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Not the T S Eliots 2015: our best poetry books of the year

So here it is, our reasonably eagerly-awaited end of year list, a miscellany of the most thumbed, borrowed and coffee-splotted poetry books and pamphlets lying around the Poetry School offices.

In many ways, it’s been a remarkable year: Radio 4 whole day takeover of Andrew Marr’s epic radio documentary on British poetry; Daljit Nagra’s appointment as Radio 4’s first ever poet in residence; both Andrew McMillan winning the Guardian First Book Award, and Sarah Howe winning the Sunday Times Young Writer Award – great achievements for poets on their first collections. There has certainly been a feeling that poetry is not being elbowed into its corner quite so much, and its popular appeal and relevance given real acknowledgement.

Much like our 2013 and 2014 lists, this selection is by no means definitive, although contrary to previous years, I’d like to observe that this year (quite by accident) our selections have fallen a bit more flush with the major prize lists and general tastemakers. Perhaps this is a sign of the big poetry publishers upping their game? Or a concerted effort by judging panels to be genuinely inclusive? Who knows? All we know is that we have enjoyed reading the work and reminding ourselves of the continued importance of contemporary poetry, and the pleasure it gives to all of us.

So, without any more ado…



Chosen by Julia Bird (JB), Will Barrett (WB), John Canfield (JC)



Citizen by Claudia Rankine (Penguin)

Not just important, but humane, eloquent, ambitious, and brilliantly composed. Rankine’s achievement: it’s not enough to ‘know’ about racial inequality – an argument understood is not an argument won, we must ‘feel’ it, sensitise ourselves to it, and only then can we begin to understand how far racism reaches, often gradually, invisibly, hidden in plain sight and the slow violence of everyday routines. Rankine does this to visceral effect. WB



Loop of Jade by Sarah Howe (Chatto & Windus)

I missed several stops on the tube once because of these poems. They’re engrossing, beautifully crafted, linguistically delicious. They move about time and place effortlessly taking us with them with every step. Each one is watermarked with an enviable level of intelligence, wit and craft. They’re moving and powerful, playful and witty, they look great and they sound even better. Just in case I haven’t made it clear, I really like these poems. JC



Three Dragon Day by David Tait (smith | doorstop)

Many of the poems in this pamphlet are set against the backdrop of China’s escalating air pollution crisis. Thankfully, there is nothing muggy about Tait’s verse style, which has tremendous clarity and a novelist’s eye for place and character details; Tait’s powers of observation cut deftly through the descending clouds of fog. WB



Over the Line edited by Chrissy Williams & Tom Humberstone (Sidekick Books)

The Poetry School ran one of Chrissy’s comics and poetry workshop a while back, so we feel a bit proud and proprietorial of this magnificent anthology of hybridised poetry and graphic art. This book is a dip in an extremely fast moving stream – we’re watching the UK version of the art form develop before our very eyes like a bottle of ink sloshed across a slim volume. JB


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The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop – edited by Nate Marshall, Kevin Coval and Quraysh Ali Lansana (Haymarket Books)

This has blown apart my preconceptions of both what hip-hop culture is and can be, but also poetry itself – and I would highly recommend it to fans of either. Funny and serious at the same time, and a big musical whomp in the face of ‘more of the same’. Imagine Missy and T S Eliot/t going head to head in a freestyle rap battle. That. WB



Speculatrix by Chris McCabe (Penned in the Margins)

Speculatrix: she that spies or watches, a (female) spy, watcher, the epigraph to the book’s main sequence tells us, and McCabe makes us all spies as we watch the characters of Jacobean tragedies colliding with modern day London, a London that seems harsh, dangerous or at best indifferent, full of money and debt and plague. Elsewhere, we watch London on fire from the riots, or hear it wheezing and linger under darkened viaducts. It’s bold, woozy and thrilling. We watch from the shadows, but are dragged in and made to confront our complicity. JC



Beauty/Beauty by Rebecca Perry (Bloodaxe)

I went to the launch of this debut collection back in January, and knew then that it would be one of my books of the year. If this book were a blind date, you’d be delighted to know that you’d been fixed up with a person so handsome, kind and clever. JB



The Art of Falling by Kim Moore (Seren)

It’s impossible to talk about this book without drawing attention to the central sequence, the moving and powerful ‘How I Abandoned My Body To His Keeping’, but cleverly it is the central sequence, and the sections either side of it contain a range poems covering numerous different worlds and subjects and perspectives, so by the end I felt like I’d read three books. The consistent thing throughout them is, of course, Kim Moore’s voice: she’s our guide through these worlds, to these people, these places these experiences, showing them to us non-judgmentally, vividly, compassionately and always imaginatively. We may be falling through them, but like the cover images, we’re being instructed how to do so in an expertly controlled, poised and confident way. JC



The Flower and the Frozen Sea by Michelle O’Sullivan (Gallery Press)

Those twilight hours when the sun is either rising or setting are my favourite. So how could I resist this book of quietly smouldering nature lyrics exploring our first and last hours? And if you listen really carefully, in the background: the ripple of an old pond, a jumping frog, and just there – a splash. WB



MAP: Poems After William Smith’s Geological Map of 1815 edited Michael McKimm (Worple Press)

Poems inspired by a nineteenth century geological map of the UK. Who knew my knowledge of slate, shale and schist was so limited? I read this book and got educated. JB



Physical by Andrew McMillan (Cape)

Physical has achieved that neat and infuriating trick of appearing to be timelessly classical, whilst being utterly contemporary at the same time. It’s not just that it deals with familiar, universal themes of love, friendship and of course, the physical, but it vividly places them in an utterly recognisable world with a voice that is unintimidatingly conversational. JC



