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.