Books of the Year: Poetry
An exciting new band of names is causing a stir
Sunday 12 December 2010
In a year which saw new books from three doyens of English-language poetry – Seamus Heaney, Les Murray and Derek Walcott – Roddy Lumsden presents the new generation from Britain and Ireland in Identity Parade (Bloodaxe, £12), anthologising 85 poets from an estimated 1,000 who have either published first collections over the past 15 years or are on the point of doing so. Though Lumsden is not afraid to omit some familiar names as he reduces that staggering total to double figures, the result is still rather unwieldy.
It's a shame that the partial anthology with a proselytising introduction has been supplanted by ever-reasonable acknowledgements of pluralism. Not only might a book of fewer contributors have caused more of a stir, but it could also have signalled an abandonment of the quotidian aesthetic dominant in British poetry for more than half a century. Poets as different as Paul Batchelor, Jen Hadfield, Daljit Nagra and Alice Oswald nevertheless have in common a delighted use of language and thrilling momentum. The readership for poetry might be small but, hearteningly, the poets of Identity Parade still write as if it means the world.
Lumsden did well to pick out Sam Willetts before he had published his first volume, New Light for the Old Dark (Cape, £10). His powerful poems explore drug addiction and his Jewish mother's wartime experience without raising their voice. The most notable debut of 2010, the collection has been shortlisted for an unprecedented five awards, including the TS Eliot and Costa prizes.
At 48, Willetts is a late starter, having lost a chunk of his life to heroin. A year younger than Willetts, a fixture of the British poetry scene for more than two decades, and a novelist, essayist, translator, playwright and broadcaster to boot, Simon Armitage this year published Seeing Stars (Faber, £12.99). These bizarre yet oddly pertinent pieces marry the panache of Armitage's verse with the deadpan storytelling of his prose, especially the hilarious All Points North. An invigorating alternative to the default setting of solemnity that characterises too much poetry, Seeing Stars is a bold move from a writer in mid-career.
Mick Imlah died of motor neurone disease in 2009, aged 52. His Selected Poems (Faber, £12.99) brings back into print a generous selection from his debut, Birthmarks (1988). There was a 20-year wait for its follow-up, The Lost Leader, a tour de force of public and private history. It closes with a clutch of personal poems which offer a heartbreaking glimpse of the poet Imlah might have become.
Oliver Reynolds has also taken his time producing Hodge (Areté, £7.99). Appearing after an 11-year hiatus, his fifth book moves fluently between the autobiographical and the historical, the comic and the serious, the lyric and the narrative as it essays the menial work of caretakers, ushers and pyramid builders. Other poems swipe amusingly at the world they have entered:
This poem believes that literary prizes
are a part of PR, not literature.
This poem may contain traces of nuts.
It will not save your life.
Well, someone had to say it.
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