2023 has been a year of such rich variety for poetry that picking out five volumes feels bordering on impossible. Superb collections include those by Claudia Rankine, Majella Kelly, Mary Jean Chan, Cecilia Knapp and Carole Satyamurti – each deserving of a special mention. But the following stand out for their memorable idiosyncrasy and can be wrapped with confidence this Christmas.
Balladz by Sharon Olds (Jonathan Cape)
Sharon Olds is a force of nature. It seems phenomenal that, at 81, she turned out this collection about sex, love and the landscape of the body that seems to have been written with something of the fearlessness and insolence of youth. I said she was “evergreen” when I reviewed the book – that is an understatement.
School of Instructions by Ishion Hutchinson (Faber)
Hutchinson writes about the experiences of West Indian volunteer soldiers during the first world war (into which he has researched at London’s Imperial War Museum) and a version of his own boyhood in Jamaica. He emerges here as a poet of risk-taking vision, erudition and sensitivity.
Was It for This by Hannah Sullivan (Faber)
Hannah Sullivan’s second collection is a delight (her first, Three Poems, won the TS Eliot prize). She is an Oxford English professor who takes a tough line on herself in what is a book of reckonings. 14 June 2017, about Grenfell Tower, includes the following sympathetic snapshot of idling with her baby: “I was absconding from the life that I had had,/Committed to being small, nutlike, enshelled. My phone was turned to silent so the calls just flashed./I threw some sozzled raisins to the birds.”
Enter the Water by Jack Wiltshire (Corsair)
It is thrilling to be able to salute an original new voice in Jack Wiltshire. He is fresh, funny and his own man. This is a verse narrative, set in 2022, about becoming homeless in Cambridge in which the narrator journeys to the coast in the company of pigeons, a blackbird and unruly Storm Eunice. His work suggests that he is a modern John Clare – a real find.
From Our Own Fire by William Letford (Carcanet)
This is a spellbinder of a book: a fantastical, visionary dystopian Scottish soap opera in which poetry and prose are fused and old human ways collide with frighteningly uncharted artificial intelligence. A leavening wit keeps the fire smouldering throughout. Letford is an inexplicably underrated poet given his exceptional gift.
One for my stocking
I’ve only recently read Julia Darling, who died in 2005. I regard her as the friend I never had and love her conversational, clever, moving poems. I seem to have lost my copy of Indelible, Miraculous (Arc) – and wonder if Santa might kindly send me another and, please, throw into the stocking the other books she wrote.
• To browse all of the books in the Observer and Guardian’s best books of 2023 visit guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply