Poetry News best books of the year

March-songs, ecopoetics and bright portholes – it’s been an excellent year for poetry. We asked Poetry News contributors of the past year to tell us which books they’ve loved. Tweet your tips at #bestpoetrybooks

John McCullough
I’d like to recommend Caleb Parkin’s This Fruiting Body (Nine Arches), which takes ecopoetry in really imaginative directions full of queerness and compassion. Tishani Doshi’s A God at the Door (Bloodaxe) blew me away from the first poem as well: I found it original and utterly compelling. It was a joy to encounter Kayo Chingonyi’s A Blood Condition (Chatto & Windus) too, musical and questing and fresh.
– John McCullough was a Poetry News members’ poems judge and was shortlisted for the 2021 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem.

Anna Woodford
This year brought three excellent second collections. Elizabeth Cook’s When I Kiss the Sky (Worple) is well worth a purchase: full of tender, memorable writing and some searing elegies in particular. Similarly an event is Paul Batchelor’s The Acts of Oblivion (Carcanet), including stunning, beautifully turned poems of history, place and imagination which have lit up recent magazines. I first heard Kim Moore read from her ‘All the Men’ sequence – just published as All The Men I Never Married (Seren) – at a library in Bridlington over five years ago. It is a delight to be able to read these ingenious poems in a single collection.
– Anna Woodford’s latest collection is Changing Room (Salt, 2018).

Marvin Thompson
Shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, Cynthia Miller’s debut Honorifics (Nine Arches) is mesmerising. Miller’s focus on her Malaysian-Chinese heritage is fearless. Her focus on the intricacies of family is heartfelt. A fellow graduate of the annual Primers mentoring scheme, Miller composes her poems in a galaxy of forms. Superb! Siege and Symphony by Myra Schneider (Second Light) ends with a long poem detailing the creation of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 during the siege of Leningrad. This poem consumes, in its form, an important moment in European history that is rarely talked about in British recollections of World War 2. Schneider depicts great art as spiritual sustenance whilst drawing readers into the recent siege of Aleppo. Schneider’s ability to capture a sense of the divine in the everyday makes many of the poems in this collection truly remarkable. My drives to work sparkle with poetry audiobooks. Listening to Natalie Diaz, Caleb Femi, Kei Miller and others read their own poems is a joy. With Raymond Antrobus’s collection All The Names Given (Picador), tender, brutal, personal poems are often underscored with light, ethereal music. The result is an arresting audio experience.
– Marvin Thompson won the National Poetry Competition 2020.

alice hiller
These are three books whose compelling and moving creative witness is realised through radical play and innovation. Gail McConnell’s The Sun is Open (Penned in the Margins) multiplies voices to make paths towards healing beyond her father’s murder in Belfast. Maria Stadnicka’s Buried Gods Metal Prophets (Guillemot, with images by Antonia Glücksman) unearths and honours the scarred bones of Romania’s postwar history. Tanatsei Gambura’s Things I Have Forgotten Before (Bad Betty) moves beyond Zimbabwe’s misgovernance to the textures, smells and people through which the country also lives.
– alice hiller’s bird of winter (Pavilion) was shortlisted for 2021 Forward Prize for Best First Collection.

Aaron Kent
A Blood Condition by Kayo Chingonyi (Chatto & Windus) sings with vulnerability, and bravery through that vulnerability, while also demonstrating a keen lyrical grip on the harmonics of language – essential reading. Andrew McMillan’s pandemonium (Jonathan Cape) is another massive step forward in a career full of them. It is a bold undertaking to write to and through a history of poetics, while emerging thoroughly in the present, and looking towards a poetic future. Joelle Taylor’s poetry in C+nto & Othered Poems (The Westbourne Press) does what I want poetry to do: it gives life to community through the music of words. The book explores the fractions between social media and real conversation but doesn’t really denigrate one over the other. Joelle is a champion of page and stage, and this book proved her incredible talent across both (with QR codes in the back leading to videos of the poems performed). Can I also give an honourable mention to Daniel Sluman’s single window (Nine Arches)?
– Aaron Kent is the founder and publisher of Broken Sleep Books.

Nicola Jackson
Jenny Mitchell’s Map of a Plantation (Indigo Dreams) is notable for the range of voices she brings from the plantation, and the innovative forms she uses to take us deep into this vile trade and its reverberations down the years. Amanda Gorman’s The Hill We Climb (Chatto & Windus) seems already from times past, with memories of Joe Biden’s inauguration sliding away, but her moving words and stunning performance at a time of division and fracture still strike me as sublime and to be held close. Judi Sutherland’s Following Teisa, to be released shortly by The Book Mill Press, snakes down the wild reaches of the River Tees to the industrial sea-mouth splitting Yorkshire and County Durham. Her work is lyrical and evocative yet does not shy away from the grit of industry.
– Nicola Jackson was the Essay Prize winner in the Keats-Shelley Prize 2021.

Adam Horovitz
It is perhaps telling that the two books that have stuck in my mind most persistently this year deal with living within constraints, in difficult circumstances. Maria Stadnicka’s Buried Gods Metal Prophets (Guillemot), inspired by her brothers’ time in a Romanian orphanage at the time of Decree 770, which banned abortion, is a startling book full of redactions, illustrations and potent, painful imagery. Stadnicka’s writing is so taut and alive that the full horror of the history she details only fully registers long after you have finished the book. It also contains ‘Homología’ (“Father, who art in Heaven, / I bought a derelict church / and converted the building into / a battery farm”), my favourite poem of the year. Daniel Sluman’s single window (Nine Arches) is equally sharply honed. A book-length poem/memoir of living for five years with chronic illness, broken only by seasonal markers and a selection of photographs, it could have been a daunting read in lesser hands. Sluman, however, has pared the poems back to the bone, so that even the most harrowing details sing from the page as the reader is drawn inexorably into the poet and his wife’s small but extraordinarily rich world. This book “carries the beautiful / like the room carries the light / from the window”.
– Adam Horovitz’s The Soil Never Sleeps is published by Palewell Press.

Phoebe Power
Suzannah V. Evans’s glittering pamphlet Brightwork (Guillemot), inspired by a residency in a boatyard, brims with playful joy for the names of things and the sounds of objects, in praise of planks, bolts, rust. Enjoy the creak and clink. I admire the meandering rhythms and meditative weaving of place and thought in Jason Allen-Paisant’s Thinking with Trees (Carcanet), a collection of walk poems that powerfully exposes the connections between race and power in our public parks. Filled with strawberry-flavoured images and sunset-coloured scenes, the poems in Jenna Clake’s Museum of Ice Cream (Bloodaxe) are luminous and funny, yet aching with painful secrets. Who can resist a title like ‘Self-portrait as a pink dressing-room’ or ‘Oyster Delight’?
– Phoebe Power judged the Poetry News competition on the theme of ‘Youth’. Her debut Shrines of Upper Austria (Carcanet, 2018) won the Forward Poetry Prize for Best First Collection.

Nick Makoha
Caleb Femi’s Poor (Penguin) has a special resonance with me, having grown up in Peckham myself. This is a book of actualisation. I admire Caleb’s attention to detail in rendering his characters and the architecture of South London. The tension of lyric and narrative are well balanced. Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica (Bloodaxe) is so good I bought it twice. Pascale is a grand master. She often deals with taboo subject matter, simultaneously transposing it onto the natural world. Or perhaps more accurately: she brings our awareness to the natural world that is all around us. Whether using animals or plants, her strength lies in expanding the reader’s emotional palette. Finally, Threa Almontaser’s The Wild Fox of Yemen (Picador) – all I can say is, wow. A good poet is one who can make you see the world differently by taking you outside of your own familiar experience. A strong debut. The language is electric, but more importantly this book expands the lens of Arabic and Muslim experience. I can’t wait for her second book.
– Nick Makoha won the Poetry London Prize 2021.

