The decade’s best poetry books: my picks, part one.

It seems like everyone and their dog is doing a “Best of the Decade” list of something — books, films, songs, whatever. I started thinking about a list of Best Poetry Books, and have been sifting through my bookshelves for hours, trying to whittle down the choices from what seemed like hundreds. So many fantastic poetry books have been published in the past ten years by large and small presses alike, but in the end I managed to slim the list down to just a handful. Here are the first of my picks!

Ruin and Beauty: New and Selected Poems by Patricia Young (Anansi Press, Toronto, 2000).
This isn’t the first time I’ve written about Patricia Young on this blog — I’ve been a huge fan of her work since I found Ruin and Beauty in a bookstore in Victoria, Canada in 2007. It’s a wide and varied selection of poems from her seven full collections, and utterly justifies Young’s status as one of Canada’s most important contemporary poets. There are so many fabulous poems inside, but my particular favourites are Looking For A Man, a poem about an alcoholic father’s strange power over his two young daughters; Weird Genes, about a family of sleepwalkers; When The Body Speaks To The Heart It Says, a poem I was even moved to write a response to; and The Fire, in which Young describes her child’s discovery of fire and builds this into a metaphor for coming of age. As you can probably tell even from these short descriptions, Young’s poetry is original, imaginative and shows impressive range. One of my favourite poetry collections not only of the past decade, but of all time.

Nine Horses by Billy Collins (Random House, London, 2002).
Again, this isn’t the first time I’ve written about Billy Collins on One Night Stanzas (in fact, others have written about him here, too!) — he’s a big favourite of mine, for his writing but also for his work in the wider poetry community. He is a great believer in the idea that there’s a poem out there for everyone, and has done fantastic work in promoting poetry to children and young people. To date, he has published more than ten collections, but of those from the last decade, Nine Horses is definitely my favourite. It feels a little darker than his previous works, and John Updike described the poems inside as “startling, more serious than they seem.” I’d particularly recommend Royal Aristocrat, (which I’m possibly only fond of because it’s about a typewriter); the fabulously sarcastic Litany; and No Time, the shortest poem in the collection in which Collins fleetingly reanimates his dead parents as he drives past the cemetery in which they’re buried. I’m aware that Billy Collins is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m tempted to say that the legions of stuffy critics lining up to say he’s “sentimental” or just writes prose with line breaks in it are seriously missing the point. One of my favourite things about Collins is his refusal to take poetry seriously — Poetry-With-A-Capital-P is thoroughly ridiculed (see Litany) and I’m sure Collins would be the first to hold up his hands and say that he’s not trying to do anything radical, different or even particularly clever. What he’s repeatedly pointed out, however, is that there needs to be some poetry out there that anyone can appreciate on some level — rather than writing for university educated reviewers, he’s writing for the average man or woman on the street. The critics can pontificate about the rights and wrongs of that all they like, but it’s working — Collins is one of the most widely read poets alive today. Read Nine Horses, and you may well see why.

Looking Through Letterboxes by Caroline Bird (Carcanet, Manchester, 2002).
Caroline Bird’s debut collection Looking Through Letterboxes was published in 2002, when she was just fifteen years old, and studying her GCSEs in high school. The book was huge, receiving wide critical acclaim, but Bird had already found success — by the age of fourteen, she’d aready won the Simon Elvin Young Poet of the Year Award twice. It’s all utterly deserved: Bird’s poetry is refreshingly original and amazingly assured, achieving a tone that many far more experienced poets strive for in vain. The poems are complex but accessible, weird but poignant, youthful and devil-may-care but also highly relevant. I absolutely love Bird’s ideas for poems — the complaints of an old red callbox in the poem Pissed Off Phone Box — but also the deft execution of these ideas: “Hoodlums // scrawling their latest love / in the yellow pages of my favourite book.” Other favourites from the collection include The Radiator In Your Room (”I’m thinking of all your knife-in-the-dark remarks, / the way you fold yourself into bed like a fig-roll / and blow out the lights with the breath of a switch”); Seven Ways Of Looking At A Fire (”black / wigwam / with a yellow hat / and a red umbrella, / opening and closing, / dancing”); and I Know This Because You Told Me (”If I take money from your wallet it is called crime; // if you take money from my piggy-bank it is called borrowing”). In short, I absolutely love this book — it feels wicked and audacious. Buy it!

More to come… but what are your favourite poetry books of the decade, and why? Get thee to the comments box or write a list of your own — just be sure to link me!

(Photo by Pearled)

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10 Responses to “The decade’s best poetry books: my picks, part one.”

  1. Rachel Says:

    Pray for us Sinners by Joolz Denby was a favourite of mine.

  2. David Tait Says:

    There were so many brilliant books last decade!
    I think my favourites at the moment though would have to be:

    Charles Simic - Selected
    Billy Collins - Ballistics
    Katia Kapovitch - Cossacks and Bandits
    Carol Ann Duffy - Rapture
    Sinead Morrissey - The State of the Prisons
    Julia Darling - Apology for Absence

    Looking forward to hearing the rest of your article, Claire

    D x

  3. Gareth Says:

    Have bought ‘Nine Horses’ and am about a third of the way through — cheers for the recommendation Claire!

  4. Claire Says:

    Rachel — I keep hearing about Joolz Denby. Obviously I need to follow this up!

    David — I still haven’t got my hands on Ballistics but I assume it’s on a par with his usual fabulousness — it’s on my to-read list. I have Rapture but didn’t love it as much as some of her others, it felt a bit self indulgent at times… but undeniably, some total gold in there, too. V curious about Sinead Morrissey, have only read the odd poem or two. All good recommendations, methinks!

    Gareth — how do you like it so far? :)

  5. One Night Stanzas » Blog Archive » The decade’s best poetry books: my picks, part two. Says:

    [...] The decade’s best poetry books: my picks, part two. See part one here! [...]

  6. Gareth Says:

    I’m very chuffed with it indeed! Some pieces leave me a little cold, but on the whole I’ve found it really engaging — he’s got such a marvellous sense of humour! My favourite so far has to be ‘The Country’ methinks.

    Next up is the collected works of Ginsberg — thought it was about time I got around to reading him. ;)

  7. Claire Says:

    Gareth — if you’ve never read him before, you might want to start with something slimmer (and cheaper!) than the collected — he is an acquired taste, trust me! If you buy the collected and then don’t like him, you might kick yourself (although persevere with him, I loathed him when I first read Howl — now I’m his biggest fangirl). I’d recommend Howl and Other Poems, Kaddish and Other Poems, or Cosmopolitan Greetings — all good starting points. Or the Selected, which is slimmer than the Collected by a long way!

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