Poetry cannot be hurried; it is no respecter of deadlines. Yet the quantity of poems published each year is daunting and asks for speed. Sometimes, I’ll pick up a volume by someone I’ve never heard of, open it at random and be rooted to the spot. At other times, a collection by a known poet will prove sealed as a dud mussel, and get cast aside. Inevitably, with only a dozen columns a year, there will be noteworthy collections that slip through the net. But poetry is not a competition; nothing is more personal, unpredictable and mysterious. For this reason, I am uneasy about the poetry prizes that make or consolidate names. Yet when one finds a poem that works, there is, however illusory the feeling might be, a certainty that has an acquisitive edge to it – like stumbling upon a pearl.
The inimitable Les Murray’s Waiting for the Past secures its future with poems that effortlessly mix the conversational and the lyrical. He sends himself up as an “old book troglodyte” with no ambition for an upgrade from his ancient typewriter, but there is not a trace of the has-been about his wry, subtle, matchless voice, and the miles between Australia and the UK vanish as you read. But Murray is something of a known hero, while Andrew McMillan – a poet I have not come across until now – is unfamiliar but refuses to be ignored. Physical is a collection of homoerotic poems that are febrile, tender and written with an unwavering apprehension of beauty. The last line of the first poem is a fleeting manifesto: ‘writing something down keeps it alive’. With love poems – as many of these are – this idea becomes an imperative.