What are the best books on...

Fiction

The Best Poetry Books of 2017

recommended by Susannah Herbert

Poetry book sales are bigger this year than ever before, and the form is ‘about to reach many, many more people,’ says the head of the Forward Arts Foundation. Here’s a diagnosis of the year in poetry – and a prescription for years to come  

Buy
Buy all five books

Susannah Herbert

Susannah Herbert runs the Forward Arts Foundation, which is responsible for the Forward Prizes for Poetry and National Poetry Day. A journalist for 25 years, she edited the books pages of The Sunday Times, reported from Paris for the Daily Telegraph and launched the Evening Standard’s Get London Reading campaign.

Save for later

Susannah Herbert

Susannah Herbert runs the Forward Arts Foundation, which is responsible for the Forward Prizes for Poetry and National Poetry Day. A journalist for 25 years, she edited the books pages of The Sunday Times, reported from Paris for the Daily Telegraph and launched the Evening Standard’s Get London Reading campaign.

Save for later
 

Has 2017 been a good year for poetry?

It’s been a really interesting year. Has it been a good year for poetry collections? Probably. But better yet, for things around poetry, such as thinking about new ways in which poetry can communicate at this particular moment.

That’s a big part of your role as executive director at the Forward Arts Foundation, which runs initiatives like National Poetry Day and the Forward Poetry Prizes. So, when you talk about new ways of broadening poetry’s audience, what are they?

Well, they’re some little things, like making it possible for online-only journals to submit to the Forward prizes. For a long time the only way a poet could reach an audience was by bringing out a collection. There weren’t very many publishers interested in such things and many fewer publication opportunities with big publishers for poets than there are for prose writers.

Then you get someone like Warsan Shire, a Somali-British poet who has only published one pamphlet. She’s in no rush to get out her first collection because she can reach so many people through social media, especially now her poetry’s been taken up by Beyoncé on Lemonade. She’s paved the way for a new generation of poets who don’t think of the collection as the be-all and end-all.

“The audience for poetry on YouTube and on Instagram is absolutely colossal – far bigger than an audience of people who go into bookshops”

And that’s a really interesting development. Yesterday I was given a new collection by a poet who followed up the print version by emailing the ebook, which had films embedded in it. You could share them. You’d want to share them. It’s become clear that the audience for poetry on YouTube and on Instagram is absolutely colossal – far bigger than an audience of people who go into bookshops, say.

This is a genre that is about to reach many, many more people.

How do you think Britain compares with other countries on that point, but also in terms of its historical celebration of poets? I’m thinking in part of how America’s poet laureates tend to be big public figures who feature on the cover of Time (Robert Lowell, for example) and whose poems are read at presidential inaugurations (think of Elizabeth Alexander, for instance). Are we more muted in our appreciation of our poets in Britain, do you think?

In America, the poet laureate holds the post for a year. In this country it’s 10: too long. You could change a lot about the wider public excitement around poetry by fixing that.

In terms of awards, there aren’t very many big awards. The Forward Prizes are among the biggest: we could make even greater waves if the people who flock to contemporary art, say, switched tack and chose to be patrons of poetry instead. Maybe your readers would like to be listed in the Forward Book of Poetry as supporters of culture instead of on the walls of the Tate? It’s a question of time: poetry is much more lively than the visual arts right now. The BBC, for example, put on the first ever poetry festival this year, Contains Strong Language, in Hull City of Culture: I came away completely reeling at the breadth and inventiveness of the poetry on display. And the BBC are not giving up on this – they believe poetry presents an opportunity for communication and a space for reflection that other forms of art just don’t.

That reminds me of a line from Sinéad Morrissey, who we’ll talk about in a second. When, asked how she felt about having been shortlisted for the Forward Prize, she said “it’s a vindication that the act of communication has taken place.”

It’s an opening out. Poetry book sales are bigger this year than they have ever been before. The internet has a lot to do with that, particularly YouTube. Poetry in performance used to be regarded as a thing apart from published poetry but we’re now seeing the two conflating and feeding off each other. The hierarchies that say “this is very popular, draws crowds, and so can’t be very good, while this other thing is not popular but we know it’s a very high standard because it’s published on paper by the firm run by T S Eliot” – all of that is up for grabs, which is really thrilling.

