The best poetry books of 2024 so far

Camille Ralphs
'It’s hard to save the world from everyone who wants to save the world': Camille Ralphs - Faber

March: After You Were, I Am by Camille Ralphs

If there’s one art form which ought to be proudly out of step with the zeitgeist it is poetry. I might go further and call this a duty: stripped of commercial concerns, poetry is at its best when it pursues the artist’s vision as idiosyncratically as possible. Still, in debates about the state of poetry, we often hear from a loud faction of authoritarian formalists who are only happy when attacking contemporary verse for its lack of discipline or metric principle, even while their own work tends towards moralistic doggerel. It’s refreshing, then, to encounter in Camille Ralphs a boldly formalist technician whose poetry is innovative, whose phrasing sings. Ralphs is exceptionally skilled in prosody, but it’s worn lightly, or outweighed by an urgent artistry.

It’s a rare debut collection today that dares to be difficult, to be theologically complex, to be theological at all. Yet After You Were, I Am showcases an ambition, seriousness and wit that make it strangely timeless – one feels it could have been published in any era and be worthy of a readership.

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March: After You Were, I Am by Camille Ralphs

February: Wrong Norma by Anne Carson

January: Top Doll by Karen McCarthy Woolf

Its first section, “Book of Common Prayers”, rewrites canonical devotions from sources as diverse as Job, St Augustine and Rumi, and does so with a rare panache and integrity. A poem titled “after Mechthild of Magdeburg” takes off from the 13th-century German mystic’s rhapsodic ode to the Almighty, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more seamless and beautiful combination of neologism and anachronism:

O arch as high as Maslow’s hierarchy, O I-wide-eye, surround-soundness of
oh what’s happened this time, yet O timeless bigtime, day that lasts forever and a day, 
O, you, beforehand of all forehands

I’m in awe of the effect, not so much a collage as an entirely new creation in reaction to the old.

What sets this work apart is that Ralphs manages to be irreverent and reverent at the same time; alive to the fact that we can’t really have one without the other. If the wordplay is something of a motif it never becomes tired – and wordplay was, after all, good enough for the Metaphysicals. For Ralphs, a pattern of speech is a pattern of thought is a pattern of being. Her poems crack words open, spoonerising and subverting our proverbs and buzz-phrases to ask: what are we really saying? A careful and stricken theology emerges, perhaps best summed up in “after St Francis of Assisi”: “cursed are we who know it’s hard to save the world from everyone who wants to save the world.”

The middle section, “Malkin”, dramatises the 1612 Pendle witch trials in a series of lyrical monologues. The narrative of condemnation and murder by the state comes through in terrifying fragments of speeches under duress, with period-appropriate inconsistencies of spelling and syntax, a wild language yet to crystallise:

I felt the valleys shrunc to gutters cloggd 
wth sky I saw a hare uneating embers 
in th tumbledown of darck and the rains spalling 
the Heavens as I stolle a littl lamb

It’s impeccably researched, and avoids familiar territory or historical cosplay in favour of a layered, linguistic intensity. “Malkin” is about rumour, calumny, the exploitation of the weak to curry favour with the whims of those in power. Ralphs doesn’t point out crass parallels in our own time, and doesn’t need to: the voices of the dead (all of our voices, in time) persist in our supposedly rational age. We cannot deny our place in historical atrocities because they’re part of why we’re here; they’re in our dictionaries, our language, our thought. “Oh what’s happened this time”, indeed.

The collection concludes with “My Word”, a jaw-dropping evocation of Dr John Dee, chief astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I, drawing on his own “spiritual diary” of his somewhat quixotic mission to discover the true Word. Again, this is challenging stuff (I expect the most erudite reader will still be thankful for the notes), but intellectually generous enough to show us a good time in recreating an era of gravely serious magic, when metaphysical ambition had a place in the civil service: “he who knew annihilation’s knothing, in a daisy is the daye’s eye, / flattened”. It’s impossible to do it justice in less than a dissertation, but – as with this whole collection – I expect to be re-reading it for years to come.

Luke Kennard’s poetry collections include Cain and Notes on the Sonnets. After You Were, I Am is published by Faber at £12.99. To order your copy for £10.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books

February: Wrong Norma by Anne Carson

The literary world – well, the bit of it on X/Twitter – had a small conniption recently. One American poet claimed that another’s unrhymed, unmetered sonnets were “not poetry”, merely “prose”. According to the site, their spat drew the attention of a quarter of a million people, far more than will ever buy either writer’s books.

Why does the “Is this a poem?” debate still get people so worked up? Everyone agrees Anne Carson is a poet – to some, the greatest living poet – and her poetry is often in prose. In 40 years of publications, she has consistently answered “yes, both” to either/or questions: fiction or nonfiction, prose or verse, translation or original writing. Her books include verse novels, a poem-essay on Proust, a comic-book version of a Greek tragedy, and a bundle of pamphlets designed to fall out of their box onto the floor in a random order.

Now comes Wrong Norma: reassuringly book-shaped on the outside, 200 pages of uncategorisable “pieces” on the inside, united only by the fact they’re all somehow uncompromisingly intelligent while being effortlessly readable, and – a word critics don’t often use about Carson – fun.

