The Blog of John Hewitt

Don’t explain everything in your poem

Don’t treat poetry like prose

One of the key differences between poetry and prose is exposition. The nature of prose is expository. The prose writer tells a story. Generally speaking, the story progresses along logical lines as the reader discovers more and more about the subject and the plot. For this to happen, the writer must explain elements of the story so that the reader can follow the action and make sense of it all.

Poetry does not have to be expository. A poet can explain, but it isn’t necessary to the form. In many cases exposition can be a detriment. One of the beauties of poetry is that a poet can and should cut out everything that isn’t essential. The reader should bring their own experiences into a poem. The more a poet tries to explain, the less the reader has to think about. A little explanation can be good, but too much explanation can leave your poem lifeless.

Say enough to be clear

There is also a danger in saying too little. What starts as concise can become vague. There is a path that each poet must navigate between what should be cut and what must remain. It is a path that each poet must determine on their own. Some poets write as if they are telling stories, and others write as if they are painting an image. Neither is wrong.

Exposition should be necessary and interesting

When you edit your poetry, go through each line and ask yourself if it is both necessary and interesting. Is it a line that the reader will remember, or does it merely serve to move the reader into the next moment? If the line is not necessary or interesting, it should either be cut or rewritten.

Don’t try to control your reader

Don’t waste the time and effort of your reader and don’t try to control their experience. Say what you want to say, but don’t tell your reader what to think about your poem. Allow them to think what they want, even though their interpretation may differ from your intention. The poem is not the poet. Once created and brought into the world, the poem stands only on its own. Unlike a college text or a how-to article, a poem is not created to explain. It is created to involve. Allow the reader to determine their own involvement.

Developing your writing voice

Your writing voice will be influenced by others

Over the years, I have found many poets and writers I wanted to incorporate into my writing. Early on, I was a big fan of Lawrence Ferlinghetti.In college, I grew to admire Ai. I have been a big fan of Charles Bukowski for years and more recently I have been reading Tony Hoagland.

On the fiction side, I have moved through the influences of John Irving, Bret Easton Ellis, Anne Tyler, Walker Percy, Jim Thompson and W. Somerset Maugham to name a few.

As much as these people influence my writing, however, I don’t write like any of them. I can see some elements of each in my writing, a Ferlinghetti-like flight of fancy or a Percy-influenced malaise for example. Still, as my voice has developed (and it is still developing) I have learned to incorporate rather than emulate. While pieces of my writing may echo that of other writers, I have my own system of expression and my own style.

Developing a writing voice takes time and effort

There is no quick route to developing your own writing voice. The key is to keep writing. Write your way through the bad moments and the cheap emulations. Don’t make a conscious effort to write like someone else, no matter how much you admire their writing. Be honest with yourself. Whatever else you do, keep writing, and then write some more.

As you keep writing, you will grow more confident in your style. This isn’t a process that takes a day or a week. This is the process of a lifetime of writing. Your voice will evolve long after you have stopped worrying about developing your voice — if you keep writing.

Influences will become more subtle over time

Once you become comfortable with your writing voice, you won’t be as susceptible to outside influences. You can learn from a poet without copying that poet. You can add the best of other people’s influences to your style. There is value in reading and learning from great poets and great writers. Just as musicians incorporate new sounds and styles, so can poets and writers. Just remember that your voice is the influence that matters most.

Writing the Cinquain Form

Cinquain History

Cinquain is an American poetry form. Despite its French-sounding name it was created by an American, Adelaide Crapsey. Crapsey was influenced by Japanese haiku. He developed it to express brief thoughts. It also serves to make statements. Carl Sandburg and Louis Utermeyer popularized the form.

The form is not as popular as haiku, but it has been growing in popularity over the years. Teachers use it to introduce students to poetry. Cinquain poems are brief. They are ideal for beginners.

Cinquain Form

Most cinquain poems use a single, 22-syllable stanza, but sometimes stanzas are combined into longer works. A cinquain consists of five lines. The first line has two syllables. The second line has four syllables. The third line has six syllables. The fourth line has eight syllables. The final line ends with two syllables:






Line length is the only firm rule. There are other guidelines, as seen below, but no firm rules.

Cinquain Guidelines

  • Write in iambs. Iambs are two syllable groupings. The first syllable is unstressed. The second syllable is stressed. For Example: i DRANK she SMILED we TALKED i THOUGHT. For the last line of the poem both syllables should be stressed, NICE BAR.
  • Write about a noun. Cinquains are too brief to be about complex subjects. Pick something concrete.
  • Don’t try to make each line complete or a single thought. Each line should flow into the next. Otherwise, the poem will sound static.
  • Cinquains work best if you avoid adjectives and adverbs. Focus on nouns and verbs.
  • Build toward a climax. The last line should conclusion earlier thoughts. Often, the conclusion has a surprise or turn.