Lesley Ingram
Lesley IngramA Square of Sunlight by Meg Cox (Smith|Doorstop) is a wry, witty and wonderful book, full of love and loss and rich memories. ‘My Friend the Prize-Winning Poet’ has been (quite rightly) shared around social media, poets can so relate to it. I love the book’s humour, sadness, sensitivity and laugh-out-loud moments. This book is a Personality. Still by Christopher Meredith (Seren) has been a favourite read too, for its natural calm and beauty (“I made the ink / that makes this mark / from the worm of a wasp / and the grief of an oak”), and Lyonesse by Penelope Shuttle (Bloodaxe) for its tales of a real/mythical ancient/modern submerged land with such contemporary enchantment. This publication includes a second ‘book’, New Lamps for Old, which perfectly complements Lyonesse. Finally, two pamphlets: Hannah Hodgson’s Where I’d Watch Plastic Trees Not Grow (Verve) and Chaucer Cameron’s In An Ideal World I’d Not Be Murdered (Against The Grain) are also to be recommended.
– Lesley Ingram won the Stanza Poetry Competition 2020 on the theme of ‘Hear’.

Rushika Wick
The Taxidermist by Shazea Quraishi (Verve) is an Oulipian work rendered with exquisite care and craft. Set in Mexico, it’s like a box of meditative objects – so clean and sculptural in form that the reader wants to feel their enchantment repeatedly. The Cry of The Poor: An Anthology of Radical Writing, selected and edited by Fran Lock (Culture Matters), is a tender and intelligent curation. Lock opens with a micro-essay setting the collection in the space of poetry as agency and as social and ethical catalyst. The collection ranges from abjection and grit through to the joy of community and resourceful intelligence. A highlight for me was Amy Acre’s unforgettable poem ‘Fish Ball Soup’. Matthew Haigh’s recently released pamphlet Vampires (Bad Betty) is a deeply tender eulogy where 80s-90s culture, video gaming and the softness of colours are harnessed into a new poetics that is fully embodied and effervescent. There was a standing ovation in the hallowed vault of the Queen Elizabeth Hall when Caleb Femi received a Forward prize for Poor (Penguin) and identified community – both the Peckham estates and the poetry community – as the inspiration for this groundbreaking lyric homage. Here the intersections of an inner-city upbringing in poverty and as a young Black male in the UK are reclaimed and celebrated. The writing is wrought with clarity and nuance. There is more to feel and learn from this than from hundreds of academic essays on inequality and dignity. Hannah Copley’s Speculum (Broken Sleep) is a research-based yet imaginative poetic exploration of the treatment of the female body through time. Copley writes precisely, alternating between holding space gently and the visceral. Finally, Rocksong by Golnoosh Nour (Verve) is an intoxicating collection of exacting enquiries into love, desire and queer aesthetics intersecting with migration. Nour speaks a raging lyric that embraces vulnerability and a persistent curiosity. There is an imagistic richness here that is wholly compelling.
– Rushika Wick’s debut Afterlife as Trash was published by Verve in 2021.