“The pieces are not linked. That’s why I’ve called them wrong,” Carson is quoted as saying on Wrong Norma’s back cover. (Weird, an author who blurbs herself.) “Not linked” is either a fib or a failing. Ideas and characters recur in a way that’s intriguing if by design – it must be – but would be unthink­ably sloppy if by mistake. “Eddy”, in an early short story of that name, feeds his pet crow toast, and analyses bloodstains professionally. So, too, does the unnamed narrator seeking revenge on gangsters in “Thret” – a blackly comic study in unease. (Martin McDonagh should film it.) Surely he’s Eddy. Then again, the chap in “Thret” is paranoid, and it’s a story filled with doubles, so who knows?

Anne Carson, book cover of Wrong Norma
'Grief is deeply and horribly humorous but we’re not supposed to say so': Anne Carson - Beowulf Sheehan/PEN American Center/Writer Pictures/Jonathan Cape

“An Evening with Joseph Conrad” begins with the poet seeing a man in an elevator who looks a bit like Conrad. Its four pages name-drop (among others) Hardy, Euripides, “the Gorkys”, Eugene Lyons, Goethe, Freud, the poet HD, Achilles and Lacan, who’s quoted in French. This should be insuffer­able, but miraculously isn’t. What sticks with you aren’t the allusions, but the warm, thoughtful voice, and the witty phrasemaking – ­Conrad’s “virtuosic goatee”, congregants in church “sat packed like teeth”, piles of sliced bread “as white as its own piety”.

There’s some sombre work here, including a powerful piece about Faisal bin Ali Jaber, a Yemeni engineer whose law-abiding relatives were killed in 2012 by US drone strikes. (Carson keeps returning to his case; she published a poem about him in The Telegraph last year.) But there’s also a silly streak. “Lecture on the History of Skywriting” is narrated by the sky, who picks up the phone to Beckett’s Godot (“Rusty” to friends, and those friends include Yoko Ono). The silliness doesn’t always gel: in “Getaway”, a woman’s “weekend getaway” takes place inside a honey­comb, a surreal conceit that feels patched-on, rather than fully integrated into the piece.

But Carson’s jokes aren’t just jokes. There’s a lightly worn authority behind them, an honesty: you can be funny and serious. “I have a sense most grief is also deeply and horribly humorous but we’re not supposed to say so.” Grief and wordplay work together in “Snow”, one of the most poignant pieces. It’s a quintessentially Carson-ish ­balance of thought and feeling. In it, she recalls struggling to write a lecture about “the idea of the university” in the week of her mother’s death. Memories of the latter blur with lecture notes, thoughts on the Bible, storytelling, etymology: “Forbidden by her doctor from her nightly glass of Armagnac she’d taken to dabbing it behind her ears. The word ‘idea’ comes from ancient Greek, ‘to see’.” Few writers are better at capturing how the mind can flit between four things at once.

“Down the road from the summer cottage of my friend Stanley Lombardo is a farm where emus and llamas graze,” Carson writes. “Llamas are stately, with an air of deep comedy, and larger than they seem.” Are these poems, stories, essays, philosophy? No – Anne Carson is a writer of llamas. TFS

Tristram Fane Saunders’s debut poetry collection is Before We Go Any Further. Wrong Norma is published by Jonathan Cape at £14.99. To order your copy for £12.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books

January: Top Doll by Karen McCarthy Woolf

On her death in 2011, at the age of 104, the reclusive heiress Huguette Clark left behind an estate worth more than $300 million – and a vast collection of dolls, one of which ended up in the hands of the poet Karen McCarthy Woolf. The latter gives it, and dozens of its big-eyed companions, a fictionalised voice in her third book, a verse novel as eccentric as Clark herself.

If you want a straight account of Clark’s life, there are biographies; Atonement’s Joe Wright is adapting one for TV. In Top Doll, Clark is only glimpsed, a silent, pitiful enigma shuffling from room to room, her elderly face disfigured by “carcinoma-nasty” (as the dolls call it). Her toys, by contrast, won’t shut up, nattering in a cacophonous mix of dialects and verse styles as they prepare for Clark’s departure for “the hospital”.

Miss Ting speaks in Jamaican patois; Lady Mamiko glides between prose and haiku; the Barbies all boast in abecedarians, a silly, irritating poetic form exactly suited to them. They’re all stock types, apart from the anxious, bossy, distractible Top Doll, simply known as “Dolly”, who pipes up in sonnets with runs of skewed half-rhyme (“chandelier” and “derrière”, “Rockefeller” and “America”), in a Franglais voice halfway between Miss Piggy and the TV meerkat: “This is maximums accurate blurbs!”

Barbie dolls
It's a Barbie world: Karen McCarthy Woolf's verse novel is narrated by dolls - Clara Molden

Well, you don’t expect verisimilitude from a bunch of mass-produced air-headed dolls. Their lives, meanwhile, include rather more sex and drugs than you might imagine, and internecine intrigue, with a tangled subplot involving double-crossing and a heist of cherry-blossom powder (used for make-up, but also snorted as dollkind’s version of cocaine). But aside from Dolly, “myopic in her loyalties” and poignantly obsessed with protecting her “maman”, their love-triangles and machinations for the powder can feel insubstantial.

Despite McCarthy Woolf’s impressive way with verse forms, the most compelling parts are prose passages narrated by a 19th-century doll, the General, which give us something resembling a plot, via his recollections of his owners’ lives, including the enslaved plantation girl for whom he was originally made, who survives sexual abuse, runs away, and eventually becomes Lt Col Custer’s cook.

Top Doll is a strange picaresque, with its main players all trapped in one New York apartment. What does it all add up to? I’m not sure, but I’ve not read anything quite like it. And to ask for more than that would be “maximum ungratefuls” – as Dolly would say. TFS

Top Doll is published by Dialogue at £20. To order your copy for £16.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books