the words themselves, dislocating your lines to create a sparse, disjointed piece of writing. You might want to try writing within a specific form – trialling haiku if you haven’t before, or testing your powers of rhyme and rhythm with a triolet, or a cinquain.
A few more examples of brilliant ten-line-or-less poems:
We want to be challenged, impressed and staggered by short poems which punch well above their weight – whatever their subject or style. Get writing, and good luck!
Winning poets will have their poems published on the Young Poets Network and receive an exclusive Young Poets Network notebook, as well as other assorted poetry goodies.
How to Enter
This challenge is now closed. Follow the links on the side of the page to read the winning poems.