It’s getting closer to the weekend, and on Sunday I’m going to be in the audience for the T S Eliot prize readings at London’s Royal Festival Hall. I always get excited about the prize, but I do feel that this year’s shortlist has been really special. I’ve already posted my enthusiastic views on half of the nominated titles (you can read them here), today it’s time to complete the list. Covering three continents and an inspiring range of styles, if you’re interested in trying out some contemporary poetry for 2016, these are an excellent place to start.
Les Murray, ‘Waiting for the Past‘, published by Carcanet.
Les Murray is an accomplished and prolific poet whose maturity and expertise is evident throughout this collection. The depth of emotions in these poems is considered and thoughtful, they truly feel like the work of a poet confident in his own talents. The power within the collection therefore, does not come from any linguistic or structural fireworks. Instead, it walks the careful balance between the experience and maturity drawn of an understanding of one’s place in the world (many of the poems are almost love-songs to New South Wales) and the fear and fragility that accompanies old age. Australia’s dual identity as an ancient and a modern country is wonderfully explored and the reader is invited to see parallels between the geographic, the cultural and the deeply personal experiences of time.
Sean O’Brien, ‘The Beautiful Librarians‘, published by Picador.
Good poetry will generally link to the literary tradition while emphatically engaging with contemporary life. Sean O’Brien brings decades of experience as a poet to this highly accomplished collection and the result is a poetry book that feels fresh, new and utterly up-to-date. Take the superb ‘Oysterity’ for example, or the title poem (which can be read both as an elegy and an indictment of current funding cuts to libraries). The whole collection is witty, emotional and rings with authenticity. The anger which runs through the book demonstrates the enduring relevance of such poetry and the power it has in responding to the modern world. There are so many reasons to love this book, not least ease and humour with which it fits into the wonderful tradition of political protest poems.
Don Paterson, ‘40 Sonnets‘, published by Faber and Faber.
It’s so exciting, in the nebulous and metaphorical world of poetry titles, to find a collection that so clearly states its purpose. That is not to say that the collection is predictable; in a welcome bid to bring the form into the twenty-first century, Paterson recreates some of Shakespeare’s playfulness as well as engaging with the more conventional sonnet themes of love and loss. To break up the 14 line, iambic rhymes, the traditional sonnets in this collection are interspersed with the experimental. Some play with meter, some with rhyme and there is an entertaining prose poem caught up in the middle of this. In general, it’s clear that you get what the title promised, a collection of accomplished and regular poems dealing with writing, time, death and the modern world. The Costa Prize judges certainly found much to love, awarding Paterson their poetry prize earlier this week. ’40 Sonnets’ will find fans among traditional poetry lovers, but also those who want a fun, less intimidating book of modern verse to dip in and out of.
Rebecca Perry, ‘Beauty/Beauty‘, published by Bloodaxe.
Just skimming through Perry’s collection shows an engagement with and enjoyment of poetic experimentation. Some poems sit conventionally on the page, in clear verses and alignment. Others play games with the reader, ‘On Serendipity’ for example, blurs line endings and interrupts phrases with gaps in a way which powerfully echoes the themes of fluidity, isolation and the boundaries of the individual. In ‘Poem in which the girl has no door on her mouth’, Perry again provides a commentary on the act of reading, forcing the eye across the page as meaning is disjoined and yet open, formal and yet free. The more conventional-looking poems reveal an equally subversive enjoyment of language, take ‘Hungry’, where we’re told ‘Underwater, you are in either / the prison or castle, of your own heartbeat, / depending how you feel about / inner workings.‘ A very strong debut collection and a highly recommended read.
Claudia Rankine, ‘Citizen: An American Lyric‘, published by Penguin.
I wrote about this book earlier in the week because my feelings about it cannot be contained in a simple stub review. Rankine’s book is an explosively angry and powerful exposé of racism in contemporary society. The title could be misleading – with poems about Mark Duggan and Wimbledon Tennis it is as relevant for British readers as anyone in America and the powerful use of ‘you‘ throughout the collection refuses to let anyone sit by and claim it’s someone else’s problem. This is one of the most significant books about racism to be published in recent memory. Ultimately ‘Citizen‘ will live beyond any 2015/16 awards ceremonies, but additional publicity generally leads to new readers and I’m proud that a prize I feel so strongly about has included it in the shortlist. (Click here for my full review).