Recently, a friend asked me to comment on his collection.
Knowing that feedback was expected meant that the reading had a lot in common with the first of my many planned expeditions into the competition pile. I was looking for the gems, the treasures, the perfectly achieved. The deep notes too – those moments of unexpectedness which would make me want to read more of this particular writer’s work. Out of thirty-two of my friend’s impressively accomplished poems, I chose two.
Here are the things I liked, more or less in the order they came home to me.
Both poems inhabited the white space of their pages very pleasantly. My eye was relaxed by the immediate sense that here was a poet who had been absorbed in the craft of writing and for whom the tradition of form was something to uphold and celebrate.
At its most effective, form is an opportunity, not a straitjacket. Both my friend’s poems offered well-shaped quatrains and couplets as the provisional architecture for what they had to say. But both conveyed that the energy of the thought was all the time pushing against these constraints, and was more than would be contained for very long in these apparently simple bounds.
Both poems offered quietly meticulous observation of the physical. Things seen were realised in words which taken individually were for the most part entirely familiar – carefully selected, unpretentious, with that sense of ‘rightness’ which is close to but never quite the same as self-evident – but which in their sensitive combinations and sequence created fresh and surprising spaces for a reader to receive what the writer had to say.
A poem can be a new room for the imagination to inhabit, just as some paintings give us permission to step for a period of contemplation into another world.
There are no restrictions on what we might find in these gifted rooms. In my friend’s case, the two poems I chose were rather different in their offerings. One looked closely at a plant which was familiar to me. The other took me into a sound engineer’s studio which was unfamiliar territory. Reading the first, I felt that I was being given something I already knew, but had never seen quite so fully and vividly before. Reading the second, I felt enthralled to be taken into so unexpected an experience. Both poems fed my imagination, but in different ways.
But what made these poems stand apart was something that lifted them beyond their formal excellence, and beyond the skill with which each converted the world of the senses into words.
Both also conveyed, alongside the immediacy and tension of their specific moments, the poignancy of irrecoverable human time. The poems enacted what it is to be immersed in the world but unable to escape the awareness of its provisionality and transience. I cannot pinpoint how they did this without narrowing the usefulness of what I am trying to say. Poems have a huge number of ways to render compelling accounts of the moment while simultaneously speaking to us at the much deeper level where language has a tendency to fail.
These two poems in my friend’s collection achieved that. I look forward to many others taking me on that journey when I sit down on 28th August with the submissions pile. If you have poems which fit this description, you still have plenty of time to send them in .