It’s a great time to be an editor. It’s a great time to be a judge. It’s a great time to be a reader. It’s a great time to be a listener. When you go to a workshop and see the young poets there are all reading and arguing voraciously, it’s impossible not to be optimistic.

That the gap between spoken-word poetry and written poetry has been progressively bridged in recent years seemed confirmed by Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature win last year.

Yes, and there are all sorts of ways of doing that bridging. I sometimes go to events run by an organisation called Pass on a Poem, where people are invited to bring a poem to someone’s home. The one rule is it cannot be a poem you have written yourself. Quite often, you’ll find people bringing poems in a foreign language – in Chinese or Dutch or in one case in Pidgin – and then you get the English translation, and a drink, laughter, conversation. It’s far removed from the stereotype of the poetry reading, with some priest-like figure on a pedestal while everybody else is reduced to a passive pair of ears and a pair of clapping hands.

Let’s have your first book, Sinéad Morrissey’s On Balance, which won the Forward Prize for the best collection this year. She was Belfast’s first Poet Laureate, too, wasn’t she?

Yes, and she’s a big celebrity in Belfast because of it, which is deeply encouraging. What I like about Morrissey is that she moves forward. She is aware of the need to interrogate where you are at any given time. And she draws on the past. Her winning collection On Balance is largely about giving the past a voice and also drawing attention to the impossibility of knowing whether or not that voice is correct. It’s provisional. I like the precariousness of the book’s subject matter, like the aeroplane built by the early twentieth-century aviator Lilian Bland, which was called the Mayfly, and which, of course, may fly or may not fly.

You constantly feel she is happy to be tentative. She’s not the kind of poet who makes definitive statements in the voice of God, ‘This is an announcement. This is the world. I give it to you.’

I think that’s generosity in her writing and I notice this particularly because part of the Forward Prize is to do with reaching new audiences. We give school children the chance to write about these poems and we make a little ebook of shortlisted poems that we distribute for free. A lot of these teenagers took flight from Morrissey’s poems, using her writing to inspire their own. There is a popular illusion about contemporary poetry that it’s very hard, unapproachable and deliberately obscure, but it’s clear from seeing how the children responded to Morrissey’s work, that they didn’t feel that at all.

Ocean Vuong was the other poet that these students responded to with such enormous readiness. And they were writing not just critical essays but their own poetry.

That’s something that comes up in pretty much all of the books you’ve chosen – this idea of influence and of borrowing from other poets, wearing one’s influence proudly rather than seeking to conceal it.

Yes, it’s part of the communication. Communication is not one way with a poem, it is two-way and that’s what I love most about it and why I would offer poetry as a model for literature at the moment.

Whose influence do you most see in Morrissey’s work?

Well, I think there’s Louis MacNeice there, which I suppose is inevitable because of the Northern Irish connection. But there is one funny poem called “Perfume” which has all these teenage girls wetting themselves at a Beatles concert, and that made me think she had read a lot of Larkin. She’s also influenced by Les Murray. But out of all these voices, she makes her own voice and she is a bewitching speaker. I’ve seen her perform four times including at Buckingham Palace. She owns the space in which she speaks.

That’s something that was said about Sylvia Plath a lot, too. Which sort of brings us to your next poet, Tara Bergin, who has been compared to Plath, presumably because of some of her subject matter which often centres on deep interrogations of gender and family ties and duties owed and betrayed. Tell us about The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx – it’s a tour de force in that respect.

I really love this book. It hums with energy. Tara’s worked a lot on translation and you see in this book a real playful joy in exploring what it means to move from one tongue to another, what it means to rephrase something, what it means to take a life and relive it or take words and re-say them. The cover is very beautiful and it’s got something on it that I couldn’t understand, a sort of red heart-shaped thing with a hole in it. I realised, eventually, that it’s the Ouija board she mentions at the very end of the book, a Ouija board, which the Marx daughters play with.

