The AVBOB Poetry Competition | Blog


Top tips for poets – a checklist before clicking send!    
Mon, 25 October 2021

Entering the final month of the fifth AVBOB Poetry Competition, poetry teacher and “wordshop” host, Dorian Haarhoff shares a perspective on grief and poetry that gives a valuable understanding of how words can heal the human psyche. 
Dorian points us to Ada Limon’s explanation of poetry “as a way of carrying grief… also a way of putting it somewhere so I don’t always have to heave it onto my back or in my body. The more I put grief in a poem, the more I am able to move freely through the world because I have named it, spoken it, and thrown it out into the sky.”
Poetry teaches us to weigh our words and hear their music and hidden meanings. As a form, poetry offers a way to express ourselves when we need to name our hardest truth and speak our darkest feelings.
Are you wondering, “What makes an excellent poem?” If so, you’re not alone. “While the AVBOB Poetry Competition is specifically aimed at elegiac poetry, these tips are relevant for poets writing any form of poem," explains Dorian, who has taught poetry countrywide for the last 30 years.
Read these 10 tips to improve your ability to throw your poems “out into the sky”. As you put the finishing touch to your poem, ask these questions before clicking send!
  1. Can you improve your title? Your title holds the poem together and points the way into the poem. Like an ant, a title is often very tiny but does a lot of work. Sometimes the title of the poem is a line in the poem. Look at your first line. Could you transpose that to the title and begin on the second line?
  1. Is your poem self-contained? Complete unto itself? Good poems don’t need outside explanations and foot notes. Poems should speak for themselves. Write so that readers gain an immediate grasp without puzzling over what the poem is about. Don’t leave the reader scratching their head. Aim for layers of meaning, where new understanding unfolds at second or third readings.
  1. Does your poem welcome readers into its space? Does it invite and embrace engagement? Be careful not to smother the reader, nor keep them at arm’s length. Find a balance between accessibility and opaqueness.
  1. Consider the poem’s energy. Does your reader lean in wanting to learn more? Or draw away, feeling scolded or manipulated? Avoiding telling readers what to think or how to behave. Address your topic in a way that encourages a person to rethink a point of view, or to ask new questions. The poem starts a conversation bigger than itself, a train of enquiry that lives on long after your poem has been set down.
  1. Is the reader working too hard? Strike a balance between the writer's work and reader's work. Be neither too cryptic nor too loose. A good poem asks us to look at something larger than ourselves. We become aware of development in ourselves, in the conversation and move into a bigger understanding of the world.
  1. Is your rhyme subtle? Musicality – how words blend, set each other off, or stand apart – influences the sonority of the poem. Do you have a sure rhythm, or are there lumpy syllables? Does the sound suit the sense you’re aiming for? Aim for a subtle rhyme that does not control the line artificially.
  1. How are you handling your subject? Don’t try to say a lot about a little. Narrow the scope of your focus for more power. Dig deep into the well and find the sharp thing that sparkles.
  1. Words, words, words! Allow yourself ambiguity, word play and economy of words, but never permit passenger words. Check whether each word is working to total effect! 
  1. Go thin on abstractions, but big on details. Avoid “grand ideas” like love, peace, or heartache. Stick to tangible details. Paint the exact colour of a leaf, the sheen on the butcher’s apron. Render the scent of your grandmother’s soup, the texture of the cricket ball in your first match. Describe tacky edges, dusty surfaces, slippery creatures. Convey the scents of camphor, petrol, Chappies, old shoes.
  1. How does your poem end? Have you achieved a sense of closure and completeness? Don’t be afraid to look higher up your poem for the conclusion. Beginners sometimes feel they must keep going. Perhaps the last two lines or your last verse add nothing? Give your endings special attention. Don’t be afraid to cut!
Write your first draft. Revise and rewrite your second and third drafts. Refine the fourth, and polish the fifth… Add some love and send your poems in!
The AVBOB Poetry Competition is accepting up to 10 poems in any of the 11 official languages of South Africa before 23:59 on 30 November. Read the rules and register at