Jane Wilkinson
I would first like to recommend Bloom by Sarah Westcott (Pavilion). I relish Bloom’s rich mouthfuls of poems and return to the book as you would to a beloved garden throughout its seasons. The book is full of delicate and tender writing: some of the poems read as fragments of a lost whole and there are concerns with extinctions of all kinds throughout. Some are set out as journal entries translating the static and stasis of lockdown into the hum of a meadow. Many read as extra-fresh definitions of the world’s living parts. Westcott’s poems are open, elastic spaces, where room is created for uncertainty and the fullness of the natural world’s complexity, all the while carefully describing the body’s encounters with birdsong, plants, others, animals, seeds. The poet is part explorer in the long grass, part shaman of small things. Many of the poems in The Resurrectionists by John Challis (Bloodaxe) are situated in the City of London, the West End and East London/Essex borderlands – my own home turf, until recently. These poems are rooted in relationships with family often departed, with old trades and night trading. The cover is brilliant, a photo of men at work in Smithfield’s market. Many poems offer us what this image does: a direct gaze, wit, labour, ghosts and dead meat. The real narrative of a city is not in its architecture, transport, incarcerations or commerce (although all those are here too) but in the flesh and blood – the workers. These are incredibly well-tailored poems, with humanity that acknowledges men’s fears and their cousin vulnerabilities. In Tiffany Atkinson’s Lumen (Bloodaxe), the poem ‘Accident and Emergency’ from the opening sequence ‘Dolorimeter’ begins: “Anyone claiming that time / is objective deserves a night / in A&E”. The heart-breaking and vividly tangible similes and metaphors in ‘Heroin works’ load up to overwhelm us, as the chronic pain does, here under the spotlight, for a young woman and her family. The book moves from its intense sequence on pain into joyful, sharp, smart poems that wryly monitor and transform the private business of friendship, dogs, food, firewood, work, neighbours and crying into a metaphysical of the quotidian. I love the book’s lustrous vocabulary – think sempiternal, mommet, thurifer – and the particularity of its point of view, which is inquiring, with a ‘what am I really?’ mode of address and a quiet persistence. A friend of a book.
– Jane Wilkinson won The Poetry Society’s Hamish Canham Prize 2021.

Joelle Taylor
This year was always going to be an extraordinary year for poetry collections. Those that have haunted me the most have all been themed loosely around community, grief and memory; they are searching and curious books, a sense of reaching back in each of them. The collection that affected me most is single window by Daniel Sluman (Nine Arches). Exquisitely written, tempered and somehow bright, single window is a porthole into disability and chronic pain. It takes an extraordinary writer to be able to hold this as gently and lightly as Sluman does, every page making metaphor from the mundane. Just brilliant. Poor by Caleb Femi (Penguin) is a collection of exceptional value. It is a hybrid book, part encyclopaedia of the streets – specifically south London streets – and part photo montage. It chronicles the lives of Black men and boys living under the burden of inherited collective trauma, the grief felt in each exchange. Each photograph is a poem, each poem a Polaroid. Poor is a worthy winner of the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. lisa luxx launched her debut full collection Fetch Your Mother’s Heart (Out-Spoken) during the summer lockdown. Written against the backdrop of the Lebanese uprising while living in Beirut, luxx examines tenderness and violence in language that explores and abandons form, forging new mythologies and narratives, each poem attentive to the page. luxx exemplifies a new generation of British poets who balance, even-footed, on the bridge between what is spoken and what is written. Deft, playful and vivid. I’m also excited about the forthcoming publication of Hyena! Jackal! Dog! by Fran Lock (Pamenar). Lock is the poet’s poet, a writer of such vivid intensity, such streams of filmic imagery, such wide cinema, that each collection she gives leaves us breathless. I learn more from reading Lock than from any other living poet.
– Joelle Taylor’s collection C+nto and Othered Poems (The Westbourne Press) is shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize 2021.

Ian Humphreys
Carola Luther’s On the Way to Jerusalem Farm (Carcanet) criss-crosses time and place, connecting past to present, West Yorkshire’s Calder Valley to Grasmere, South Africa and beyond. This finely balanced book is steeped in musicality – a hymn to nature and memory. Tender, beautiful and revelatory, single window by Daniel Sluman (Nine Arches) fuses memoir, poetry and photography. It’s an illuminating, sensory exploration of disability, drugs, pain and love. According to editor Jo Clement, Wagtail: The Roma Women’s Poetry Anthology (Butcher’s Dog) is a response to the “historic and ongoing failures by the publishing industry to fairly represent Roma women”. It’s also a compelling, vital anthology that’s alive with rich, authentic voices.
– Ian Humphreys is the editor of Why I Write Poetry (Nine Arches Press, 2021).

