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Not the T S Eliots: our poetry books of 2014

Looking back over 2014, it’s not just the weather that’s been unexpectedly fine – it’s been a vintage year for poetry.

Once again, we present our annual round-up of our favourite poetry books. Last year, we only managed to notch up 15 recommendations; this year we have hand-foraged a whopping 23 poetic pabulums for you. Perhaps we’re simply reading more, our reading diets more varied, or our tolerance levels for mass poetry binges greater?

The rules for selection are simple: any Poetry School staff can recommend as many books as they have the time or care to. We also try to avoid books already short-listed for the big prizes (but if we’re really passionate about something we’ll include it). This is not simply to be awkward or contrarian – you will find many wonderful books on the T S Eliot, Costa or Forward lists – but it allows for a broader overview of the gargantuan amount of creative work that gets published in any one year.

This is not a definitive list by any means, more of a lovingly assembled poetry mix-tape, as subjective, wonky and capricious as our individual tastes. You probably won’t like everything here, but there will be at least one undiscovered gem that you’ll love.

Our Xmas gift to you all…



OD = Ollie Dawson / JBrd = Julia Bird / WB = Will Barrett / JBdn = Jo Brandon



An Aviary of Small Birds
by Karen McCarthy Woolf (Carcanet)

An unflinching debut from Poetry School student and tutor Karen McCarthy Woolf. The subject of this book – the stillbirth of the poet’s son – is such a personally inhabited experience that I wasn’t sure that I’d be emotionally up to reading this collection. Instead I am left in awe of how McCarthy Woolf has controlled her subject through language and form – in the service of letting the reader in. OD

There Shall Be No More Nonsense
by Lorraine Mariner (Picador)

We’re running a Poetry School class at the moment on comic poetry, I recommend students check out this collection. Clear, funny and devastating, the book is every character Emma Thompson has ever played made poetry – infinitesimal gestures with deadly effects. This, from a poem about a clothes horse – ‘If visitors do come / it can be folded flat / and put out of sight’. The poem is called ‘Love’. JBrd

Pirate Music
by Miriam Gamble (Bloodaxe)

This is very close to being my favourite poetry book of the year, something I thought would distinguish me as being oh-so-terribly different from everyone else, but I’ve already been gazumped by at least three other reviewers who’ve put this on their end-of-year lists. While a selfish part of me is always sad when a secret classic gets out, I’m also very glad that Gamble is finally getting more recognition. She writes beautifully, and – when required – can swear right up there with all the plumbers and bricklayers of Lambeth North. WB

Opera Di Cera
by Kelley Swain (Valley Press)

A wonderfully macabre verse drama about the alchemy of art, science and dubious morals needed to create a perfect anatomical waxwork model in 18th Century Florence. JBdn

The On All Things Said Moratorium
by Marianne Morris (Enitharmon)

Morris’ first proper collection, bringing together around 10 years of work previously published by various clandestine indie presses. Here are poems that move fast and break things, drunk with the performativity of language as they are with academic smarts, a fierce and restless spirit of resistance guiding us through extreme realities. Poems like ‘Little Song War’ and ‘How It Is’ are surely destined to be future classics. If you find a lot of contemporary poetry conservative and reactionary these days, quick! – start here. WB

by Jen Hadfield (Picador)

Why this book has been ignored by the major prizes is quite perplexing. For a collection so lexically adventurous and formally experimental it nevertheless roots itself in nature and place, conjuring an eco-poetics that was both unexpected and (I thought) radical. I was struck by how Hadfield’s language dances through different registers of scale in her imagery – from moor and cliff to Lilliputians and lichen. It made me, the city-dwelling organism, think about the ground I was walking on, the air I was breathing. OD

Bright Travellers
by Fiona Benson (Cape)

A very moving first collection that left me reflecting on the many beginnings and endings that can flicker through a lifetime. JBdn

The Rottweiler’s Guide to the Dog Owner 
by S J Fowler (Eyewear)

I won’t pretend that I understood much of this, and part of me feels like it should contain a label warning users not to operate heavy machinery or sit with pregnant women after reading. It will alter you, make you interrogate why anyone reads poetry at all, which is a little distressing but ultimately a good thing (I think). Some of the poems can be ludic and downright obscure, but there’s also a pleasing levity and self-deprecation to much of it. A surprising amount is – for all its fragmentation and literary sport – warm, funny and sympathetic. Ultimately, Fowler does the best thing a poet can do – he leaves the question open. In this case, he blows the door off. WB

Pepper Seed
by Malika Booker (Peepal Tree)

I’ve been listening to Booker read and following her projects for years (I have strong memories of being given an egg to look after throughout the whole length of her one woman live lit show Unplanned in 2007) and have been longing to see her first book come out. The wait was worth it – the historical, political and autobiographical concerns of Pepper Seed are entirely stimulating and her mix of controlled and loose language is inspiring. JBrd

by Nasser Hussain (Burning Eye)

Not the cricketer. The first page contains an important instruction to the reader: meant to be read aloud, preferably very loudly. In fact, everything about this book is loud, from the unapologetic delight in wordplay and nonsense, to its gonzo oom-pah approach to sound and rhythm, featuring surprising dissonances and angular twists worthy of a 1950s Blue Note session player. WB

