The Keats-Shelley Blog

7 January 2021

Keats-Shelley Prize Inspiration: Matthew Sweeney’s Writing Advice to Young Romantics Advice for Young Poets - from Matthew Sweeney

Matthew Sweeney, who judged the Keats-Shelley Prize for almost 20 years, offered sage advice to new generations of young poets in 2018.

Unashamedly, I always throw a few quotes from Robert Frost at novice poets. For example, 'Poetry is a fresh look and a fresh listen'. In other words, it's important to strive for freshness, and try to say things in a new way, not in a hackneyed or cliched way that everyone knows already.

Here is Frost further on this: 'Cliches and jaded diction carry no insight because they freeze meaning, allowing the mind no new feats of association; an idea has to be a little new to be at all true, and if you say a thing three times it ceases to be so.' And then there is this - 'A poem is never a thought to begin with. It is at its best when it is a tantalising vagueness. It finds its thought and succeeds or it doesn't find it and comes to nothing'. In other words, in poetry the unconscious has arguably a greater part to play than the wilful steering of the conscious mind.

Another great dead American poet, Elizabeth Bishop, put the same thing another way, when she was complimented by the poet Frank Bidart on the closing lines of a poem - he recalled her response: 'She said that when she was writing it she hardly knew what she was writing, knew the words were right and (at that she lifted her arms as high, straight above her head as she could) felt ten feet tall.'

Matthew Sweeney

Matthew Sweeney was an award-winning poet from Lifford, Ireland. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, the London Review of Books. His collections include: A Dream of Maps (1981), Blue Shoes (1989), Cacti (1992), The Bridal Suite (1997), A Smell of Fish (2000), Selected Poems (2002), Black Moon (2007), The Night Post: A New Selection (2010), and Inquisition Lane (2015). He was a Poetry Judge of the Keats-Shelley Prize since 1999.

Everyone at the Keats-Shelley Memorial Assoication was deeply saddened by Matthew's death in August 2018. As well as being one of the finest poets of his generation, his contribution to the Keats-Shelley and Young Romantic Prizes was inestimable. Read our appreciation here