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.

Suggested Topics
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
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.

    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
    How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

    How to find gold

    Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
    Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

    Not born in the USA

    Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
    10 best balsamic vinegars

    10 best balsamic vinegars

    Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'