You could hardly hear a pin drop earlier this yearn 20 January as 22-year-old Amanda Gorman became the youngest-ever poet to perform at a presidential inauguration.
Her poem, The Hill We Climb, called for “unity and togetherness” and reminded us all of the power poetry has to touch the soul and inspire change. It was published in book form in March (£6.99, WHSmith.co.uk),while The Hill We Climb and Other Poems will be published in December
Penguin Random House is also publishing two other books by the young Harvard graduate. The first, Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem (£10.99, Waterstones.com) was released in September. The second is a poetry collection called Call Us What We Carry (£11.43, Amazon.co.uk) and is available for pre-order now.
Gorman has undoubtedly raised the profile of poetry and on 7 October, people around the country will once again be celebrating National Poetry Day that aims to “start conversations... encourage the love of language – and best of all, [is] open to absolutely everyone to join in, quietly or noisily in rewarding and enjoyable ways.”
The event, founded in 1994 by the charity Forward Arts Foundation, aims to promote the reading, writing and teaching of poetry. This year, the theme this year is “choice” and the strapline is Choose a Poem.
To mark National Poetry Day, we’ve chosen some of the best collections of poetry, many of them published in the last year. Our round-up includes books to suit all tastes, judging them on their beauty, originality and, in a year like no other, their ability to remind us of better times to come.
The best poetry books for National Poetry Day for 2021 are:
- Best overall – ‘Set Me on Fire: A Poem for Every Feeling’ by Ella Risbridger: £11.65, Hive.co.uk
- Best timely anthology – ‘These are the Hands: Poems from the Heart of the NHS' edited by Deborah Alma and Dr Katie Amiel: £9.99, Waterstones.com
- Best historical poetry – ‘The Historians’ by Eavan Boland, published by Carcanet: £10.22, Bookshop.org
- Best debut collection – ‘Poor’ by Caleb Femi: £9.99, Waterstones.com
- Best thought-provoking anthology – ‘How to Wash a Heart’ by Bhanu Kapil: £9.99, Liverpooluniversitypress.co.uk
- Best prize-winning collection – ‘The Forward Book of Poetry 2021: The Best Poems from the Forward Prizes’: £9.99, Waterstones.com
- Best wide-ranging selection – ‘A Poem for Every Day of the Year’ edited by Allie Esiri: £19.99, Foyles.co.uk
- Best powerful anthology – ‘On the Move: Poems About Migration’ by Michael Rosen: £8.66, Blackwells.co.uk
- Best anthology about womanhood – ‘Teeth in the Back of My Neck’ by Monika Radojevic: £6.70, Amazon.co.uk
- Best collection about animals – ‘Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright! – An Animal Poem for Every Day of the Year’ by Fiona Waters and Britta Teckentrup: £25, Waterstones.com
- Best comforting anthology – ‘The Poetry Pharmacy Returns: More Prescriptions for Courage, Healing and Hope’ by William Sieghart: £12.08, Bookshop.org
‘Set Me on Fire: A Poem for Every Feeling’ by Ella Risbridger, published by Doubleday
Ella Risbridger began collecting poems for this anthology as a present for her best friend, prompted by the realisation that they agree on everything in life – except poetry. “People hate poetry, often, because it has this reputation for being difficult,” writes Risbridger. “It doesn’t have to be. It can be a road map or simply someone yelling out to let you know I was here too! I understand!” She also questions why so many famous poets are “dead white men” and declares that she’s sick and tired of finding that the only poems people know by heart are “by Tennyson (fine) or Kipling (eesh).”
Divided into loose sections and covering everything from “happy” to “rage and trauma”, Set Me on Fire is a delight from start to finish. It’s a refreshingly eclectic collection that will remind you of poets you love, like Rupert Brooke, WH Auden, Louis MacNeice and Dorothy Parker, and introduce you to a host of new names too.
‘These are the Hands: Poems from the Heart of the NHS' edited by Deborah Alma and Dr Katie Amiel, published by Fair Acre Press
Best: Timely anthology
This timely anthology is a poetry book like no other. It comprises more than 100 poems about the NHS and offers an extraordinary insight into the experience of the people who work in our hospitals, GP surgeries and health centres. The poems are largely written by NHS staff, from a student nurse at the start of his career to a heart surgeon on the point of retirement, but leading authors and poets have also contributed.
The moving title poem, “These are the Hands”, was written by poet and former children’s laureate Michael Rosen, who spent 47 days in intensive care fighting coronavirus last year. Compassionate and wise, it’s a collection that will resonate with everyone. All the proceeds go to NHS Charities Together, which supports more than 140 official NHS charities and raises money for NHS hospitals, ambulance services and community and mental health services across the UK.
‘The Historians’ by Eavan Boland, published by Carcanet
Best: Historical poetry
The acclaimed Irish poet Eavan Boland won the 2020 Costa Poetry Award posthumously for The Historians, her final book (she died in April 2020). She was known for her ability to weave myth, history and the life of ordinary women into spellbinding poetry and this collection is no exception. Poignant and evocative, Boland’s words will stay in your memory long after you’ve finished reading them, whether she’s describing two women burning letters in a back garden or Irish suffragists gathering in cities across Ireland to exercise their “hard-won” right to vote in 1918.