Jenny Lewis
My first recommendation is Hiddensee (pronounced ‘Hiddenzay’) by Annie Freud (Picador). The title is taken from the name of the ‘sea-horse-shaped’ island on the Baltic coast of Germany on which the author’s German Jewish grandmother had a house. Deeply humane, generous towards life and others, this book’s ambitious range includes a fine biographical title sequence exploring the “unhealable rift” of exile, and translations from French of the work of the Swiss poet Jacques Tornay. Freud, herself a painter, expands and contracts her focus to show how fractional shifts of tone can alter how we see the world, and ourselves in it. Jason Allen-Paisant’s Thinking with Trees (Carcanet) is about the way Black people see themselves, and are seen by others, in nature. “Who wanders/ lonely as a cloud/ with three golden retrievers?” he asks ironically in ‘Those Who Can Afford Time’. The book opened my eyes to how the legacy of slavery, colonialism and the displacement of peoples from their natural landscapes has led to the need for Black futures in nature to be re-imagined, while the astonishing beauty of the poems took my breath away: “Listen,” says the poet, “to the voice of the woods the chlorophyll / moving in the store box of the cedars…” (‘Listen’). Sarah Watkinson’s debut collection Photovoltaic (Graft) also tunes in to the voices of nature. A plant scientist at the University of Oxford, Watkinson brings a sense of wonder, a specificity of language and an irresistible enthusiasm to her scientific knowledge. “Take a magnifying glass to moss,” she urges in ‘British Mosses and Liverworts’, to see how it “makes the most of clouds, / spreads photovoltaics to the misted sun”. In ‘Dung Beetles Navigate by Starlight’, the eponymous beetle tells us how it is beams from the Milky Way that enable it to “track my treasure home”. Quite wonderful and inspirational.
– Jenny Lewis judged the Poetry News competition on the theme of ‘The lesser loss’.

Ben Ray
I found myself returning to Philip Gross, Cyril Jones and Valerie Coffin Price’s beautiful bilingual English/Welsh collection Troeon: Turnings (Seren) repeatedly this year, to wander this fascinating borderland between translation and collaboration. Even as a monolingual reader, it’s fascinating to explore the differing interpretations of the same poem in two languages which inhabit the same space – pushing the reader into new and unknown landscapes. Maria Stepanova’s War of the Beasts and the Animals (Bloodaxe) is in equal measures challenging, overpowering and disorientating. This relentless rush of a book gives the intriguing sense that the poetry itself is always one step ahead of the reader. The writing is steeped in fragments of memory and disturbing glimpses of war, woven together in Stepanova’s distinctive voice – a powerful and necessary read for 2020. It’s a real joy to dip in and out of a good anthology throughout the year, and wherever you land in New Poetries VIII: An Anthology (Carcanet), it doesn’t let you down. In this excellent and well-curated collection, editors Michael Schmidt and John McAuliffe introduce us to two dozen poets from across the world whose work consistently impresses and surprises – find out the names to look out for in 2022!
– Ben Ray’s The Kindness of the Eel is published by The Poetry Business.

Pippa Hennessy
Poet Caleb Parkin describes himself as a ‘day-glo queero techno eco poet’, and his debut collection This Fruiting Body (Nine Arches), a celebration of our planet and all its inhabitants, certainly lives up to that promise. His imagery is startlingly vivid, his ideas are queer in the broadest sense, and his Mother Earth embraces and intertwines with technology. With titles like ‘I Compare Myself to a GIF of a Dung Beetle’, ‘Minotaur at the Soft Play Centre’ and ‘For I Will Consider Gnorma, the Asda Pride Gnome’, who wouldn’t want to read these poems? I’ve been eagerly awaiting Kathleen Bell’s debut for years, following the development of the sequence Balance Sheets for Mediaeval Spinsters through magazine publications and reading and re-reading her two fine pamphlets. The first lines of the first poem in Disappearances (Shoestring) (“The child you never had / was not pressed for war”) took my breath away, and the sheer beauty of Bell’s images and their juxtapositions ensured I barely breathed for the next couple of hours. I closed the book with more questions in my head than I started with – there is no higher recommendation. Finally, Rosie Garland’s What Girls Do in the Dark (Nine Arches) – Garland is a true gothic polymath. This is reflected in her poetry, which roams through astrophysics, war zones, quantum theory, human biology, history, relationships and non-relationships, and more. The poems in What Girls Do in the Dark take this variety to extremes, yet somehow manage to bring concrete details and abstract ideas from all these areas together into a coherent, explosive, dazzling, gorgeous whole.
– Pippa Hennessy is a bookseller at Five Leaves Bookshop, Nottingham.

