I identified an open poetry competition (that I will not name here) that allows for rankings and feedback by the contributing writers. It is largely American (more on that later), and my expectation is that many of the contributors will not be formal judges of competitions and will not be creative writing, language, or literature professors.
I then submitted two different styles of competition entries: one more formal in a classical or quasi-classical manner, and one more modern in form but still with lyrical overtones. Each 'style' included poems with different approaches, such as in person and subject-matter. I assume fairly even writing competence across the material.
Now, before defining Part 2 of my experiment, I attempt some rudimentary analysis of my initial impressions.
1. The 'classical' and 'modern' samples both averaged out with similar rankings, but they varied in how they got there. Whereas the 'modern' was consistently rated on the low side of average, the 'classical' achieved individual scores at the extremes - some people rated these forms very highly, others very poorly. The comments reveal that the choice of style was a clear factor in these ranking decisions. There are several references to the 'classical' as being a surprising mode of expression, with many positive notes from that. On the other side of the coin, the following comment stands out as a summary of several of the negative views: "If you were not rhyming you could have found a more honest and genuine way to express something." As far as the 'modern' is concerned, the most negative aspects are perhaps characterised in this comment: "I thought it all too modern for my liking ... the many modern poems that remain are not to my taste."
It might be tempting to deduce from this that a better-executed classical entry might catch the eye of those who like the form while winning over some of the doubters. However, the highest-ranked work in the competition tended largely to be a style that I did not touch in my entries: I would classify it broadly as the modern non-lyrical. Much of the winning poetry appears, in terms of bare syntax, to be largely grammatically standard prose that has been formatted to have the visual form of poetry. This syntactic view ignores other significant elements of prosody, such as choice of vocabulary, but the pattern is so prevalent that it is worth noting. A comment on my own 'modern' entry highlights how the dominant style is somehow seen as the default: "in one of the poems you choose not to capitalize the beginning of each line. This lets me know that you understand to use proper grammar."
2. In both samples, person was important in achieving positive feedback. Poems written as 'I' gained a much more sympathetic hearing in both 'classical' and 'modern' mode. Conversely, the reaction to work that utilised the second-person 'you' was comparatively defensive, and the material was open to being perceived as "condescending" in a way that did not seem to arise for similar subject-matter in the first and third person. Clearly, 'you' was uncomfortable for readers, over and above the other elements of style.
3. Alongside the preference for first-person statements, there was a clear leaning in comments on both the 'classical' and 'modern' samples towards subject-matter that could be categorised as personal history. Subject-matter that could be described as 'outside world descriptive' was less keenly welcomed. The worst rankings and feedback were reserved for subject-matter that could be viewed as political or philosophical. One comment, "This is not really a poem. It's opinion", acts as limited evidence that this ranking of subject-matter is a conscious choice for some. (One exception to this observation seems to be the military-patriotic theme, which sometimes appears high up in the overall rankings.)
In terms of the subject-matter in relation to the style, there was a clear and voiced difficulty in accepting contemporary themes and vocabulary when presented within a poem written in a classical style. The readers on these occasions seemed to prefer the subject-matter and style to come as a package: modern style for contemporary themes, with classical style accepted for feelings and attitudes placed somehow outside a time frame.
4. Beyond the limited scope of this initial analysis, some other areas jump out as being ripe for exploration. Winning entries clearly exhibited, within their sentence syntax, the use of more complex vocabulary, particularly in the choice of adjectives, as well as frequent use of a number of fairly standard literary devices, such as simile. This is not surprising, maybe, but is certainly open to deeper analysis.
In summary, I can make three tentative conclusions about the ways in which I might improve my overall ranking in this particular forum for competitive poetry:
- the use of an adjective-rich prose style that excludes rhyme and metre
- a preference for first person over third person, avoiding second person altogether
- the use of personal and specific family and relationship events, avoiding 'world themes'
Having come to this point, I now face a more existential question. Namely, is this what I want to write? My preference tends to be for writing that I can read in my mind as a performance. This often means rhythms and word-play, with things that don't achieve this being scrapped or restructured. On top of that, I recently picked up a pamphlet of contemporary British poetry, which at first glance is very different from the winners in this (possibly not entirely representative) American competition. The British poems contain more shorter lines that 'bend' grammatical correctness, more 'outside world descriptive' subject-matter, and a stronger rhythmic presence. So now I face a decision on Part 2 of my experiment.
The choices, as I see them, are to:
a. Change my style of writing, to pursue a technical exercise in creating a 'winning poem'.
b. Strengthen my existing style of writing to try to achieve a break-through in that voice, despite feedback comments that suggest that it's the style that is the problem.
c. Change the audience, and experiment in a British competition using the material recently rejected in the American competition (or maybe just in a different American competition).
I will ponder. One day, maybe I'll let you know what I decide.