Poetry: Songs of elegance and of experience

Christmas books of the year

Suzi Feay
Sunday 18 December 2011 01:00
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It's been a tempestuous year for poetry, with the Poetry Society riven by strife and, at the time of writing, two poets withdrawing from the T S Eliot prize in a row over its hedge-fund sponsors. But how has poetry fared on, rather than off the page?

Rachael Boast won the Forward prize for Best First Collection for the elegant and erudite Sidereal (Picador, £8.99), hymning love, drink and star-spotting. The best collection was taken by John Burnside's haunting Black Cat Bone (Cape, £10), full of mysteriously beautiful and enigmatic pieces drawing on folklore, myth and magic, often with an undercurrent of terror. In his fine debut collection The Frost Fairs (Salt, £9.99), John McCullough turns out tender love poems and imaginative thought experiments with equal aplomb.

John Whale's intellectually playful Waterloo Teeth (Carcanet, £9.95) is a first collection that ranges through swathes of history and literature. In its pages you'll meet the prehistoric Armley hippo, Tom Paine's bones, the dying Mary Wollstonecraft and George Stubbs's Whistlejacket: "At last I've boiled it down to this:/ taut tawny grace on an earthy ground,/ pure horse all in its own space."

A moving prose memoir of a Philadelphia childhood lies at the heart of Dan Burt's Certain Windows (Lintott, £9.95), a generous and affecting work. The poems in Sean O'Brien's November (Picador, £8.99) haunt liminal spaces, especially railways and stations, and summon up and elegise the lost. Tonally as grey as the titular month, the poems still sparkle with O'Brien's grim wit. There's also a wild fantasmic ride in the form of a free translation of Rimbaud's "The Drunken Boat".

Another translation, Alice Oswald's Memorial (Faber, £12.99) is a curious work, a sort of retelling of The Iliad filleting out everything but the naming of the dead and the descriptions of their gory ends. But the book feels padded: lists of capitalised names trail down otherwise empty pages, some pages bear only four lines, and many stanzas are repeated, as if the poet is telling us we're not bright enough to get it first time.

Finally, Carol Ann Duffy's The Bees (Picador, £14.99) is as musical, witty and fast-moving as we've come to expect from the Poet Laureate. Her "taking a rhyme for a walk" approach often pays off, but occasionally the relentless wordplay feels glib. This is nonetheless an ample and entertaining volume, beautifully produced, and destined to grace many a Christmas sack this year.

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