Books of the Year 2012: Poetry

From art to sport, poetry to nature, travel to food, history to music: our writers select the best of the year’s books in a comprehensive guide to the highlights in every shade of the literary spectrum – except grey

This has been a year of "big books", the Selected and Collected editions that define the work of leading poets. James Fenton's Yellow Tulips, (Faber & Faber, £14.99), John Fuller's New Selected Poems (Chatto & Windus, £15.99), Sean O'Brien's Collected Poems (Picador, £20) and Don Paterson's Selected Poems (Faber & Faber, £14.99): all are handsome hardbacks that belong on the shelf of every poetry lover.

Yet they differ profoundly. In vivid Brechtian style, Fenton uses form to master experience, particularly of war. His "The Ballad of the Shrieking Man" is a contemporary classic. Fuller's work is closer to classical sonata form. Sustained and deeply felt, it is unafraid to create "The Space of Joy". The rhythmic certainties of blank verse underpin O'Brien's wise, sophisticated writing, as searchingly felt about individuals as it is about society. Paterson's lyric compaction and brilliant insight are always at work, whether in the youthful virtuosity of Nil-Nil, versions of Antonion Machado, or elegiac maturity.

There has been exciting new writing this year, too. Picador is becoming the home of a particular cool lyricism, especially in writing about place. The year saw collections from both Jacob Polley (The Havocs; Picador, £9.99) and Paul Farley, whose The Dark Film (Picador, £9.99) continues his vision of the world as secretly filmic, "replete with scrims and gels and tints". Polley is increasingly drawn to beauty, in both his astute observations of the natural world and an almost old-fashioned gentleness of diction. Farley's verse is tighter, his settings urban: childhood memories or scenes from life among "the landfill and the scars, the motorways".

Stablemate Kathleen Jamie's The Overhaul (Picador, £9.99) is a lucid, often song-like portrait of the natural world at its business in Fife. Jamie writes with un-clotted directness and leaping metaphorical clarity: "Roses" unfold to "demonstrate /unacknowledged thought". Elsewhere in this newly-permissible environmental poetry, Sean Borodale's Bee Journal (Jonathan Cape, £10) records his experiences as an apiarist. Sensuous and interior, poems dated as the eponymous journal explore both practical and symbolic aspects of living with bees with a strong, original sincerity.

Despite its witty free verse, Sam Riviere's first full collection 81 Austerities (Faber & Faber, £8.99) chatters guilelessly about porn and writing grants. Among other debutants, Kim Moore's pamphlet If We Could Speak Like Wolves (Smith/Doorstop, £5) is quietly mysterious, while Rhian Edwards is mischievous and wry in Clueless Dogs (Seren, £8.99). This year, experiment has largely been left to senior women, major figures who continue to flout convention. Jorie Graham's PLACE (Carcanet, £9.95), Sharon Olds's Stag's Leap (Jonathan Cape, £10) and Selima Hill's People who like Meatballs (Bloodaxe, £9.95) explore the limits of, respectively, form, emotion and sense. While Olds grieves the end of a marriage, "Dread and sorrow reaching, in time, into /every reach", Graham heralds the end of the world.

An altogether more unexpected experiment is Andrew Motion's use of found text to moving effect in the then-and-now war poems of The Customs House. (Faber & Faber, £12.99). Meanwhile, James Lasdun's subtle and thoughtful Water Sesssions (Jonathan Cape, £10) is not experimental at all. On the contrary, it displays the old-fashioned virtues of midlife poetics, which can address "only this tangling blackness /and my echoing words".

Finally, poets' versions create the double pleasure of renewed access to an original through work by a contemporary poet. Simon Armitage's The Death of King Arthur (Faber & Faber, £7.99) and David Harsent's In Secret: versions of Yannis Ritsos (Enithartmon, £8.99) are powerfully absorbing. While Harsent darkens the Greek's sensibility yet further, Armitage has produced another gleaming reworking of a medieval original. In the expensive Christmas season, who could resist such a creative two-for-one?

Fiona Sampson's latest book is 'Beyond the Lyric: a map of contemporary British verse' (Chatto & Windus)

Further reading

Books of the year 2012: Fiction

Books of the year 2012: Crime and thrillers

Books of the year 2012: Music

Books of the year 2012: Celebrity

Books of the year 2012: Natural history

Books of the year 2012: Food

Books of the year 2012: Travel and place

Books of the year 2012: Sport

Books of the year 2012: Art

Books of the year 2012: Children's books

Books of the year 2012: Memoirs

Books of the year 2012: History

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there