Human Work by Sean Borodale (Cape)

I feel most at peace in a kitchen (familial hazard – my mother is a cookery writer and food stylist). I not only cook and eat in kitchens, I work in kitchens, write, read, draw, even do pilates. It is my all-in-one laboratory, office cum gymnasium. Finding this – a book that practically comes with the cooking smells and gravy stains baked in – felt like fate. Warning: these poems will leave you feeling hungry. WB



Fly Sings by Mat Osmond (Strandline Books)

A late entrant on my book of the year list – this one won the illustrated pamphlet category at the Michael Marks awards in November. Poor Fly, with his three legs and his tattered wings, is a distant relative of both Ant and Bee and Archie the Cockroach dragging himself through a part earthly, part lunar landscape in search of communion with his friend (or possibly alter ego) Hare. JB



All the Ways You Still Remind Me of the Moon by Liane Strauss (Paekakariki)

Mary Ruefle contends that the moon appears even more than the sun in lyric poetry. I’m inclined to agree – as poets, the moon is our capital, its values the source of poetry itself: mutability, passivity, illusion, secrecy, sorrow and contrast. In Liane Strauss’ long sequence of mostly formal poems – a literal act of lunacy – the moon is made over again and again with fresh, contemporary perspective: old tropes are dusted off and replenished with invention and glinting wit. It’s definitely the most beautiful book I’ve bought all year, letterpress printing interspersed with nine ravishing plate etchings on black stock paper describing the phases of the moon (courtesy of the marvellous Paekakariki Press). WB



Sunspots by Simon Barraclough (Penned in the Margins)

From the moon to the sun… After ventriloquising the planets of our solar system in his last book, Neptune Blue, Simon Barraclough turns his attention to our neighbourhood star. He does so with his typical blend of wit, style and charm, blending heightened and everyday language, with nods to Shakespeare (in particular Richard II), Byron, Van Gogh, Proust, Berryman as well as the modern language of film review hyperbole, and scientific vernacular along the way. But also, he has crafted a unique and individual voice throughout, created the character of the sun as confident, funny, neurotic, jealous, rueful, angry, powerful and vulnerable. Everything under the sun, in fact. JC



Disinformation by Frances Leviston (Picador)

There are poems here that are so jaw-droppingly good – like ‘Pyramid’ and its unforgettable closing image, rainy city skyline as champagne-drinking cartoon skeleton — that I’ve been reading them on a loop, unable to exhaust all possible enjoyment out them. This is profound work, and I feel like I’m only beginning. WB



Alive Alive-O by Greta Stoddart (Bloodaxe)

I don’t even own a copy of this – I just borrowed a friend’s – but it’s got some cracking 40something death-fear poems in, and I should get myself my own copy to keep under my pillow really. Her poem about staying alive (alive-o) in order to oversee a pot-plant blooming made me gasp. JB



Where We’re Going, We Don’t Need Roads by Amy Acre (Flipped Eye)

Love, Art, Work, Insomnia, Aliens, Dancing, Regret, Passion, told of with the linguistic and verbal control and gymnastic thrill of an acrobat. I feel dizzy. In a really good way. JC



Berowne’s Book by UA Fanthorpe (Enitharmon)

A re-discovered classic and a fantastic slice of history from the apprentice years of one of our great writers. Berowne’s Book was in originally written in 1974 when – in her 40s – U A Fanthorpe dropped out of professional teaching and found a temporary job at a psychiatric hospital. There, she composed her earliest mature poems, many about patients and doctors, all with the scalpel-sharp intellect of her later years. Many of these poems have been published before, it’s the first time they’ve been presented together.

(Side note: Enitharmon have published many wonderful books this year, so I’d also like to tip my hat heavily to Marine by Alan Jenkins & John Kinsella, but also Jerusalem Deleted by Simon Jarvis, Selected Poems by Jack Clemo, The Orchid Boat by Lee Harwood, Letters Against the Firmament by Sean Bonney, Derelict Air by Ed Dorn.) WB



New Poetries VI edited by Michael Schmidt and Helen Tookey (Carcanet)

There aren’t many publishers who are quite as good as picking out the literary stars of tomorrow as Carcanet. This is probably their most generous volume yet in the New Poetries series. I don’t want to name names as genuinely each poet is as good as the last, although I thank them for having the gumption to include Nic Aubray. It is a lavish Variety Pack of deeply intelligent, intensely literary poetry, without a disappointing box of All Bran to be seen. WB



Deep Lane by Mark Doty (Cape)

Not a left-field choice for our list – this one has been picked up by many of the top table taste makers too – but I’m a Doty fan, so how could I resist the singing stag’s head, the open window rebirth and the dog with the champagne plume tail? As the man himself said, there’s no such thing as too many sequins. JB



Twelve Stations by Tomasz Rózycki (Zephyr Press)

Rózycki’s Colonies is probably one of my favourite books of poetry in the last 10 years, and I really connected with the penetrating things it had to say about history, empire, landscape, the way the past lovingly nibbles into the present, eroding its foundations away. Sharing many of the same themes, but pre-dating Colonies, this is a vast book, a mock-epic in twelve long poems featuring a cast of hundreds, mostly set around Opole, a city in southwestern Poland, and I’m still contemplating its vivid, earthly feats. WB


Agree? Disagree? What would make your list? Please let us know by recommending your top poetry picks of 2015 in the comments below.




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Image credit: Kevin Dooley