A vessel, or surface, for communication that translates words from one world to another…

Precisely, and it struck me that there’s a great act of listening going on throughout the book, listening to that which is not said and also listening to the way in which it is not said. Bergin is, like Morrissey, a superb performer with humour and wit and self deprecation. Yes the book is about Eleanor Marx in some way but I didn’t feel for a second that I needed to research every detail of Eleanor Marx’s life. Bergin uses this figure – she was Flaubert’s first translator – to unpick the whole idea of translation as it can be applied to life. And that’s brilliant to watch.

I love the poem called “The True Story of Eleanor Marx in Ten Parts” which ends on that tricksy final line, “nearly all of this is true.” It captures the playfulness that you mentioned, but it’s also a serious intellectual act which has to do with authorial responsibility and the telling, or translation, of lives into words and stories.

That’s part of what poetry is: a serious game, a serious play.

I was interested to read in an interview, that she had been changed by the experience of performing her poems, by the pleasure and the sound of words. So again and again, even though she might be talking about, let’s say, language, she’s not doing it in a way that pushes you back to Wittgenstein; she’s doing it in a way that references the language of, say, flowers. Or she will take lines from different translations of Flaubert offered by six different people, including Eleanor Marx. They’re all translating the same sentence of Madame Bovary, and just by juxtaposing them Bergin makes you aware that the way in which you say something radically changes its meaning. And yet, they are all recognisably saying ‘the same thing’. And from this she makes a kind of song.

Let’s talk about your next book, The Golden Shovel Anthology, edited by Peter Kahn,‎ Ravi Shankar and‎ Patricia Smith. It’s a collection of new poems written in honour of Gwendolyn Brooks, whose 100th birthday would have been this year (Brooks died in 2000).

Rather to my embarrassment, I didn’t know that much about Gwendolyn Brooks before this book. One of its editors, Peter Kahn, has been a real force of change in British poetry: he set up something called Spoken Word Educators in London schools. They got a bit of money together and put together a squad of poets to work in tough inner-city schools. An American, he brought this practise from Chicago, where Gwendolyn Brooks was also from,

He works closely with people who are going to be big, some of whom are already pretty big in the small world of poetry, but when he told me about this volume I said, ‘I’m not sure anybody in Britain really knows very much about Gwendolyn Brooks’; he just replied, ‘Oh they will. They will.’

“This book invites readers to be writers and writers to be readers. It’s celebrating the fact that the two must go together”

And when it was launched earlier this year at the British Library, it was stunning, among the most stunning events I’ve ever seen. They had Terrance Hayes who is now the poetry editor at the New York Times, and he is so charismatic, so extraordinary to hear, to read. Someone described him to me as the Elvis of poetry. There seemed to be a huge number of poets of colour present, all reading, and again and again I realised that they had been confined to the box marked ‘Performance.’ ‘Now, though,’ they were saying, ‘we are being published and for that we have to thank people like Gwendolyn Brooks, who took the idea of poetry and spread it and gave it to people in a much wider way.’

Of Brooks herself, I know what you can glean from the book. She was America’s first black Poet Laureate.

And, in 1950, the first black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize.

Yes, and she was based in the community. She was not a mandarin, in any way. She wanted always to be of the public, with the people and for her, I think, communication and the desire to give other people agency in their own lives and writing was absolutely paramount. And that’s a very different model to UK laureates like John Masefield who did their stuff and everybody just bought the books (or didn’t). Gwendolyn Brooks was a participant and believed that other people were participants too.

None of this ivory tower business.

Absolutely not. And that acknowledgment is really important, because for a long time in this country the only places for a poet to really earn a living has been in academia. And I would like poets to be able to live outside the academy, because if you live inside the academy chances are you will end up, like it or not, writing the kind of poetry that pleases the academy rather than connecting to the broader public.

That idea of connection fits in neatly with the ‘golden shovel’ premise. Can you tell us how it works?

Yes, it’s a really good idea. You take a striking line from a poem you enjoy, something that fastens itself to the mind. You take that line and run it down the right hand edge of your paper, one word on each row and then you write a poem in which each of your lines ends with a word from the borrowed line – so it gives you a structure, but it’s not an acrostic. It can be almost invisible, but it gives you a structure and since so many people have such difficulty even starting to write a poem – because they think ‘I better write something really deep and meaningful and it better be completely brilliant’ – here you can say, ‘write a poem and it will have a brilliant line in it already.’ It kicks things off, like the Oulipian idea of a freeing constraint.

