Books of the year: poetry
Celebrating a year of fine collections
Poetry book of the year
Penguin Modern Poets Vol 1 and 2
Penguin £7.99 each
Two small, sorbet-coloured paperbacks were the most exciting thing in poetry this year. Reviving the 1960s Penguin Modern Poets series with panache, they united new and established voices from Britain and North America in electric pocketfuls. A different trio of poets every three months will soon build to a library of all stripes. Watch out in January for volume 3, featuring Warsan Shire, whose poems were heard on Beyoncé’s album Lemonade.
The 2016 Nobel prize in Literature went to Bob Dylan, who once saw “Ezra Pound and TS Eliot / Fighting in the captain’s tower”. I hope he will spend some of his winnings on The Poems of Basil Bunting (Faber £30), which have been patiently and splendidly edited by Don Share. Bunting made Eliot and Pound’s modernism sing with a north of England accent. His restless life (fisherman, diplomat in Iran, RAF officer, local journalist) left him on the literary margins until his 1966 masterpiece, Briggflatts. Anyone ever hooked by its perfectly pitched rural music (“fellside bleat, /hide-and-seek peewit”) will find a feast of interest in Share’s notes.
Bunting said he wrote Briggflatts to teach a young man how to compose a long poem. That young man, who turned 70 this year, was Tom Pickard, one of our finest lyric poets. Pickard’s latest collection, Winter Migrants (Carcanet £9.99), is a masterclass in the art of finding a tune in a landscape: “A wren /perched on a hawthorn / low enough to skip / the scalping winds, /sang a scalpel song.”
The classics professor and Canadian original Anne Carson recently said: “If prose is a house, poetry is a man on fire running quite fast through it.” Float (Cape £16.99), a lucky-dip of loose pamphlets in verse and prose, cheerfully fans the experimental flames. Try her mini-essay, Merry Christmas from Hegel, as an antidote to “the icy horror of holiday”.
Luke Kennard is a young English writer who has made the darkly funny prose poem his calling card. His fifth and best collection yet, Cain (Penned in the Margins £12.99), dreams in high-definition of a box set about obsession and anagrams.
A small imprint, Tuskar Rock scored a hit with its first poetry title. I Must Be Living Twice (£14.99), Eileen Myles’s new and selected poems, showcased a New Yorker who has been reeling off fresh and irreverent verse since the 1970s. “Nothing’s / As fetching as the raw”, she quips. The result is writing as alive with wit and vulgarity as a Lower East Side street market.
It was a vintage year for verse in translation. James Womack’s Vladimir Mayakovsky (Carcanet £9.99) was a wonderfully sharp Englishing of the wild Russian poet. Connoisseurs of classical love poetry should seek out A Monkey at the Window (Bloodaxe £12), Sarah Maguire and Mark Ford’s selection from Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi, a Sudanese poet living in exile in London (“At night you will see tears / seep from a ringed star”).
Four books had the distinction of being shortlisted for the Forward and TS Eliot prizes this year: Ian Duhig’s The Blind Road-Maker (Picador £9.99), Alice Oswald’s Falling Awake (Cape £10), Vahni Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation (Carcanet £9.99) and Denise Riley’s Say Something Back (Picador £9.99). I didn’t review the latter two because I know the poets. But let me say now, they are modern classics.