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How Long is a Piece of Poetic String?

How Long is a Piece of Poetic String?

Well it's another competition entry. I like entering competitions, even though they consume money, because there is usually the lure of prize money for the winners. So, although the Bridport Prize costs £9 per poem to enter, the draw of £5,000 for the winner, £1,000 for second place, and £500 for third is too much of a temptation to resist! The deadline for entries is the end of May 2016 so you can still enter if you get your skates on!

The judge this year is Patience Agbabi, who is a name I had heard of but whose poetry I'd not encountered before. So I started my research and found some of her poems that I really liked. The first website that Google retrieved for me was The Poetry Archive, and it has a recording of Patience reading The Doll's House, which is basically a 6 minute poem about a house made from sugar (oh boy, is that a house that a diabetic with a cake addiction could live in!) but the 6 minute length made me curious ...

I am often a short poem writer, with output fitting onto one side of A4 paper, and with stanza breaks and the title tend to clock in at about 30 to 40 lines of actual poem. But I always find the poems that I most want to enter into competitions frequently reside in the 50 to 100 line group. Very few competitions have maximum line limits of more than 40 lines. I'm quite curious why that is. Naturally if 500 poets enter 2 poems each and all are 100 lines long, then that is harder for the judges to whittle through, but it shouldn't be beyond their capabilities. There is an art in keeping a poem tight and not fanning out into a 100 line waffle, but I find longer poems can be highly engaging too. I appreciate when a poem stretches out so that it has a storyesque beginning and middle and end, rather than being squeezed down into just the most intense moments.

I was rather pleased when I counted the number of lines in my two preferred poems for Bridport, and found one clocking in at 41 lines and the other at 39 lines. The limit for Bridport is 42 lines not including the title or blank lines for stanza breaks. To me it felt like the 42 line limit gave a fraction more space for the poem, and I whole heartedly welcomed that. Another competition closing at the end of May is the Creative Future Literary Awards, Showcasing the work of marginalised & disabled writers, with this year's theme being "sea change". Unusually for a poetry category it has a maximum word count rather than a maximum line count, and at 200 words my initial thought was that might be longer than the 40 lines limit I usually have to work with; then I put on my mathematical head and figured out if a line has an average of 5 words, then 200 words equates to, drum-roll please, 40 lines. There is just no escaping it, is there!

I recently wanted to enter a competition that did have a 100 line per poem limit, and of course the one I was set on entering was 133 lines. I edited it right down to 110 lines by cutting out chunks of flesh that were important to the poem but which it could survive without. I couldn't find another 10 lines of pruning that I was happy with so I admitted defeat and decided not to enter. Sometimes you just have to accept that a poem is too big for a competition!

There is a beautiful, poetic, irony that the one discipline I loved during English A-level examinations was the art of precis, so I should relish the challenge of chopping limbs off poems, but I don't enjoy doing it. I can see myself in a future role as President of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Poems, I hope I can count on your support when the time comes.

#BridportPrize, #CreativeFutureLiteraryAwards, #PatienceAgbabi

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