Poetry books: Dead poets rule

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The Independent Culture

The beginning of this year saw Daljit Nagra's first collection, Look We Have Coming to Dover! (Faber 6.99), being greeted with broadsheet profiles, radio interviews, two spots on Newsnight Review and several prize-shortlistings. Bulletins from a world seldom explored in verse, his poems have a linguistic verve, anger and humour that make them quite unlike the rather wan stuff on mainstream publishers' lists.

Nagra's book won the Forward prize for best debut. The major Forward prize this year went for an unprecedented third time to Sean O'Brien, whose Stygian volume, The Drowned Book (Picador 8.99) is possessed by death, disaffection and a dark nostalgia. O'Brien's writing gallops where it might have wallowed not least because of his fondness for the anapaest and the tone is pugnacious, energised by indignation. O'Brien's is a voice for our times.

The outstanding poetry book of 2007 is a reissue. First published in 1940, W H Auden's Another Time (Faber 9.99) contains a prodigious number of classic poems for a single volume, and many of their lines surface in hooks of quotations: "About suffering they were never wrong / The Old Masters", "We must love one another or die", "I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong". All from a poet who was only 33 when the collection appeared. But then, Auden was a genius.

Two poems from Another Time appear in Carol Ann Duffy's anthology Answering Back (Picador 12.99), in which 50 poets speak to poems from the past. (Only one poet chooses poetry by a living author.) An embodiment of poetry's continuous dialogue with the past, Answering Back is an entertainingly reckless venture. Pairing work of the moment with poetry ranging over the centuries amounts to a series of mismatches. Yet there is something touching about these writers talking to the dead, especially when the dead seem destined to have the last word.

The trend of late has been to package poetry as lifestyle accessory. The introduction to the handsome, oddly titled Penguin's Poems for Life (Penguin 20) a selection made by Laura Barber rather than an Antarctic bird offers panaceas to "soothe a bruised heart, patch a broken friendship, lull a baby to sleep, seduce the hesitant or console the bereaved". Look elsewhere, then, if you want poetry to challenge, irritate or unnerve (though the inclusion of Philip Larkin's scary "The Old Fools" shows that Barber is capable of being off-message). Old favourites such as Kipling's "If..." and Keats's "To Autumn" are joined by some less obvious choices from the big names and, refreshingly, unfamiliar living poets are given a chance too.

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