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter

What I found so interesting about this was that the editors invited poets who are at the top of their game, alongside emerging poets. So anyone can do a golden shovel. It’s not something you just do in workshops or with kids. So here we have poems by British poets such as Kwame Dawes, Claire Pollard and Leontia Flynn, as well as masses of Americans.

Sharon Olds is there, and Rita Dove, Richard Powers… the list of contributors is good. This book is something that you’ll return to, you’ll pick it up and get excited by each poem, wherever the pages fall open. But I suppose what I love most about this book is what it’s trying to do.

And what is that?

It is inviting readers to be writers and writers to be readers. It’s celebrating the fact that the two must go together.

There’s that line in Hayes’s introduction to the anthology where he explains the concept of the Golden Shovel form: “because where do poems come from if not from other poems?”

Precisely.

Let’s talk about your next poet, Inua Ellams. He’s a performance artist – he has a show about the precarious life of an immigrant at the Edinburgh Festival earlier this year – so there’s that to talk about, too. Tell us about him.

Inua Ellams is a phenomenal force of energy: I first came across him when I started organising National Poetry Day about five years ago. He was unofficially National Poetry Days’ Twitter poet, and what he did was a call-and-response via Twitter whereby he’d give whoever was following him little stimuli to their next lines of poetry, and then at the end of the day he’d pull them all together. So you’d find that, without really knowing that you’d written a poem, you had – Ellams had been midwifing it into existence.

“Seamus Heaney wrote about finding a voice ‘adequate to our predicament’, and you have to do that again and again for every generation”

He’s also famous in rather cooler circles than those I move in for organising something called the Midnight Run, which exists in lots of different cities now. “Participants” will basically stay up all night, going from place to place being insanely and enjoyably creative. It’s for people who drink a lot of coffee….

As you said, Ellams is also a playwright and he has a play on at the National Theatre, Barber Shop Chronicles – one of the National’s few hits this year. This poetry book, though, comes from a conversation with the Poetry Library on London’s SouthBank where he decided to find a poem in its stacks from every year of his life from zero to 18 and bounce off it, writing it again in his own words, including elements of his own life. The result is called #Afterhours: Anthology / Diary / Memoir / Poems and its from a small and brilliant publisher, Nine Arches.

His connection to the work is very strong – almost like he sees no separation between the poems and the living itself. He says “poetry saved my life. It’s the cheapest way to be free,” and that really comes across in his work.

Poems are life enhancers to him and he recreates that feeling, inspiring other people through sheer enjoyment. So for a long time, as I’ve said, the poetry establishment were their own worst enemies because the image of ivory towers were very daunting. But Ellams makes it possible to walk up to any poem and have a conversation with it.

It’s a similar ethos to that animating the Golden Shovel Anthology.

Yes. I’ve been a magpie here, picking books that teach us new ways of making poetry connect. Ellam’s book could give birth to lots of other ways of reading, and, I hope, give way to more and more people coming to the Poetry Library. And indeed that’s already happened – the Poetry Librarian, Chris McCabe, says that since Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey became this runaway global bestseller, not just in terms of poetry books but among all books, he is seeing completely different kinds of people coming into the Poetry Library. So they organize shelves with Kaur’s books on them and signs saying ‘If you like that, you will like this…’ – so it’s all about creating that way in. An opening has been blown into the citadel of poetry, which can only be a good thing.

I think those yet to be converted might think that poets aren’t writing about the world they live in, in terms they can relate to – the ivory tower business again… Political engagement can be a good way of bridging that gap – both Ellams and Gwendolyn Brooks feed into that.

Yes. Seamus Heaney wrote about finding a voice “adequate to our predicament”, and you have to do that again and again for every generation. It’s not something that can be done by, say, Sylvia Plath, and then: ‘okay, job done, everyone go home.’ We have to go on finding the voices adequate to our predicament day by day. And since our predicament is human and historical, they change.

