Advertisement

The best poetry books of 2023

Hyenas
Wild thing: a hyena becomes the poet Fran Lock's alter ego in Hyena! (Poetry Bus), one of our books of the year - Expert Africa

Troublant, phasmid, gadje, plumbous, filsket, caravel, birl… Fran Lock must swallow dictionaries the way her alter ego does meat in Hyena! (Poetry Bus, £8.50), the scabrous underdog on this year’s T S Eliot Prize shortlist. “A speed-freak’s reverie of venery and grief”, it imagines the poet as a four-legged carnivore in poems about London’s seamy underside (and elegies for the late poet Roddy Lumsden).

Is it too long, too OTT? Yes, but “Hyena is her own raving spectrum”, and Lock is, too. All spite, spleen and urban ennui, she is our Baudelaire. Lock is a brilliant phrasemaker: to her a hare “is a bag of splintered cravings” making “a futile juke for / cover” while overhead a “hawk wheels, begins again its pedant’s waltz”. Like Paul Muldoon, she balances a vast vocabulary with a perfect ear for rhythm, a wicked sense of humour, and pathos that bites when you least expect it.

Owed by Joshua Bennett (Blooms­bury, £9.99) – odes to intimacy and his African-American com­munity – has a sharp turn of phrase, too. With an electric razor “like a baton full of wasps’ / Gossip”, his barber offers “a cut so close you could see / the shimmer of a man’s thinking”. A shimmer of thought shines throughout fellow American Shane McCrae’s The Many Hundreds of the Scent (Corsair, £12.99). Whether he’s writing about Helen of Troy or his own childhood kidnapping by white supremacists, McCrae’s lines mirror the rhythms of a mind at work.

It has taken Claudia Rankine’s Plot (Penguin, £10.99) 22 years to cross the Atlantic. UK readers who know only her famous later book Citizen will hardly believe it’s by the same writer. Following a couple expecting their first baby, its weirdness and lush, word-drunk density recall early Dylan Thomas.

How will the world end? In fire, said Robert Frost. With a whimper, said T S Eliot. With gibberish from outer space, says William Letford. Hopping between prose and verse, Letford’s sci-fi novel From Our Own Fire (Carcanet, £14.99) is funny, gripping, big-hearted and very Scottish. Humanity decodes a message from beyond the stars, and anyone who listens is… changed.

Jorie Graham’s chilly To 2040 (Carcanet, £15.99) also conjures unsettling dystopias. Writing in the wake of a cancer diagnosis, out of “this ever thickening / silence” ­Graham imagines her own extinction – and the Earth’s – with a rich imagination but a spare, dry, starved vocabulary. If Graham sometimes sounds like a character from a Beckett play, Laura Scott speaks pure Chekhov in The Fourth Sister (Carcanet, £11.99). She captures the way his characters “talk and talk / to slow life’s ruin down by playing it backwards and...  love / the sound of it”. Ben Lerner is another great talker, too, overthinking everything in The Lights (Granta, £12.99), in ways admirers of his novels will find familiar, as he worries at questions about fatherhood, family and art.

Left to right: Ishion Hutchinson, Shane McCrae, Frank Lock
Left to right: Ishion Hutchinson, Shane McCrae, Frank Lock - Marco Giugliarelli/TS Eliot Prize/Dan Callister

For an anthology, why not try Anne-thology (Broken Sleep, £9.99), which collects poems old and new about Shakespeare’s wife by the likes of Wendy Cope, John Agard and Rowan Williams, the last of whom imagines Anne flipping through the First Folio: “It slips and whispers on my lap / like overstarched small-clothes”. The Folio’s 400th anniversary this month inspired a wave of bardolatry; this is a playful riposte.

Also cocking a snook at the canon was Joey Connolly’s tricksy, eclectic The Recycling (Carcanet, £12.99). Connolly begins with almost 40 pages of epigraphs, before flicking between subtle break-up poems and dramatic monologues, the best of which hilariously ventriloquises a French comte fending off revolutionaries (“the guillotine has snickered in Paris since May”). But who are today’s revolutionaries? Who – as McCrae puts it – will sing “the new music”? Amy Acre’s debut Mothersong (Bloomsbury, £8.99) describes early motherhood with Fran Lock-ian verve, while Declan Ryan’s Crisis Actor (Faber, £10.99) offers stiff-lipped, collar-up portraits of boxers, singers, also-rans. Life slipping by. Sentences with no main verb. A bruised heart beneath it all. Terrific.

There’s similar emotional restraint to The Grid (Carcanet, £12.99), Eli Payne Mandel’s dense, hushed tribute to Alice Kober, a linguist who worked to decode Linear B – the proto-Greek script Achilles might’ve used for his laundry lists.

Achilles was back in the bestseller lists, thanks to Emily Wilson’s acclaimed Iliad (Norton, £30), which I’ve not yet finished. I tried, honest, but I was sidetracked by the “Iliadic swag” of another war epic, Ishion Hutchinson’s School of Instructions. Like Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns, it collides distant and more recent pasts, childhood memories and recorded history. The poem flickers back and forth, from line to line, between the poet’s schooldays in 1990s Jamaica and West Indian soldiers’ grim experiences in the First World War, “drawn into the affray cousins make, / mortared to haul martyrs from mud trenches”. It’s lush, dense, and challenging – I’ll admit it left me slightly perplexed on a first reading, but a good poem demands to be read more than once.

That’s certainly the case with another act of historical recovery, Ruth Wiggins’s The Lost Book of Barkynge (Shearsman, £12.95), my favourite debut of the year. With shades of both Hill and Hilary Mantel, Wiggins brings the past to life, giving voice to nine centuries of nuns and abbesses at Barking Abbey. I keep discovering new things to admire in it with each repeated visit. As one abbess puts it, life offers no greater pleasure than “to sit with one book one thought / for months on end / to climb in it as a child within a tree”.


Tristram Fane Saunders’s first poetry collection, Before We Go Any Further, is published by Carcanet at £12.99. To order these books at a discount, call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk/xmas