The post will soon bring me a fat package of poems, long promised, the programme of reading and judging them marked in my diary in advance. Every poem will carry its author’s hope of success, every page a glimpse of someone’s life, mind, imagination. Similar packages have been arriving all year, as poetry competitions follow no season. Now it is Magma’s turn. I hope, as I always do, that I am about to discover the most beautiful poem in the English-speaking world.
I will read the poems in the shortening days, light fading as it does this November afternoon until I must switch on the light to continue. As always, the poems will drift into three piles on the table: Yes, No, and Maybe. The ‘No’s form by far the biggest pile. ‘Maybe’ makes the medium pile. A quiet ‘maybe’ can sometimes move at subsequent readings to the ‘yes’ pile, and even win. A ‘no’ never wins. In the ‘yes’ pile, smallest of all, every poem rings true and sings with a distinct voice. Any one of them might win. The ‘no’ category is the easiest to decide. Something in the language from the very first line fails to convince, the use of a cliché, an archaism, a false note, an over-elaboration, an abstraction, is the instant decider. It is often clear that this is the first poem the author has ever written. Sometimes, possessed by powerful emotion, the writer imagines that is enough. However sad the autobiography or passionate the love, a poem without the music and truth of a real poet’s voice is strangely un-moving. It is not its author’s pain or passion that moves us, but the language that carries it, the cadence. We are moved by the way language itself moves.