Christmas gifts 2012: the best poetry books

Adam Newey selects his favourite collections of the year

For his fans, the appearance of a new collection from the poet almost universally described as the English language's greatest living practitioner of the art is an event. It's also one that's increasing in frequency as Geoffrey Hill, who turned 80 this year, steps up his rate of production. Odi Barbare (Clutag Press) is volume two in the Oxford professor of poetry's projected five-part Daybooks series. It's also, eccentrically enough, the third to appear, after volumes three and four respectively.

For those new to his work, this is probably not the easiest way in. There's nothing in the least barbarian about these 52 allusively bardic pieces, identical in structure (each sticks doggedly to a six-stanza sapphic verse form) and which range broadly in reference, from the 19th-century Italian poet Giosuè Carducci (from whom Hill takes his title) to Jewish theology, British imperial misadventures, aerial warfare, classical verse, theories of politics and poetics … Hill's determination to bend the language to fit the constraints of his form gives these poems an extraordinary incantatory power. He may demand effort from the reader, but, as always with this poet, the dividends are commensurate.

If Hill is the grand old man of English poetry, perhaps Paul Muldoon is court jester. In his Songs and Sonnets (Enitharmon) he has plenty of fun with the conventions of song lyrics, while also backing up the argument he made in this year's Poetry Society annual lecture that the division between poetry and song is often an arbitrary one. Pieces such as "Mad for You" put one in mind of a particularly freewheeling Cole Porter: "Looks like George III / Was out of his gourd / For most of his reign / Had he left the Bronx for Yonkers / Poe would still have gone bonkers / He was so soft in the brain // The author of 'The Raven' / Was completely cuckoo / I may seem unhinged and unshaven / But I'm only mad for you".

Three other of our senior poets produced notable collections this year: in Ice (Carcanet) Gillian Clarke explores memory and identity through a series of winter landscapes; Christopher Reid's Nonsense (Faber) continues his wry bemusement at life, art and all points in between; and in Dear Life (Anvil), Ireland's "office poet", Dennis O'Driscoll, ruminates on retirement and confronts ageing with his usual calm, humane, plain-spoken wisdom.

At the other end of the career spectrum, 2012 has been a fertile year for first collections. Where O'Driscoll has combined a commitment to the muse with a white-collar career in the office of Ireland's Revenue Commissioners, William Letford's day job involves hammers, nails and roof tiles. Bevel (Carcanet) has poems that observe the world of manual labour, a world the poet both belongs to and doesn't, in a manner reminiscent of the Californian factory-worker poet Fred Voss. The book throbs with the vigour of vernacular Scots speech. Sarah Jackson's Pelt (Bloodaxe), longlisted for the Guardian first book award, is a collection of dark, surreal and sometimes nightmarish narratives that haunt the memory. Between Two Windows by Oli Hazzard (Carcanet) is impressive in its formal assuredness and confidence of tone, all the while questioning what poetry is and does. And perhaps most unusual of the bunch, Sean Borodale's Bee Journal (Cape), shortlisted for the Costa poetry prize, immerses the reader in the world of the apiarist through a diary of the hive year that intimately explores the interrelations of man and nature.

This year has also seen a decent harvest from our mid-career poets: James Lasdun more than justified the decade-long wait for his fourth collection with the darkly witty Water Sessions (Cape); Selima Hill's Costa-shortlisted People Who Like Meatballs (Bloodaxe) examines human relationships with mordant humour (and a recurring elephant); and Kathleen Jamie's The Overhaul (Picador) has also grabbed the attention of the Costa judges with its earthy and tender evocations of a fragile world.

So much for the living. The dead, too, have not been silent: a volume of FT Prince's work (Collected Poems 1935-92, Fyfield Books) has reignited interest in an unjustly neglected 20th-century poet, while Poet to Poet, edited by Judy Kendall (Seren), collects Edward Thomas's letters to his friend Walter de la Mare. It's the sort of book that is probably for completists only, but it gives a fascinating insight into Thomas's transition from prose hack to major poet. And then there's Josephine Hart's Life Saving: Why We Need Poetry (Virago), which collects the introductions she gave to a score of great 19th and 20th-century poets at her Poetry Hour events. Each of the sharp and insightful mini-essays is accompanied by a brief selection from the poet's work.

Two other volumes deserve mention. If you don't want to make the investment of time and money in the work of a single poet, the Forward Book of Poetry 2013 provides a one-volume snapshot of the current state of the art (it also contains pieces from several of the above collections). And Rachel Rooney's The Language of Cat (Frances Lincoln Children's Books), winner of the CLPE poetry award, is something rare – a poetry book for children that doesn't patronise its intended audience with bum jokes or lower its linguistic ambitions. One poem, "Recycling", could stand by itself as a miniature manifesto for poetry: "A word is used often, over time. / Used, a word is often over. / Time is a used word. / Over used, a word / is a word / often used / wastefully."

• To order titles with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846.


Adam Newey

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