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Christmas 2015: The top 14 poetry books

Here are some of 2015's finest books to fire the imagination, engage the grey matter and invigorate the spirit over the festive period

Sean O'Brien
Thursday 26 November 2015 19:54 GMT
Sense of a life: TS Eliot in 1957
Sense of a life: TS Eliot in 1957 (Getty Images)

It has been a significant year for TS Eliot and Modernist poetry in its Eurocentric incarnation. The centenary edition of his epoch-making The Waste Land (Faber £12.99) was followed by the vast two-volume Poems of TS Eliot, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (Faber, £40 each). Here we can trace the process of The Waste Land's composition and consider the mass of discarded material and the editorial interventions of Ezra Pound. Robert Crawford's excellent biography Young Eliot: From St Louis to The Waste Land (Jonathan Cape, £25) brings a vastly expanded sense of the poet's life and personality as he felt his way towards The Waste Land and a dominant role in Anglo-American literature while suffering the destructive strain of his unwise marriage. Less heralded but also of great value was the publication of the Posthumous Cantos of Ezra Pound, Eliot's promoter and editor (Carcanet, £14.99), whom Eliot called "the better maker".

To WH Auden fell the task of finding a course for English poetry in the light of Modernism and the emergence of the European inter-war dictatorships. In his republished 1932 work The Orators: An English Study (Faber, £14.99), he can be found struggling with poetics, politics, sex and the mysteriousness of England itself. Auden called the work "a fair notion fatally injured", produced by a young man who might turn Fascist or go mad. The book's strangeness and disorder remain as compelling as ever and, in the current crisis of identity and purpose, The Orators takes on a fresh urgency.

There may not be much undiscovered work to come from Philip Larkin, but for completists The Importance of Elsewhere: Philip Larkin's Photographs (Frances Lincoln, £25), by his biographer Richard Bradford, is indispensable. Larkin took a craftsmanly approach to photography by turns using it to record and interpret. The friends and lovers who populate the poems are present here in a variety of Larkinesque landscapes, with commentary by Bradford.

Larkin was, of course, much better read and more cosmopolitan than he pretended. His own late Symbolist pieces can be read in a fresh light alongside the mysterious but lucid work of the French Surrealist René Char (1907-88). Char's The Inventors and Other Poems (Seagull Books, £14.50) translated by Mark Hutchinson, makes a fine introduction to this major figure, and Seagull's publications are beautiful objects in themselves. To call the late Christopher Logue's War Music (Faber, £20) a translation does less than justice to this ambitious, ferociously compelling re-casting of Homer's Iliad. Equally ambitious in its address to history, Germany and the state of the world is Hans Magnus Enzensbeger's New Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, £15).

Among the living, there is more interesting work than space to name it. Les Murray's Waiting for the Past (Carcanet, £9.99) considers old age through the lens of his Australian farming background, and offers some of his best work. Carol Ann Duffy's Collected Poems (Picador, £25) is the story so far by the current Poet Laureate. It moves from "Head of English", published in 1985, where the poet visiting a school weathers the patronage of one of the "snobbish and proud and clean" teachers who haunt her work, to the present, where Duffy herself is the one more generously dishing it out. She accepts the challenge of writing on public themes – Hillsborough, the Birmingham riots, the role of the Queen herself – while aiming to sustain the lyric clarity towards which her work as whole has been tending.

A new-rinsed clarity all of her own is the continuing achievement of Kathleen Jamie's poetry, to which The Bonniest Company (Picador £9.99) is a fine addition. In the best Scottish poets of the time, such as Jamie and Don Paterson (Forty Sonnets, Faber, £14.99), there is an undistracted assurance which suggests an attunement to the deeper historical moment. Among younger English poets, Frances Leviston's Disinformation (Picador, £9.99) brings unsparing enquiry and musical intelligence to the place in which we find ourselves.

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