Here is one possible format:

Line 1: Title Noun.

Line 2: Description.

Line 3: Action.

Line 4: Feeling or Effect.

Line 5: Synonym of the initial noun.

I prefer to use the noun as a separate title. Others make it the first line.


Tucson Rain

The smell
Everyone moves
To the window to look
Work stops and people start talking
Rain came

Opening Game

Game time
Season looked good
National champions
We told ourselves as we sat down
Not now

New Bar

The street I went
To drink at the new bar
I drank she smiled we talked I thought
Nice bar

More Information

Avoiding Poetry Contest Scams

There are many legitimate poetry contests in the world. Unfortunately, there are probably more scams out there than there are legitimate contests. Poetry contests scams prey on people who want to see their names in print. There are so many people in the world who write poetry, and who want to see their poems published.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be published and recognized, but unfortunately the market for poetry is not very big. For every successful book of poetry, there are hundreds of successful novels. This doesn’t mean that you can’t find legitimate poetry publishers and contests, but it makes the task much harder.

Legitimate poetry contests are generally sponsored by newspapers, magazines and accredited schools (such as universities). They offer small prizes and frequently the opportunity to read your poetry at local gatherings or workshops. In a legitimate poetry contest, you will never be charged to be published, and generally you will receive at least one free copy of whatever the publication is that you appear in.

Here are some indicators that a contest is a scam:

Everyone’s a Winner!

Poetry contest scams often have a large number of “winners”. This is because they make money by publishing books of poetry that are bought almost exclusively by the “winners”. In other words, they publish you because they expect you to buy copies of the book. These books generally have thousands of poems in them so that they can charge as many people as possible. Besides the book, they may offer to put your poetry on a plaque, an audio CD or even a web site for a fee.

Big Prizes

Contests with unusually large prizes are very suspicious. If you can win a thousand dollars or more, chances are that you’ll be paying more money than you’ll be getting, often through…

Reading / Entry Fees

Many contests make money by charging you to enter or charging to “read” your poems. These are contests you should be very wary about entering. Contests that charge a fee are either funding the prizes with the fee (not great, but not terrible) or funding the prizes and pocketing the difference (worse). Legitimate poetry contests generally have small prizes and no fees. If you are going to enter a contest with a fee, understand what you are doing — paying to compete with other poets.

Travel Opportunities

While it is a great honor to be asked to read your poetry in front of a gathering of other poets, be careful if a contest selects you as a “winner” and then tries to sell you a trip to a poet’s or writer’s workshop/symposium. If it is going to cost you several hundred dollars to go, and they’re the ones you’re giving the money to, then you’re probably being scammed.


One of the classic scams is that you will be selected for special poetry writing classes. These scams tell you that your poem is very good, but that you could benefit from one of their teachers. There is nothing wrong with taking poetry classes, but it is wrong to disguise advertisements for classes as a legitimate poetry contest.

Avoiding The Scams

  1. Always research whatever organization is conducting a contest or offering to publish your poems.
  2. Think carefully and investigate before you agree to pay a fee to enter a contest or to have your poems published.
  3. Never agree to pay to have your winning poem published.
  4. Avoid contests that sound too good to be true.
  5. Get involved in the poetry community. The more you are involved in and understand the world of poetry, the less likely you’ll be taken in by the cons.

7 Ways to Be the Victim of a Poetry Contest Scam

The number of people who get ripped off by poetry contest scams every year is incredible. These scams predate the Internet by at least a hundred years. Here the ways you make yourself a victim.

Don’t do any research about the people holding the contest

Most contests that spend more than a little money on advertising are trying to make a profit. Most legitimate poetry contests have small prizes and a local focus. That doesn’t mean the one you found is bogus, but it is a good idea to check.

Join poetry contests that advertise big, big prizes

Do you actually think that lots of rich, nice people are looking to give away big prizes for a single poem? Does that make sense to you?

Expect your poem (first one you ever wrote) to win a big money

Sure, thousands of other poets probably entered, but your first effort will beat them all. That is a reasonable outcome, right?

Buy their stuff

Do you think that when you win a contest, you should have to pay for a commemorative plaque, buy the book your poem is in, or pay for a trip to a conference? If so, by all means fork over your money. Everybody deserves to win an out-of-pocket trip to Las Vegas or Miami.

Avoid becoming a part of the legitimate poetry community

People who are a part of the poetry community around them learn pretty quickly about what is and is not a legitimate opportunity.

Pay that reading fee 

The reading fee is a staple of how for-profit poetry contests work. If a contest offers a $10,000 prize and the reading fee is $10 a poem, they only have to find 1001 suckers, I mean contestants, to start making a profit. Of course, that is without all of the “runner ups” who pay for copies of the books their poems appear in.

If it sounds too good to be true then it MUST be true

If you want someone to take all of your money, make this your mantra.