Books of the year 2013: Poetry
Friday 29 November 2013
The Selected Poems of Robert Graves (1895-1985) (Faber, £15.99), edited by Michael Longley, is a superb re-introduction to a vastly influential poet who has become almost a secret to the young. War poet, lover, servant of the pitiless muse, comedian – Robert Graves was all these, and blessed with the finest poetic ear of his time.
WN Herbert's Omnesia (Bloodaxe, £9.95) comes in an Alternative Text and a Remix, either of which could be the most ambitious, wide-ranging and formally accomplished collection of 2013. Herbert is interested in everything, especially the plurality of knowledge, spinning global connections from Newcastle to China and Somaliland, taking on the major forms of ode and elegy, adding satire, comedy and the ancient Scottish tradition of extended insult, as well as modes still undefined. Coleshill (Chatto, £10) finds Fiona Sampson enduring a term of trial, its rural setting made menacing by present threat, old terrors and the larger unravelling of the environment.
Dreamlike and blade-sharp, this is an impressively unified work – as, in a quite different way, is Michael Symmons Roberts's Forward Prize winner, Drysalter (Cape, £12), 150 poems of 15 lines, combining dazzling elegance and a rare imaginative humility.
The metaphysical turn in recent poetry in the UK is emphasized in Rachael Boast's second collection, Pilgrim's Flower (Picador), which recognizes that there are certain states and perceptions that shape the weather of the spirit, which poetry seems uniquely qualified to render. Read Boast's work alongside Helen Mort's Division Street (Chatto, £12), with its sparky energy and the bracing political awareness of her sequence "Scab", and you'll see something of the diversity and ambition that marks our younger poets.
Horse Music (Bloodaxe, £8.95) finds Matthew Sweeney's grim, gleeful, unrelenting fantasies in exuberant shape. In "How I Was Made Twenty Years Younger" the speaker blames lengthy impotence on a "witch'" an anti-muse. Unspecified Germanic procedures restore normal service and "two days later I'd a throbbing stonker" and the Albert Hall in which to brandish it. But in Sweeney's world things can, of course, only get worse.
The Canadian Karen Solie's The Living Option: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, £9.95) has enormous wit and invention, making waste and horror seem almost redeemable: "I'm in the middle of my life. I see it/ as through a crowd, from a bad angle, and the show continues". Solie is a farmer's daughter: her poem "Tractor", about the Faustian bargain between farmers and frackers, should be painted on grain silos everywhere.
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