Christopher James
Return by Minor Road by Heidi Williamson (Bloodaxe) is a book of remembrance, of trauma and grief. It’s a powerful and personal reckoning with the events that took place at a primary school in Dunblane in 1996. But it’s also a book of hope, healing and consolation, vividly drawn landscapes, and mirrors and echoes in nature. Neil Elder’s poems have a clarity and directness that’s sorely missing in much of today’s poetry; however, this is not to be confused with simplicity. In Like This (4Word), the poet takes everyday moments and charges them with a uniquely reflective lyricism and subversive playfulness. The Knives of Villalejo by Matthew Stewart (Eyewear) is a book full of polarities: between work and home, past and present, life and death. These opposing currents provide the book with its emotional tension. Stewart creates unpredictable landscapes in which seemingly innocuous, domestic scenes can lurch into something much darker. He has a gift, too, for original simile and metaphor, helping us reimagine familiar worlds.
– Christopher James won the National Poetry Competition 2008. His collection The Penguin Diaries is published by Templar.

Luke Thompson and Sarah Cave
A good deal of the poetry we read comes through our inbox and it’s exciting getting the first glimpses of new projects and new writers. So our selection begins with two poetry debuts from small presses: Karenjit Sandhu’s young girls! (87Press) and Maia Elsner’s Overrun by wild boars (flipped eye). Both are excellent readers and worth catching if you can. Two established voices have also produced new favourites this year. Vahni (Anthony Ezekiel) Capildeo’s Like a Tree, Walking (Carcanet) merges the everyday and the esoteric with characteristic humour and originality, while Jen Hadfield’s The Stone Age (Picador) offers us a closely observed, Shetland-rooted exploration of place and neurodiversity. Both are outstanding.
– Luke Thompson and Sarah Cave run Guillemot Press.

Carl Tomlinson
If you’re a straight middle-aged man like me, you too might find it harrowing to read about your complicity in some of the stories of toxic masculinity in All The Men I Never Married by Kim Moore (Seren). Stick with it, because there’s also a thread of compassion alongside the directness of the address which makes me wish someone had given me a book like this when I was 18. It should be on the PHSE curriculum. Next, The Kids by Hannah Lowe (Bloodaxe). This book reads very much like a labour of love. Anyone who commits to writing, and asks the reader to commit to reading, 66 sonnets has got to have plenty to say. These poems never flinch and the best of them (‘The Only English Kid’, ‘In H&M’, ‘Janine I/II’) leave us caring for the kids as much as she does. As someone who writes a lot about loss and landscape, I was drawn into On Long Loan by Vanessa Lampert (Live Canon) immediately. It takes a steady hand to write about police officers coming “to tell you that / your son is dead”, and a deft touch to narrate grief through the demolition of a power station. Add in the laugh-out-loud last line of ‘Candyfloss’, and this neat pamphlet rewards more than one close reading.
– Carl Tomlinson’s Changing Places is published by Fair Acre Press.

Georgie Evans
Kim Moore’s collection All The Men I Never Married (Seren) struck me from the march-song on the first page; I loved it for the sturdy pointedness of the poems. My favourite pamphlet this year is Rude Mechanical by Jack Warren (Broken Sleep): a book of affecting, rich pockets of tenderness. Finally, Auguries of a Minor God by Nidhi Zak/Aria Eipe (Faber) is something to be gladly and completely lost inside: a wonderful collection.
– Georgie Evans is a bookseller at The Corner Bookshop, Halifax, and is working on her own first collection.

Every quarter, Poetry News presents news, previews, features, profiles and competitions, connecting Poetry Society members to the wider world of poetry. To receive a regular copy, simply join The Poetry Society.