It makes sense to end with the New Collected Poems of Marianne Moore, nodding back as it does to Hayes’s point about poems coming from other poems, and poets drawing on those who went before. Moore, probably one of the Anglophone world’s most famous poets, received every prize or honour a poet could get. What did she do differently to her contemporaries? What do we as readers or as poets owe to her?

Marianne Moore was at the birth of modernism, as an editor as well as a poet. She edited the Dial from 1925 to 1929 when it was the leading showcase for modernism, and she was highly rated by her peers including T S Eliot, who published and edited her work, too. I thought I knew Marianne Moore because I studied her work at university and thought, “Good, there are not very many poems so I can study this in a week and be an expert,” but it turns out that the volume I was looking at, Complete Poems (1968) was nothing of the sort. So this really is a new collected poems: a work of love and of scholarship by Heather Cass White, its editor.

White shows you to what extent the later Moore rewrote, re-edited, eclipsed her earlier work and changed it from the poetry which earned her so much of her reputation. And it’s a real shocker – excitingly shocking – to find out that I can get the newly minted poems of the 1920s and 30s before the Moore of the 40s 50s and 60s decided to ‘improve them’ by taking out most of the detail and playing up the moral dimension.

It’s an incredibly wonderful book. Moore was given to making pronouncements through her poetry: her most celebrated poem is probably the one called simply “Poetry,” and here we get both the long version and the short versions.

There’s that brilliant opening line…

Yes! “I, too, dislike it. There are things that are important beyond all / this fiddle. Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one / discovers in / it after all, a place for the genuine.” And that’s something that can’t be said often enough – she made a place for the genuine and she found the genuine above all in precise observation, in celebration of the singular, of things that cannot be generalised or summed up or reduced. And the catholicity of her imagination, how she takes and honours detailed observation is an inspiration now. In fact, Tara Bergin quotes a line from Marianne Moore as the epigraph for her book.

Which line?

“What is more precise than precision? Illusion.”

Especially in the early years, Moore worried a lot about precision and the technicalities of it all, didn’t she? There’s that great line she wrote to a friend, where she said, “to put my remarks in verse form, is like trying to dance the minuet in a bathing-suit.”

Her main aim was that the poetry should re-present experience, in the sense of making it present again, as well as simply representing it. She makes vivid the world or aspects of the world which we take for granted. The overlapping scales of a spruce cone in her Pangolin poem. You can never look at a pangolin in the same way, after that. Admittedly, the chances of looking at a pangolin these days have slipped… but she renews things. The act of observation is a very active one and she enables her readers to feel that they too can observe: what matters is the quality of the attention, demonstrated in precise language.

And, though she may not have done a golden shovel poem, she did her fair share of borrowing, too. She called hers a “hybrid method of composition.” That nods back to what Sinéad Morrissey said too about communication and exchange.

Yes, and sometimes you do wonder. There’s a lot of excitement in poetry world when plagiarism is discovered. I’m not always convinced that we’re doing anybody any favours by shrieking out about plagiarism all the time because – was it Eliot who said it? – “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”

“Marianne Moore’s aim was to re-present experience, in the sense of making it present again”

You are part of a conversation and communion with the dead when you are engaged in literature. You are receiving from people who may not be around anymore, but you still have them with you because you are reading them. And that conversation will continue around the globe and down the ages. It’s one of those things that reduces the isolation and the atomization that you’re doomed to if you don’t read or listen.

Which, ironically, is what many people still think of when they think of someone reading or writing poetry. They have this image of an individual cordoned off and secluded.

In fact, you’re far more cordoned off and secluded when you’re reading a novel. A novel demands a huge amount of time to take in, whereas a poem doesn’t. You can get it in the time a train travels between Marble Arch and Liverpool Street. You’re in the company of the poem on the poster opposite you. That’s enough. It may well stay with you for life depending on you and depending on it.

Interview by Thea Lenarduzzi

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by donating a small amount, or by buying some of our most recommended books from Amazon. Since we are enrolled in their affiliate program, we receive a small percentage of any product you buy, at no extra cost to you.