Contests : War Poetry Contest : Advice
Please note the War Poetry Contest was discontinued after 2011. We present this page for its general value to poets.
Each year we receive many poems with striking images and compelling stories that nonetheless don't make it to the final round.
I want to see these poems maximize their potential. Since it's not possible for me to correspond personally with everyone,
I hope the advice below will be the next best thing. Following these principles will improve your chances with our contest
and also with other magazines and contests. I've tried to highlight the most common problems.
TOPIC AND VIEWPOINT
Subtlety wins points with us, and probably with most of the quality contests you'll enter.
The more straightforward and simple your message, the harder you must work to make the language fresh and give real
individuality to the characters and scenes. Poems about such perennial topics as the loss of a loved one in war,
the suffering of innocent civilians, or the heroism of soldiers absolutely must rise above generalities. Your English teacher was right: Show, don't tell.
Avoid ideological oversimplification ("we are good/they are evil" or vice versa).
This defeats the purpose of our contest, which is to encourage reflection about a complex and important human problem that defies easy solutions.
Poems about specific events tend to work better than poems about war in the abstract.
Anecdotes and period details add originality and help the reader make a personal connection with the poem's world.
Emotional complexity makes a poem more genuine. A poem that only expresses one emotion,
such as praise for fallen heroes or disdain for war-mongering leaders,
may not shed as much light on the human condition as a poem that shows the interplay of conflicting impulses (within a single person or a society).
STRUCTURE AND STYLE
We have no stylistic bias against formal poetry, experimental poetry, or any other aesthetic.
Though free-verse narratives have dominated past winners' lists, this primarily results from the mix of work we receive each year.
Because this contest has a theme, certain experimental poems may be at a slight disadvantage to the
extent that one cannot tell whether they are "about" war. The formal poems we've received often suffer
from archaic language or an overly sentimental message, which is why we haven't published more of them.
Aside from those cautions, we welcome all styles.
Longer poems, to succeed, must maintain consistent quality throughout.
Shorter poems, while they may be more tightly constructed, must have enough heft to compete against the longer sagas.
The ideal poem seizes one's interest right away, has something substantial to say, and gets there without flagging.
It could be half a page, or five pages.
Stick the dismount. An ending that falls flat can knock a poem from contention.
It's like a song that stops in the middle of a musical phrase, instead of ending on a chord that
resolves the melody. On the other hand, an ending that's too obvious is like the drum-roll after a bad joke -
it tries too hard and insults the reader's intelligence. The most powerful endings add a new dimension to what has gone before,
giving readers the sense that they've reached the end of the journey. Where were you trying to take the reader?
Did you get there? The ending should leave no doubt about why the poem was written.
IMAGERY AND WORD CHOICE
Images that should be used sparingly: Certain phrases and metaphors tend to recur frequently in the poems we receive.
While it's possible to use them in a new and interesting way,
too often they are a substitute for reaching for a more original image that would have a greater impact on the reader.
Be alert for journalistic and rhetorical clichés when writing war poetry,
and ask yourself whether there's a fresher image that could express your meaning.
The following phrases and images have become hard to use effectively:
Dogs of war
Winds of war
Fog of war
Dove of peace
Word made flesh
Stock images of American political parties (e.g. fat-cat Republicans)
Common political catchphrases (e.g. "no blood for oil")
Boys playing with war toys (either as ironic/nostalgic contrast to real war, or as criticism of war-making politicians)
Avoid ethnic slurs, even if the soldiers in your poem would actually have spoken that way about the enemy.
(This occurs most often in poems about WWII and Vietnam.) We've never seen this enhance a poem.
Exclamation points should be used very sparingly.
Your imagery and content should be doing most of the work to build intensity; don't use punctuation as a crutch.
Also, resist the temptation to tack on an obvious concluding line that spells out the message for anyone who didn't understand the rest of the poem.
CONTEST ETIQUETTE AND FORMATTING
Please don't put your names on poems when the contest asks for entries to be submitted anonymously.
That rule is meant to improve the fairness of the judging. Many contests will simply discard improperly formatted entries,
without notifying you or returning your fee. We don't do that, but it takes us time to cover up the names and the entry looks less professional.
Please don't include illustrations, clip art, drawings, photos, borders, or titles in fancy fonts.
Loud formatting makes us concerned that you don't think your poem can stand on its own.
Please don't submit more poems than your entry fee covers. The limit for the War Poetry Contest is three poems per contestant.
Please spell-check your entries or, if you don't use a computer, ask a friend to proofread for spelling and grammar.
Watch out for common mix-ups such as it's/its, desert/dessert, pour/pore.
Please don't write to the judge to ask "why didn't I win?"
I wish I could give individualized feedback on entries that didn't make the cut,
since we get so many poems with great potential, but it's just not practical.
(If you do have comments or questions, please be nice.)
Read the winning entries at the links below and compare them to your style of writing.
Seek feedback from more experienced writers or teachers who have read a lot of poetry,
and consider revising your poem for next year's contest.
This contest is competitive, the distinctions between poems can be fine,
and the judging process is necessarily somewhat subjective, so don't be discouraged if you didn't place highly this time.
Please notify us promptly if your poem is accepted elsewhere. After our first year in 2002, we decided to require that War Poetry Contest entries be previously unpublished, in order to advance the contest's goal of encouraging new reflections on this important theme. However, because of our long response time, we do not impose a no-simultaneous-submissions rule. The reciprocal courtesy we ask from our contestants is to notify us as soon as a pending entry in the War Poetry Contest is accepted for publication elsewhere. Even if the deadline has passed, we may be open to substitutions. Please do not wait to withdraw your poems until we contact you as a potential winner.
Please don't resubmit poems or sections of poems that have already won a prize in our contest,
even if you've revised them. Also, if I have given you feedback on a poem, you shouldn't submit
(or resubmit) it to our contest because that is unfair to the other entrants who have not corresponded with the judge.
However, feel free to resubmit other entries that didn't win last year, particularly if you've revised them.
A mix of old and new poems is usually a better strategy than resubmitting an identical set from last year's contest.
SUGGESTED READINGS IN WAR POETRY
See Henry Reed's "Naming of Parts" and Wilfred Owen's "Greater Love". The former is a masterpiece of irony and understatement; the latter is heartbreaking like a Puccini opera. Owen (biography, war poems) and Siegfried Sassoon are two leading poetic chroniclers of the horrors of World War I. For more contemporary work, see the poetry and stories of Israeli author Elisha Porat.
For work in a contemporary style, Mark Levine's book Enola Gay is an amazing, surreal meditation on the apocalypse that we are now capable of bringing on ourselves. Levine is also an example of someone with an excellent poetic ear, who understands the sounds of the English language so well that his free verse has the inexorable rhythm of formal poetry. Though not a war poet per se, Richard Hugo also shares this quality, and for that reason is one of my favorite poets. He has an extraordinary ability to capture the feel of a place. His poems are collected in Making Certain It Goes On.
War, Literature & the Arts, sponsored by the English Department of the US Air Force Academy, publishes such notable poets as Richard Wilbur and Carolyn Forché.
Click here for additional war poetry resources.
Click here to read winning poems from past War Poetry Contests with comments from the judges.