From Fleur Adcock's Glass Wings to Train Songs edited by Sean O'Brien and Don Paterson, Adam Newey rounds up the best poetry of the year
by Adam Newey The Guardian, Saturday 7 December 2013
Don Paterson is co-editor of Train Songs. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian
The poetic year was sharply punctuated by the death of Seamus Heaney at the end of August. It's hard to think of any poet more determined to stay true to the topologies of language, culture and identity, and in particular to the bogs, mists and mizzling rain of the land that grew him, and his loss is incalculable. The coming years, no doubt, will see the publication of unfinished work, along with the scholarly editions, biographies and academic tomes that inevitably mark the translation from living poet to canonical great.
From last words to first books. The wellspring of poetry doesn't run dry, and two debuts in particular bear this out. Emily Berry's Dear Boy (Faber) fizzes with verbal inventiveness and fantastical, darkly comic storytelling; while Fiona Moore's pamphlet The Only Reason for Time(HappenStance Press) is full of elegant, gently piercing observations that build to a compelling portrait of love and loss and the overcoming of grief.
Still with new voices, Dear World & Everyone in It: New Poetry in the UK edited by Nathan Hamilton (Bloodaxe) is an excellent anthology of work by 60 young poets, some already very familiar names, some less so. Refusing to adopt the traditional role of editor as de haut en bas authority, Hamilton has achieved something that feels not unlike a crowdsourced anthology. Quality, inevitably, varies, but so, thankfully, do the themes, concerns and poetic strategies employed. There is much terrific work here and, as a snapshot of young, contemporary poetry in Britain, there's nothing better.
Somewhat further up the age range, three of my own favourite poets published collections this year. I love Robin Robertson's work for its austere beauty and the seriousness and intensity with which he realises his vision. Hill of Doors (Picador) is a companion piece to his superbThe Wrecking Light (2010): it portrays human conciousness caught between animal impulse and divine aspiration, trapped in a thuggishly material world that is oblivious to higher concerns.
Christopher Reid's work, by contrast, I love for its wry and always well-mannered outsider's take on contemporary mores. With Six Bad Poets (Faber), he has produced another narrative sequence, along the lines of 2009'sThe Song of Lunch, and one that allows him to indulge his ventriloquistic panache. He clearly has great fun satirising the casually cruel, pettily incestuous world of poetry in which self-absorption is the keynote.
And a new volume from Maurice Riordan is always an occasion for celebration. The Water Stealer (Faber), published in the year he turns 60, is only Riordan's fourth full-length collection – this is a poet who refuses to over-publish – and the care and dedication he devotes to his craft pay off here. Inventive and mischievous as ever, and with a real assuredness of tone, The Water Stealer must be a strong contender for this year's TS Eliot prize.
As, no doubt, will be Dannie Abse's Speak, Old Parrot (Hutchinson), a spirited collection published as the poet turns 90. Inevitably, old age and an acute awareness of the passing of time and growing bodily infirmity make up a large part of it. But his humour most certainly isn't dimmed, with some boisterously bawdy versions of the 14th-century Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym. Sinéad Morrissey is another TS Eliot shortlistee with Parallax (Carcanet), which fascinates with its interest in the processes of art, in what the artwork conceals as much as what it reveals. As the title suggests, this is a book about perception as deception.
Two further collections and an anthology are particularly deserving of note. Sleeping Keys by Jean Sprackland (Jonathan Cape) deals in the flux of life, in change, decay and rebirth for a book of elegant poems of domestic life. In Glass Wings (Bloodaxe), Fleur Adcock is as clear-eyed as always in a collection that ranges widely over lost worlds, family histories and memories of childhood, but always maintains the art of seemingly artless observation. And Train Songs, edited by Sean O'Brien and Don Paterson (Faber), is a joy. The reader might take issue with the editors' claim that the railway is "as close as earthly things get to perfection" – as indeed do many of the poets and songwriters on board – but there are plenty of nostalgic pleasures to be had here.
Finally, a thoughtful and thought-provoking book about how we read and project our own concerns, especially political ones, on to texts. Poetry and Privacy: Questioning Public Interpretations of Contemporary British and Irish Poetry by John Redmond (Seren) is a salubrious corrective to those critics and academics for whom over-interpretation is a way of life. At which point, it seems best to say no more.