I’ve been quite a fan of the T S Eliot prize for several years now. In an annual outing, every January sees me heading out to London’s Southbank Centre to hear the the prize readings and to form my own conclusions about the state of poetry in the twenty-first century. As this year I’ve made a point of reading all ten of the nominated collections, I’ll be dedicating this week’s posts to my impressions of the listed books. If your new year’s resolution involved reading more (or any) contemporary poetry then this might be a good place to start.
Mark Doty, ‘Deep Lane’, published by Cape Poetry.
Doty’s collection explores the individual’s connection to the natural world. Poems take everyday occurrences and observations, walking in the countryside, taking out compost, going to the gym, and mines them for deeper meaning. Each poem is a snapshot of modern life, yet, from the monologue of a one-month-old dead mammoth to a reflection on Jackson Pollock, the collection is also imbued with history and melancholy. When relationships are evoked it is with a sense of their passing, thus we’re told ‘My ex adores the age of mechanical reproduction / nearly every day he copies something he likes / simply to add more beauty to the world. / I say I’m tired and I’ll just wait in the car.’ The speaker in this collection is tired, and both aware and wary of the beauty around him. Read this collection over long winter nights for an accomplished journey into the powerful minutia of the everyday.
Tracey Herd, ‘Not in this World‘, published by Bloodaxe.
For me, there are two reasons to really enjoy this collection. Firstly, the explosion of pop-culture references; poem titles include ‘Not James Dean’, ‘Vivien and Scarlett’, and ‘Joan Fontaine and Rebecca’, there’s even a sequence at the end about Ruffian, the 1970s thoroughbred racehorse. Secondly there is the accomplished use of traditional poetic forms, most impressively, the villanelle. These poems deal with depression, choices and the passage of time, but the misery of the subject matter is powerfully packaged and draws additional pathos from the sparkling golden-age references and the accomplished use of traditional forms. If the idea of a villanelle entitled ‘Vivien and Scarlett’ excites you, this is the collection to read.
Selima Hill, ‘Jutland‘, published by Bloodaxe.
I did not know what to make of this collection when I first picked it up; now it’s one of my favourites of the year. ‘Jutland’ is made up of two extended sequences of very short poems. The first ‘Advice on Wearing Animal Prints’ works though the alphabet in pithy, witty poems that slowly build up to a disturbing and powerful portrait of femininity and madness. The poems begin by seeming somewhat slight, but their cumulative force grows and the act of judging on insufficient knowledge is itself to become a central theme in the sequence. The second part of the collection consists of the (even shorter) poems that make up ‘Sunday Afternoons at the Gravel Pits’. I sometimes feel like their should be an amnesty on father-daughter poems after Sylvia Plath, but Hill may have just changed my mind. Her speaker begins with poems like ‘Sack-race’ with the line ‘I give up trying to please him altogether’, slowly however the bitter, antagonistic tone changes and grows. This is a poem for anyone who’s either sympathised with or screamed in frustration at Plath and a collection for poetry lovers everywhere.
Sarah Howe, ‘Loop of Jade’, published by Chatto and Windus.
This is the collection that beat Sara Taylor’s incredible novel ‘The Shore‘ to the Young Writers award, but I didn’t know that would happen when I read it so, fortunately, I managed to avoid any inadvertent bias in my initial impressions.
Howe’s poems have been sold as an exploration of the writer’s dual heritage with a focus on the exotic, Chinese part of her identity. What I found powerful as I read through the collection was the equally strong focus on the British and the modern multicultural society. The poems bounce back and forward through time and space, from classical antiquity to ‘Night in Arizona’. Possibly my favourite is ‘Rain’, a short powerful poem that perfectly captures a London moment. ‘Loop of Jade’ is everything that you would want a debut collection to be, highly individual, but also showing impressive knowledge and experimentation with a wide range of forms and styles. Reading it will teach you about Chinese history and migration, but it will also introduce you to an exciting new voice and a highly accomplished young poet.
Tim Liardet, ‘The World Before Snow’, published by Carcanet.
A look at the contents is an indication of the tight focus of this collection. Nearly every poem title contains the words ‘self-portrait’, however a quick skim through the book will show a much less self-centred tone than this implies. Poems are written in couplets or tightly collected verses because these are, mostly, love poems about the search for the self in the other. Spanning geography and history the ‘self-portrait’ poems investigate the fragmentation of modern identity while the poems themselves do their best to avoid the fragmentation of language. If you enjoy lines like: ‘Once you know what you know, you will never unknow it‘ then this is the collection for you.