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6th July 2017

Poems are objects made of words: Poetry Object Judge Mark Tredinnick on what he wants to see in this year's competition

By Mark Tredinnick

Image: Poetry Object 2017 Judge Mark Tredinnick at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney (Christopher Phillips) 


Objects have a poetry in them—and poems are objects made of words.


There is a life in something old and cherished or special to you or your family in some way, a world of memories, a lyric you have to listen close to hear, a personality, a soul made of everything the thing has meant. The inner life of the object, the poetry implicit in it: that’s what I’d like your poem to catch. 


Red Room Poetry Object is a poetry writing competition inviting young writers and their teachers from across Australia and New Zealand to submit poems about 'talismanic' objects that are special to them. It is open to students in grades 3-10 and their teachers. Register now »


And a poem is the perfect form to divine and speak forth the poetry inherent of the thing.  A poetic engagement with an object makes it, as Nabokov says, a transparent thing, carrying the past into the present. Why is a poem so good for saying the inner world of things, of objects, in particular? A poem is an object, too: more than any piece of prose, a poem has a shape, has a form. Like a sculpture, it is a made thing, whose shape on the page and in the air when you say it, says half of what it says. Carrying the past into the present, putting the almost unsayable into words.

A poem is a sculpture of voice and story and song. Like an object, a well-made poem, says a lot more than it seems to. And it says it in how it sounds as much as what it says, in its play of sense and syntax and suggestion and voice; in the same way, an object says much more than it seems on the surface; it carries in its belly, the way the poem carries in its cadence, other worlds and other times and other lives than these. 

If you’ve seen one pen, or watch or medal or coin or pair of boots or vase or stick-pin or diary… you have not seen them all. That’s what your poem should aim to catch and sing: in its uniqueness, in the care you take to say your poem fresh, you’ll wake your readers to the worlds inside the curio or treasure; you’ll wake the object to your readers and yourself.

Poetry, Jane Hirshfield has said, begins in language awake to its connections. In a good poem, the language is rich and original and trim and shapely. Sometimes you let the words that want to come, and the images that arise, more than you follow the thought. When a poem’s words are well chosen (when you want the ones that want to choose you, choose you), it seems much bigger than it is: it’s a leaf that tells a tree, a plate that tells a dinner party. A song that sings an era. 

I’m looking, as I always look, for poems whose language—in their speech music, in their rhythms, is their turns of sassy phrase, in their fresh-minted metaphors and striking imagery—seems alive to a world beyond merely what the language means. A poem, in its language world, should imply a wider world—of affection, story, tragedy, loss, continuity, mystery. 

A poem divines whatever it deals with: it brings out what is hidden; it translates into memorable speech what the object—the artifact, the curio, the trinket, the trophy, whatever—contains, the memories embedded in it. It speaks for the inner life as well as the outer life of things. I don’t know exactly how one does divination, but I know it’s poetry’s work, and I know that contemplation and care with words and refusal to see things in conventional ways is most of it. 

Aim, then, to make a poem that does justice to the uniqueness of what you’re contemplating in the uniqueness of the language and form you use. Aim to make a poem that affects a reader in something like the same way the object affects you. 

Write the poem that only you can write about a thing that only you feel close to. Resist clichés. Coin your metaphors fresh; don’t borrow them. If your language sounds commonplace, or if it parrots jargon you hear others speak, or if it sounds more like another writer, stop and start again. On the other hand, read some poems and notice how fresh and unique—how like the kind of object you’re writing about—good poems feel. Notice that they say things the way they haven’t been said before. 

Don’t worry about rhyme, though you can rhyme if you want to. Rhyme is only one of the musical aspects of a good poem. But do sound your poem out to test how right and trim, how much like a small mob of cattle perfectly arranged in the dusk, your poem sounds. And give it a form, a shape on the page, that does justice to the shape of the object. Maybe not a shape that imitates the object. But a shape of lines at least as capable of holding a poem’s sense and speech music as the object is capable of holding its secrets and stories.  

Mark Tredinnick is a judge for Poetry Object 2017.

Mark is a celebrated poet, essayist, and writing teacher. This year, Mark is also on the judging panels for the Montreal Prize and the Blake Prize. Read more »