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Not the T S Eliot Prize: our best poetry books of 2013

It’s that time of year again. The Christmas tree in your front living room has already begun to embrown and turn weepy, when the first of the ‘Best Poetry Books of Year’ lists begin to trickle in. Far be it from us to snub such an important tradition.

As hard as we tried to read every single poem published this year, we fell somewhat short of the mark. We’re no Roddy Lumsden. So, please accept this instead, a very partial and non-definitive list of our favourite poetry pickings, selected by the Poetry School team (me, Ollie, Julia and Sarah).

Without further ado…

Mayakovsky’s Revolver
by Matthew Dickman (W. W. Norton & Company)

A poet I’d not come across till I was introduced to him by a Poetry London cover story and a Poetry Society reading – and I fell completely for his poems’ chatty fever. ~ Julia

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by Heather Phillipson (Bloodaxe)

I loved this for the respect and reward it pays to the willing reader.  Each poem reveals some new mysterious cassette of thought, be it the cosmos rendered in mashed potato, rabbit roadkill or how German Phenomenology leads to nakedness.  Around these strange situations, Phillipson winds such delightfully idiosyncratic language replete with the most acute humour. A collection full of conspiratorial dare and thrill.  ~ Ollie

Red Doc>
by Anne Carson (Jonathan Cape)

Red Doc> is to Hellboy II: The Golden Army as Autobiography of Red is to Hellboy. Intelligent myth-mangling red skinned superheroes with sequels in poetic form – I couldn’t ask for much more. ~ Julia

by Matthew Francis (Faber & Faber)

So precision-made to appeal to my tastes that I hesitate to recommend this to anyone else. Muscovy explores a very English world of fantastic marvels, supported by a rotating cast of poltergeists, alchemists, Andrew Marvell in 17th century Russia, and a man who flies to the moon on a geese-driven sled. It’s a big stained glass window of a book, like Geoffery Hill’s cheerier cousin, without all the references to corn fields slopping with blood. ~ Will

by Hannah Lowe (Bloodaxe)

Not everyone’s dad is a Chinese Jamaican dice and cards player with a string of gambling nicknames, but everyone’s dad has his own mysteries, and that’s why the poems in this book resonate so cleanly. ~ Julia

God Loves You
by Kathryn Maris (Seren)

Maris’ engagement with biblical references and forms naturally leads her to deal with some of the prickliest of emotions: jealously, resentment and spite. The language used is piercingly sharp, and does an incredible job of reproducing our bitter internal monologues – I found her poems began merging with my own thoughts after an extended period of reading. Tight forms sometimes complement the tight language; ‘Darling, Would You Please Pick up those Books’ is a rare example of a genuinely powerful sestina. ~ Sarah

Murder Bear 
by W.N. Herbert (Donut)

Deliciously savaging poetry from the master of ‘and not or’, W.N Herbert.  At the end of this beautifully designed pamphlet, we are left to wonder who or what Murder Bear is and how we might beat him, only to remind ourselves ‘there really is no hope’. ~ Ollie

Dear Boy
by Emily Berry (Faber & Faber)

Explorations of power dynamics filtered through abusive doctors, biographers, fictional unwanted children, and ‘Sweet Arlene’. Rather than pilfering through folklore, Berry creates brand new fairy tales as perfect and wicked as the ones you already know, and tells them from a first person perspective. ~ Sarah

by Glyn Maxwell (Picador)

Probably the best single piece of writing I’ve read all year, underscored with Maxwell’s trademark springy music. This is everything poetry can and should be, touching on love, loss, memory, home, place, language, storytelling and myth. So all-encompassing, multi-faceted and accomplished it makes you want to break your pencil and give up. ~ Will

Twenty-Four Seven Blossom 
by Julia Bird (Salt)

A lively and entertaining collection from the Poetry School’s very own Julia Bird. I read this book at a zippy pace, relishing the rich, sometimes opulent, language and laughing far more often than most collections will grant their readers. Yet among the riot of animals there are more personal poems that bring an altogether deeper timbre. ~ Ollie

Coin Opera 2: Fulminaire’s Revenge
edited by Kirsten Irving & Jon Stone (Sidekick Books)

A lovely, nostalgic paean to video games new and old that will appeal to anyone who spent their childhood in their bedroom stomping on Goombas and suffering from ‘Tetris thumb’. Where else would I have learned that the orange ghost in Pac-Man is called Clyde? ~ Will

Beautiful Girls 
by Melissa Lee-Houghton (Penned In The Margins)

Melissa draws you back into the self-mythologizing world of teenage girls, and how refreshing it is that she portrays that world so sympathetically. All of these poems about mental illness, hospitalisation, and love for people who are even more troubled than herself are often disquieting, but written with a tremendous sense of affection and underlying optimism. ~ Sarah

Madness, Rack and Honey
by Mary Ruefle (Wave Books)

As funny as she is flighty and free-ranging, Ruefle has an uncanny knack for writing seriously about poetry with a warm, friendly discursiveness that’s effortless to read. Worth buying alone for ‘Lectures I Will Never Give’. ~ Will

Flying into the Bear
by Chrissy Williams (Happenstance)

This pamphlet covers subjects as diverse as the London riots and video game Robot Unicorn Attack, plus a few ursine poems, as you might expect. It’s a hugely enjoyable and overwhelmingly positive journey through a world depicted with a wonderful off-beat sensitivity and humour.  ~ Ollie

The Old Madness
by Kate White (Pighog)

A well-honed pamphlet by Kate White also deserves a mention for winning the first Poetry School / Pighog Poetry Pamphlet Competition. White is a poet of considerable craft and lightness of touch. The collection is a great introduction to her poetry – showing off a wry humour and a quiet exploration of the everyday coupled with a lyrical assurance that makes for a great read. ~ Ollie

That’s our list. Agree? Disagree? What were your favourites of 2013?

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Image credit: Kevin Dooley