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Words from competition judge Gillian Clarke

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.

I was recently called upon to respond briefly to a comparison between the poetry of Wilfred Owen and a new anthology of verse by soldiers and their families written today. Although I believe that we all have something to say, and that poetry is for everyone, I must admit the verse in the anthology was rarely close to being poetry.  Sincerity is not enough. Although the soldiers’ pain was real, not a line remained to sing in the mind. Owen’s words, read once, are unforgettable almost a century after he wrote them. He was to die days before the war ended, but it is not his tragedy that endures but his poetry. Like soldiers today, his experience of war was real and raw, but his rage, his pain, his pity and his love live in the voice of his poetry.

In a competition judge’s ‘yes’ pile are poems with that special quality, the poet’s ‘voice’. They ring true and the reader is at once convinced. It’s like taste, where sweet, savoury, salt or sour create an instant, physical response. You don’t have to be a poet to recognise it. Your mind knows it for the real thing, and will not let it go.


Gillian Clarke will judge this year’s Magma Poetry Competition 2012. She is National Poet of Wales and recipient of the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2010. She has published many poetry collections including Ice (Carcanet) which has been shortlisted for T S Eliot Prize this year.

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. What a lovely way to sum it up. It’s sometimes hard to talk about the difference between an emotional outpouring and poetry, without offending. But ‘sincerity is not enough’ – yes, that’s it.

  2. I think all Poets possess Oceans of Emotions and most have had vast life experiences from which to draw on,these both stimulate their imaginations and allow them to write.
    I was a judge at a recent ‘open mic’ night and watched, as I had been watched many times before, so trying to read between the lines and both see and feel the Poet’s message?…Sometimes not an easy job!…

  3. “Although I believe that we all have something to say, and that poetry is for everyone, I must admit the verse in the anthology was rarely close to being poetry.”

    Although I believe that poetry is for everyone, poetry isn’t for everyone — the plebs need to stop trying so hard and just accept they can’t do it!

    I cannot WAIT for attitudes like this to die off, I really can’t.

  4. Absolutely Gillian.
    Poems may begin as emotional release, therapy, relief etc. but without the consequent work, finding the right words and language they will not “sing”.
    What a poet does with the initial outpouring, however sincere, is a hard task, the “voice” may take months to reveal , or the pages may land up in the waste bin!

  5. There is the poem and the poem-for-the-self. The first is an autonomous object read, interpreted enjoyed by the reader – an object of interaction, an object of appreciation. The latter is a personal document – an object of interaction with the self.
    It is true that the poem and not the just the trigger to the poem that will survive. Whatever the thoughts, emotions, and insights that surfaced to become the poem, it is the poem itself that has to be recognised as such by the reader. It will acquire a life of its own; it will be read, re-read, unravelled, loved, hated by different readers at different times. It will be independent of the reader and writer.
    The poem-for-the-self is usually a personal, journal like document, and will remain thus. Sometimes however the poem-for-the-self will start acquiring autonomous qualities of its own and may be recognised by readers as a poem.
    Gillian’s three piles correspond to poems in the “yes” pile; to poems-for-the-self in the “no” pile; and the yet undetermined texts that are acquiring autonomy in the “maybe” pile.
    One should however not deprecate the poems-for-the-self. They serve a purpose – as an intimate record of thoughts and feeling, but also something that will make the author appreciate more the qualities of poem he/she is reading as a universal text. They could be, in the end, the first faltering steps towards a poem.

  6. Thanks Gillian,
    It is nice to know how judges think. I always imagined a “No” pile and hoped that if my poem was in it, at least it might be used to stoke a fire somewhere.

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