For an idea of the range of poetry competitions that one can enter, see Carole Baldock's regular bulletin Kudos. You will notice that many of the Kudos listings are calling for poems with particular specifications -- a theme or subject, perhaps ("Journeys", "But what am I?", "Found", "A sense of place"), or a form (sonnet, villanelle, pantoum) -- which means, often, that they call for new work written to order.
I've not won many prizes. But in the mid-1990s I began to see a pattern emerging. Poems I wrote for thematic or formal competitions didn't get anywhere in the competitions that called them into being -- but they did seem to have the edge on my other poems when it came to finding later publication elsewhere.
In November 2004, I put that perception to a statistical test. I counted all the poems in my card index (yes, a card index -- some parts of my life remain unwired) and found an astonishingly clear confirmation of what I had sensed. The percentage of published poems that were written for competitions was higher than the percentage of competition poems in the index as a whole. And the percentage of competition poems that achieved publication was higher than the percentage of published poems in the index as a whole.
Since then, my output has been very largely competition-driven, with an average of a dozen new poems a year. But the optimism of 2004 has been impossible to sustain. In the 2004 count, the proportion of competition poems that had achieved publication was 50%. I could not pretend that the dozen new poems a year were yielding half a dozen publications a year.
A more recent count, with the addition of the post-2004 poems making the thing larger and so, presumably, more statistically reliable, gives no encouragement to pretence. Both of the ratios that were so gratifying in 2004 are now reversed. Indeed, despite the concentration on competition poems, the publication rate has not risen.
It's a sobering set of figures, comparable to those one gets when following a weight-reduction programme. Or those I got from the experiment of blurtmetry after a while. I may blog about that some day.
I expect I'll carry on entering poetry competitions. Their themes get me thinking, and reading, in new directions. Clare has sometimes observed that the competitions I enjoy best are those that I can approach as a kind of mini research project. But the biggest rationale for this practice, the evidence that it leads to more publishable poems, has gone.
Anyone else out there had a similar experience?
Oh, and another consolation has been to organise poetry competitions at work. I've done that twice now, and they've called up better poems than anything I could have written myself. It's great to know that I've been involved in that process in some way.