IoS Books of the Year 2012: Poetry

Proust out of reach? Try some dandies instead

Many people are intimidated by the idea of contemporary poetry. Presumably Fiona Sampson's Beyond the Lyric (Chatto, £16.99) is intended to help them. Sampson, a former editor of Poetry Review, is well placed to offer this "map". It's thought-provoking and informative, with the poets imaginatively grouped under headings such as "Dandies" (Jo Shapcott, Glyn Maxwell), "Oxford Elegists" (Andrew Motion, Mick Imlah, Alan Jenkins) and "Iambic Legislators" (Tony Harrison, Gwyneth Lewis, Sean O'Brien).

But what non-poetry readers most fear is that it will be too difficult, and Sampson can forget her role as elucidator. Some of her pronouncements are gnomic and at other times she bends over backwards to impute depth to work that seems shallow, at least as quoted here. It's a bit like listening to someone rave over the tricky lyricism of "The cat sat on the mat". I don't buy all of Sampson's judgements (it's not necessary to), and I don't think poets fall neatly into groups and channels, but her readings are fresh and she brings a great sense of excitement.

Carol Ann Duffy (an Anecdotalist, by the way) presents two Christmas baubles. We can never have too many Sylvia Plath Selecteds and Sylvia Plath: Chosen by Carol Ann Duffy (Faber, £14.99), which anticipates the 50th anniversary of the poet's death in February 1963, has an unabashed fan-girl introduction and lovely jacket design from a Plath painting. Duffy came to Plath quite late, at 25, and reading the poems anew, it's fascinating to see how their tough lyricism and wordplay must have influenced her. Wenceslas: A Christmas Poem (Picador, £5.99) is a charming stocking filler, a retelling of the old tale with beautiful illustrations by Stuart Kolakovic. Duffy's words and his images are imbued with the sights and scents of a perfect Christmas, with a moral message too.

Notable recent collections include (Anecdotalist) Jacob Polley's meditative, mature The Havocs (Picador, £9.99), dealing with the luminous empty spaces both of childhood and of a rural Northern life. The witty Welsh poet Stephen Knight is, alas, not included in Sampson's taxonomy; The Prince of Wails (CB Editions, £7.99) is playful and clever. "A Tick-Box Life" begins: "Are the following foolish, or / merely out of reach? / A 28-inch waist / A face like the one I had / A la recherché du temps perdu instead of The Beach". Gillian Clarke (Touchstone Lyricist) freezes with Ice (Carcanet, £9.95), not to be read in an underheated house. Beautifully crafted, it moves from a Welsh winter right through the year back to snow again, taking in legends both ancient and contemporary.

If I were going to recommend one perfect present for a poetry lover, it would be London: A History in Verse, edited by Mark Ford (Harvard, £30). Whether London is primarily its fabric – what endures – or its people is a central question. For the early writers, such as Chaucer, Langland and Hoccleve, it is the bustle of the streets that attracts ("Wollen webbesters and weveres of lynnen, / Taillours and tynkers and tollers in markets …"). We can still be moved by these glimpses of frail human life among the grandeur. Here's Frances Cornford's "Parting in Wartime": "How long ago Hector took off his plume, / Not wanting that his little son should cry, / Then kissed his sad Andromache goodbye – / And now we three in Euston waiting room."

Interestingly, things fall apart a little as Ford reaches the present day. It's much harder to find modern poems that crisply delineate like Blake's "London" or Wordsworth's "On Westminster Bridge". The poets have become more solipsistic, less social. Why? We'll have to go back to Sampson to understand.

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