‘Poor’ by Caleb Femi, published by Penguin Books
Best: Debut collection
Caleb Femi is a photographer, film-maker and poet who was named London’s first young poet laureate in 2016. Poor is his debut poetry collection – a tour de force that chronicles “the trials, tribulations, dreams and joys” of young black boys growing up in 21st century Peckham. His poetry and photography vividly depict the north Peckham estate where he himself lived, which only makes his poems all the more heart-rending, passionate and real.
‘How to Wash a Heart’ by Bhanu Kapil, published by Liverpool University Press
Best: Thought-provoking anthology
The £25,000 TS Eliot Prize is the most valuable award in British poetry, won by names like Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, Carol Ann Duffy and Alice Oswald in the past. The 2020 judges unanimously chose How to Wash a Heart, Bhanu Kapil’s first full-length collection to be published in the UK, as their winner, declaring her work to be “radical and arresting”. Kapil’s slender volume explores the complex relationship that emerges between an immigrant guest and a liberal host and while it’s an unsettling, demanding read it’s also thought-provoking, compassionate and at times even comic.
‘The Forward Book of Poetry 2021: The Best Poems from the Forward Prizes’, published by Bookmark
Best: Prize-wining collection
The Forward Prizes are among the most prestigious poetry awards in the country so it’s a delight to have a selection of the shortlisted 2020 entries in one volume. Previous winners include illustrious names like Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, and the chances are that some of the poets whose work features in this anthology will follow in their footsteps. Far from being remote and esoteric, they show that poetry can cover a whole gamut of subjects, from love and loss to the agonies of toothache and even, in one case, an appreciation of the humble raspberry pip.
‘A Poem for Every Day of the Year’ edited by Allie Esiri, published by Macmillan Children’s Books
Best: Wind-ranging selection
If you haven’t read any poetry since your schooldays this wide-ranging anthology is the perfect way to rediscover the joy of verse. “Poetry can give us strength, make us double up with laughter or marvel at life’s wonders and absurdities,” declares Allie Esiri in the introduction and her book helped us to do all those things. Reading a poem every day is good for the soul, especially in troubled times, and the joy of this volume is that it does the choosing for you, often matching poems to the months and seasons. Esiri has even thrown a few song lyrics in for good measure, including “All You Need is Love” by John Lennon and Paul McCartney and “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan.
‘On the Move: Poems About Migration’ by Michael Rosen, published by Walker Books
Best: Powerful anthology
The prolific Michael Rosen joined forces with fellow former children’s laureate Sir Quentin Blake to produce this powerful book of poems about migration. Rosen divides his poems into four sections. In the first, he recalls his childhood as part of a first-generation Polish family living in London. The second explores how he came to know about the Second World War and the third tells the story of his “missing” relatives. After these very personal poems, the fourth section explores migration around the world today. Blake’s haunting drawings complement Rosen’s compelling words beautifully in this very accessible volume.
‘Teeth in the Back of My Neck’ by Monika Radojevic, published by Merky Books
Best: Anthology about womanhood
Monika Radojevic’sTeeth in the Back of My Neck was one of the two inaugural winners of the #Merky Books New Writers’ Prize, a competition to discover unpublished, under-represented young writers. Half Brazilian and half Montenegrin, Radojevic says her debut collection (out in May) draws on “the joys, the confusions and the moments of sadness behind having one’s history scattered around the globe – and the way in which your identity is always worn on your skin, whether you like it or not”. The book’s memorable title is taken from a line in “Midriff”, an insightful poem about body image, but one of the most shocking poems in the collection is “56+”, a poem about the increasing use of “rough sex” defences by men in court when they are tried for the killing or violent injury of women during sex. This is a courageous, arresting debut from a poet to watch.
‘Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright! – An Animal Poem for Every Day of the Year’ by Fiona Waters and Britta Teckentrup, published by Nosy Crow
Best: Collection about animals
This gorgeous anthology is the sequel to the award-winning I Am the Seed that Grew the Tree and will enchant readers young and old. The book’s title is taken from “The Tiger”, William Blake’s classic poem, and features an animal poem for every day of the year. Exquisitely illustrated by Britta Teckentrup, it features old favourites by Gerard Manley Hopkins and Ted Hughes and more recent poems like Carol Ann Duffy’s “The Wasp” and “Crab Dance” by Grace Nichols. If you’re a poetry novice, an animal lover or a parent looking to share rhymes and verse with your children, this hefty tome will get you off to a flying start.
‘The Poetry Pharmacy Returns: More Prescriptions for Courage, Healing and Hope’ by William Sieghart, published by Particular Books
Best: Comforting anthology
William Sieghart came up with the idea of The Poetry Pharmacy in 2014 when he started prescribing poems to help people cope with problems in their lives. It was so successful that he went on to produce a second volume. Sieghart describes poetry as “a healing force” and says poems have helped him throughout his life.
This collection addresses a plethora of new themes, from choosing a life partner to political apathy. Our favourites included “Walking Away” by Cecil Day-Lewis, prescribed for empty nest syndrome, and “Oh” by Robert Creeley, prescribed for people caring for ageing parents. Each poem is accompanied by a short essay written by Sieghart, explaining his choice.
The verdict: Poetry books to celebrate National Poetry Day
Our top choice is Ella Risbridger’s Set Me on Fire: A Poem for Every Feeling. It’s engaging, eclectic and will appeal to poetry lovers and poetry novices alike. Close runners-up are The Historians by Eavan Boland, a moving and insightful collection that will stand the test of time, and the extraordinary Poor by Caleb Femi.
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