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Round-up 2016: Poetry

Andy Croft hosts some of Britain’s leading poets as they review the collections which have made a big impression on them this year


A FINE year for British poetry, with excellent collections from three poets who have, perhaps, not been consistently accorded all the praise they deserve.

Bernard O’Donoghue, a veteran poet of craft, deftness and quiet elegance, is on top form in The Seasons of Cullen Church (Faber), while Ian Duhig, another true original and, arguably, one of the most formally astute poets working today, delights, moves and astonishes with The Blind Road-Maker (Picador).

Also from Picador, Denise Riley offers a reminder, in Say Something Back, that she has been exploring the bounds of poetic form and idea with skill, artistry and imagination for many years and this collection highlights the philosophical depth and magisterial power of one of the finest poets working in these islands.


• John Burnside is Professor of Creative Writing at St Andrews University. His books of poetry include Common Knowledge, Feast Days, The Asylum Dance, The Light Trap and Black Cat Bone.





SINCE 2005 there have been eight publications of new translations of Mayakovsky’s work,  more than were produced in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s put together.

Vladimir Mayakovsky and Other Poems, translated and edited by James Womack (Carcanet Press), is the most recent in this resurgence of interest and is perhaps the first to properly capture the poet’s extraordinary and often overlooked wit.

Womack’s translations are laugh-out-loud funny in capturing the coarseness, quickness and playful hilarity of Mayakovsky’s humour and they make the popular Western image of him as a smouldering symbol of machismo personified impossible to maintain.

But, more than this, they are incredibly beautiful — sonorous, deliberate and full of unexpected joy.


• Rosy Carrick is the editor and co-translator of Volodya: Selected Works of Vladimir Mayakovsky. She is currently working on a new edition of Mayakovsky’s epic poem Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.




AT THE turn of the year I discovered books by two great poets.

First, Then Come Back (Copper Canyon Press), a collection of never-seen poems by Pablo Neruda. Together, they’re a playful celebration of life, beginning with this lucid line as a threshold to a magnificent world: “I touch your feet in the shade, your hands in the light.”

The second is John Berger’s Collected Poems (Smokestack). Each poem in this collection is a world in itself, distinctly different from the next. Amsterdam, for instance, reminds me of Rimbaud’s poem Bruxelles.

Both books are a kind of fairy tale, without losing the everyday elements and details grounded in reality.


• Abdulkareem Kasid was born in Iraq and currently lives in London. His books of poetry include Cafes and Sarabad. He has translated Arthur Rimbaud, Jacques Prevert, Saint-John Perse and Yiannis Ritsos into Arabic. His version of Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale, transposed to an Iraqi setting, was performed at the Old Vic in 2006.




THIS has been a year of transcendent elegies. Denise Riley’s beautiful and tender Say Something Back (Picador) takes the gravity of the Tennysonian song of loss and rewires it to the distinct tune and wit of Riley’s unmistakeable style.

The American Peter Gizzi published Archeophonics (Wesleyan) which explores the mode of the lyric as a form that eternalises the ephemerality of the body, Gizzi describing his own as one that “loved and mourned the documents behind a people.”

Isobel Dixon’s beautifully produced pamphlet The Leonids (Mariscat) is a very moving work about the loss of her mother and she also published Bearings this year with the always lively Nine Arches Press.

Elegies aside, Tom Pickard’s brilliant Winter Migrants (Carcanet) is a finely tuned, musical response to living in the north Pennines and Solway Firth, while English original Tom Jenks published the memorable and very funny Sublunar (Oystercatcher), in which he “roamed the broccoli late at night” with a whimsical ferret called Spinks.


• Chris McCabe was born in Liverpool. His most recent collection of poetry is Speculatrix and he is the editor, with Victoria Bean, of The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st-century. He works as the Poetry Librarian at the Poetry Library, London.





SHAMEFULLY, I haven’t really read any new poetry books this year.

But I have read lots of very good chapbooks and pamphlets — Denise Riley’s Say Something Back (Picador), Liz Howard’s Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent (McClelland and Stewart), Karthika Nair’s Until the Lions (Arc), Jen Callej’s Serious Justice (Test Centre), Sarah Crewe’s urchin (dancing girl), Warsan Shire’s Her Blue Body (Flipped Eye), Nisha Ramayya’s Correspondences (Oystercatcher) and Dorothy Lehane’s Umwelt (Leafe).

And I am necessarily re-reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (Penguin) and Caroline Bergvall’s DRIFT (nightboat).


• Sophie Mayer is a freelance writer, curator and feminist film activist based in London. Her poetry collections include The Private Parts of Girls and, with Sarah Crewe, signs of the sistership.




TOO large to qualify as a pamphlet and too small to qualify as a collection, Steve Ely’s Werewolf (Calder Valley Poetry) — like the shape-shifting protagonist of the title poem — doesn’t quite know what it is.

But, on first encounter with it, the reader certainly knows what it does. At a stroke, this excellent sequence of poems abolishes the “gentility principle” that Alvarez identified as being so inhibitive in English poetry.

The subject matter is atrocity and the human capacity for complicity in it. It is an unflinching, vigorous and challenging volume that builds on Ely’s previous collections from Smokestack and makes me eagerly anticipate the next.


• Ian Parks organises the Read to Write project in Doncaster. His many collections include Gargoyles in Winter, Shell Island, The Landing Stage, Love Poems 1979-2009, The Exile’s House and The Cavafy Variations.





ADRIAN MITCHELL’S Greatest Hits (Bloodaxe) contains his favourite 40 poems. The book contains all his classics, with Beattie Is Three my favourite.

The poem is full of humanity, understanding, love and trust, just as Mitchell was.

Vernon Scannell lived a full life as a boxer, poet, writer and the poems in The Very Best of Vernon Scannell (Macmillan) are full of energy and life, as illustrated in Love Shouts and Whispers and Famous Lovers. Well worth a read.

Patrick Kavanagh’s Selected Poems (Penguin) features work by one of Ireland’s greatest poets. The Great Hunger is quite simply stunning.

Up the Line To Death: The War Poets 1914-1918 (Methuen) is an antidote to the military jingoism that has invaded every facet of our society. For me, the best poem in the book is From the Somme by Leslie Coulson.


• Dave Puller is a stand-up poet, actor and performer. His books of poetry include Ouch, Peace Love and War and A Bit of a Leftie. He lives in Wythenshaw.


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