The Cartographer Maps a Way to Zion
by Kei Miller (Carcanet)

What else can I say that hasn’t already been said? A delight, start to finish. WB

by Damian Smyth (Templar)

‘That’s the past – there are no survivors’.  I discovered this buried at the bottom of a teetering book pile labelled simply ‘O’erflow O’ Ireland’ at the Osterley Bookshop in West London. Rather fitting for a book that excavates so deeply from our ever-haunted historical present. Mesopotamia flits back and forth between Ancient Egypt, Victorian Ireland, the Troubles, and present day Killyleagh, making remarkable turns of phrase and quantum leaps between (a dissected mummy transforms into an innocent woman slain in a street battle; a girl drowned in a car accident sticks like a starfish pressed against the windshield), with home, resettlement, exile and violence – particularly recent conflict in the Middle East – all abiding themes. And that’s just scratching the surface of this massive, soaring piece of work. WB

If I lay on my back I saw nothing but naked women
by Jacqueline Saphra (The Emma Press)

I loved this highly original sequence of prose poems that captures the surreal otherworldliness of a child’s understanding of the complex and sometimes incomprehensible lives adults lead. Saphra has a magpie’s eye for nesting strange and beautiful detail. JBdn



Protest of the Physical
by Andrew McMillan (Red Squirrel)

McMillan’s third pamphlet has a throbbing vitality that interweaves Barnsley, Thom Gunn and a chorus of graffiti into a surprising and beautifully sustained poetry sequence. JBdn

Captain Love and the Five Joaquins
by John Clegg (The Emma Press)

Where this sprung from I have no idea – it establishes its own genre, the imaginary Western narrative poetry pamphlet script. Poor Captain Love is a nineteenth century bounty hunter with a bandit’s head pickled in a jar, and no good can ever come of that situation. A great pamphlet is like an Elizabethan miniature. This then perhaps is an imaginary Western narrative poetry pamphlet script Elizabethan miniature. JBrd

Rivers Wanted
Rachel Piercey (The Emma Press)

An exciting pamphlet that covers an unexpected variety of subjects including afternoon tea with author Eva Ibbotson, what to do with the emotion-laden paraphelia of past relationships and decoding the sensibilities of your teenage self. JBdn

The New Cockaigne
by Catherine Smith (Frogmore Press)

A 21st century Jonathan Swift does Gargantua and Pantagruel. With added dildos. WB

by Ruth Wiggins (The Emma Press)

Ruth Wiggins’s debut pamphlet is full of superbly crafted poems garlanded with generous sprigs of eroticism and humour. To read Myrtle is to be in mischievous yet open-hearted company. OD

by Ira Lightman (Like This Press)

At the Durham launch of Butcher’s Dog #4, I had the pleasure of seeing Ira Lightman read about the adventures of Skelelittle while dressed in a full-body skeleton costume, tumbling poem-to-poem in one bounding breath. He may also have been dancing – witnesses who attended the event disagree on the matter. Ira Lightman is a 6ft-plus adult man. WB



Soon Every House Will Have One
by Holly Hopkins (Smith Doorstop)

Holly worked with us briefly when we were short of staff, and was as clever and lovely as you might expect. I never got to read any of her poems when she with us, always wondering what they were like. Well, it turns out she writes (a) brilliantly (b) with teeth. Julia Bird went so far as to call this pamphlet “vicious”. Not every poem draws blood, but some of the most exciting poems wield their stingers proudly, unafraid to confront issues such as housing, class, labour or gender equality. Funny, rich, dissident and caustic. WB

Best Friends Forever
edited by Amy Key (The Emma Press)

Bad form to list an anthology in which one is included, sorry about that … but this Emma Press (!) compendium of poems – newly commissioned and existing – about female friendship is wonderfully conceived and carried out, dozens of writers tenderly articulating the whole experience from slumber party to hospice watch. I’ve bought lots of copies already, and am busy pressing them into the hands of my own BFFs, harrumphing bashfully and running away. JBrd

Carry this with you at all times 
Philip Pollecoff (Smiths Knoll) 

In the interests of full disclosure, Philip Pollecoff was for the last four years Chair of the Trustees at the Poetry School and therefore also my boss. Indeed Philip still remains very much involved in the Poetry School as a trustee. As with Wiggins’ Myrtle we have here a short collection that represents many years of poetic endeavour, offering a panorama that is appealing in the compact pamphlet format.  The poems offer up to readers moments from childhood, teenage years, young adulthood and middle age with a style both irreverent and poignant. There’s a strong vein of wry O’Hara-esque humour running throughout the collection as the poet tackles subjects ranging from Jewish identity, adoption and fatherhood, to love, lust and death with eccentric exuberance but above all else with admirable honesty. (Smiths Knoll have since closed so please email [email protected] if you’d like to buy a copy). OD



Smith: A Reader’s Guide to the Poetry of Michael Donaghy
by Don Paterson (Picador)



Like the list? What have your favourite poetry books of the year been? Leave your suggestions in the Comments section below!


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