Thursday, 1 January 2015


A happy new year!

It's that time of year when I change my prejudiced and highly-subjective list of 12 poetry books you must read.  They are selected from my reading over the last twelve months and all come highly recommended.  Two are shortlisted for the T S Eliot prize (the books by Michael Longley and Ruth Padel) - results 12 January.

Having compiled the list I find there is a slew towards the Celts (by birth or adoption) - four Welsh, 2 Irish, and 1 Scottish.  By contrast Lorna Goodison injects some much needed internationalism.

The pamphlet choice was difficult - I've read excellent pamphlets this year by Jim Carruth, Malcolm Carson, Zaffar Kunial and Blake Morrison.  Zaffar was a strong contender as he is a young poet just starting out, but in the end I decided I needed some humour in this somewhat serious list so it had to be Blake.  At the other end of the size scale my big omission was the fine translation of Dante's Divine Comedy by Clive James - but it would have unbalanced the list.  Now, having had my cake and eaten it, here are the crumbs that remain.

Eavan Boland (A Woman Without a Country) writes intelligent, tender, thoughtful, feminist poetry, and her syntax compels re-reading.  A book to celebrate the Irish poet's 70th birthday.

Thomas A Clarke is a walker's poet.  Yellow and Blue is like a good long day's walk.  It reveals it emotional impact when read at length, rather than in short hops.  Here is poetry to bring peace to the soul.

Menna Elfyn's Murmur is my translation choice.  She was the star of the Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women's Poetry at Grasmere last year.  I bought her book on the strength of her very moving poem "Oh father" and I was not disappointed.

"What is the rare quality that has gone out of poetry that these marvellous poems restore? Joy".  That's Derek Walcott's response to Lorna Goodison's Oracabessa.  Impossible to argue with him.

It's a special day when I discover a fine poet who was previously completely unknown to me.  Angela Leighton's Sea Level was a revelation.  An accomplished and original collection based on the theme of the sea.  If you liked Philip Gross's The Water Table you will enjoy this book too.

Michael Longley is a firm favourite of mine.  One of the Irish greats - I had to include his latest collection The Stairwell.

Patrick McGuinness has said in an interview that he only manages to write because of his long weekly commute between Caernarfon and Oxford.  Jilted City is an inventive and rather Sebaldian collection which includes a suite of railway poems and "translations" from a spoof Romanian poet.

Robert Minhinnick's New Selected Poems give a great sweep of this Welsh writer whose poetry is contemporary, wide-ranging, deeply-thought and full of brilliant imagery.

Blake Morrison's pamphlet This Poem shows that poets have a sense of humour.  It's a mini-satire on modern life.  "Call centre" should become a classic.

Ruth Padel's Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth gives the lie to Jeremy Paxman's criticism that poetry has "connived at its own irrelevance".  She writes of Muslims, Jews and Christians in the Middle East and about things that matter to our common humanity - life, death, conflict, music.

Sheenagh Pugh revels in her poetry being accessible (good for her!).  Short Days, Long Shadows shows her writing at her best.  Poems which are accessible at first reading but whose depth and craft is shown in subsequent re-readings.

Finally, Stephen Watts The Blue Bag.  Stephen was a friend of W G Sebald (I discovered his poetry via Austerlitz).  His work is lyrical, wide-ranging and like no one else's.  I particularly enjoy his audacious line breaks which work against the syntax like musical syncopation.

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