For several years I’ve judged the poems entered in an international writing competition, and each year I’ve noticed similar mistakes spinning around the global theater. Since I’ve learned a lot from this recurring cycle of flaws and errors, I thought you might too, so here’s a list of things to avoid – not as you write in that first whirlwind of creativity, but as you stop to catch your breath, clear your head, and revise.
The Perfectly Imperfect Poem
Borders on the sentimental: Uses saccharine phrases or words like tears, heart, share, cry, and dear ole something or other. This category also includes excessive enthusiasm about a spring flower or other subject that might thrill a young tot.
Makes incredible statements: Often flatly stated, these lines sermonize, spout opinions as fact, make unsubstantiated claims, or come up with strange comparisons that do not hum true. Sometimes the poet goes beyond this in what might be an effort to appear wise but comes across as pseudo-wisdom or (such a lovely-sounding word) pomposity.
Gives unasked-for advice: Similar to sermonizing, this flaw takes on a bombastic tone or lays out guilt trips that drive people away. Venting, spewing, and biting may also occur.
Puts people down as a group rather than addressing that one lousy individual to whom the poem could be written: Everyone who’s politically correct knows you may not speak ill of women, other cultures, other races, and other religions, but male-bashing is equally offensive to most guys and some dolls. It’s also not okay to put down Christians and Christianity even though that’s presently the rage, whereas the one you actually want to rebuke might deserve a scathing poem or two. As for blasphemy in poetry, we'll give God the last word on that.
Uses punctuation like chicken pox: Maybe to be different, the poet omits all punctuation or omits it now and then with no consistent speckling. Sometimes lines get all scribbled up with commas, but for most poems, the communication value of plain, old, everyday, regular punctuation is actually considerate and rather hard to beat.
Uses fonts, colors, or patterns of paper that turn editorial eyes into disco balls: Some poets apparently think they must yell to get an editor or reader’s attention and, therefore, may also be inclined to use all caps. Ironically, such screams have the opposite effect, making readers clap hands only over ears.
Talks to self: For some reason, some poets seem to think a poem belongs in the genre of a diary or church confessional. This one-way conversation or out-pouring of emotions may lessen the likelihood of putrefication and, therefore, be healing for the poet, who may then be calling on readers to change a bandage or tend a wound. However, the job of a judge is merely to assesses the quality of a poem, not the mental state of the poet, who might aspire to being the next Sylvia Plath. This judge can, of course, pray for such persons, but then, maybe they already knew that.
And maybe you knew what I figured out: This list could go on and on too long, which, yes, has been the biggest problem with many poems. Let’s talk about that another time and compare notes on flaws we've noticed. Meanwhile, I need to get back to assessing my own poems and revise, revise, revise.
For a one-on-one assessment, consult, or critique of your poetry, chapbook, or book of poems, meet me on The Poetry Editor website http://www.thepoetryeditor.com.